Computer chips sit on a motherboard inside a communications room at an office in London, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

U.S. Weighs Emergency Powers to Curb China Tech Investments

(Bloomberg) -- The Treasury Department is considering using an emergency law to curb Chinese investments in sensitive technologies, as the Trump administration looks to punish China for what it sees as violations of American intellectual-property rights.

The U.S. government is reviewing the possible use of a law known as the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, said Heath Tarbert, an assistant secretary in the agency’s international affairs office. Under the 1977 IEEPA law, President Donald Trump could declare a national emergency in response to an “unusual and extraordinary threat,” allowing him to block transactions and seize assets.

U.S. Weighs Emergency Powers to Curb China Tech Investments

Trump is pushing his administration to crack down on what he considers unfair trade practices by China. He has threatened tariffs on as much as $150 billion in Chinese imports in response to intellectual property theft and forced technology transfer. Beijing has retaliated by proposing tariffs on $50 billion of American goods, and pledging further action if necessary.

The president asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to consider investment restrictions on Chinese firms after the administration released the results of its probe into China’s IP practices last month.

Beijing fired back forcefully on Friday. “The U.S. is thinking and acting like a bully -- only it can have high tech and others cannot. With regard to the high tech restrictions, they are citing the reason of national security, but their motivation is protectionism. Is the U.S. really that fragile?” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily briefing.

Mnuchin has until around May 21 to propose executive action to address concerns about investments in the U.S. “directed or facilitated by China in industries or technologies deemed important,” according to the March 22 presidential memo.

While investors have so far focused on Trump’s plan to impose tariffs on Chinese imports, new restrictions could deepen a slowdown in Chinese investments in the U.S. since Trump took office, hurting the ability of American companies to raise capital and holding down valuations.

U.S. Weighs Emergency Powers to Curb China Tech Investments

Acquisitions by Chinese firms in the U.S. fell to $31.8 billion last year from $53 billion the year before, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The directive from Trump to consider investment restrictions deals only with China, Tarbert said.

Treasury officials are working on plans to identify technology sectors in which Chinese companies would be banned from investing, such as semiconductors and so-called 5G wireless communications, according to four people with knowledge of the proposal, who described the matter on the condition of anonymity last month.

China state-supported companies such as Tsinghua Unigroup Co. have already had to back off plans to buy or invest in American technology companies. Yet private sector companies, led by Tencent Holdings Ltd., Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Baidu Inc. have been active in the U.S.

Tencent has invested in more than 50 companies in the country in the last five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Those include artificial intelligence startups like ObEN Inc., biotech companies such as Locus Biosciences Inc. and satellite equipment developer Satellogic USA Inc.

Treasury officials are also looking at ways to impose tougher conditions on Chinese firms using legislation that underlies the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which reviews transactions for national-security concerns.

Tarbert, who spoke Thursday at an event in Washington, said Treasury is also supporting a bipartisan bill that would expand the authority of the inter-agency panel, known as CFIUS, which currently vets foreign takeovers on a case-by-case basis.

“That’s a separate process that’s ongoing, but the CFIUS office is not working on that. We have separate offices in Treasury which are considering those two issues distinctly,” Tarbert said, referring to both IEEPA and CFIUS.

(A previous version of this story corrected the scale of tariffs)

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