President Donald Trump on Monday authorized members of his administration to determine whether to investigate if China has been stealing American intellectual property.
"As president, it's my duty and responsibility to protect the American workers' technology and industry from unfair and abusive actions," Trump said while signing the executive action at the White House. "We will stand up to any country that unlawfully forces America companies to transfer their valuable technology as a condition of market access."
Throughout his campaign, Trump talked critically about the U.S. trading partnership with China. But the relationship between the two countries is particularly delicate right now as Washington continues to call on China to do more to thwart the nuclear threat from North Korea.
Senior administration officials denied that the move had anything to do with U.S. attempts to persuade China to do more about North Korea.
"They are unrelated. Trade is trade. National security is national security," a White House official told reporters on Saturday.
The order directs U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to consider whether an investigation into China's intellectual property policies is warranted. A recently updated report from the Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property found China to be world's worst intellectual property infringer.
The White House said the process could take up to a year and would not say speculate about whether the U.S. would take a retaliatory action.
Some of Trump's opponents on Capitol Hill called the announcement a good first step. But others, like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said announcing a possible investigation is simply stalling the process.
"President Trump's pattern continues: Tough talk on China, but weaker action than anyone could ever imagine," he said in a statement.
"While today's announcement could eventually lead to aggressive action against China, I am concerned it will lead to only another investigation and report," Rep. Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat and ranking member on the House subcommittee on trade, said in a statement.