Posts Tagged ‘North Korea nuclear crisis’

Did Kim Jong-un’s China visit herald the return of the Beijing-Pyongyang alliance? — Kim seems to know that Xi Jinping has to be on his side….

March 29, 2018

Leaders’ meeting was ‘a strategic choice and the only right choice’ for the two countries, Xi says

South China Morning Post

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 9:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 March, 2018, 11:52pm

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said during his visit to China that he wanted to “meet President Xi Jinping often”, as the traditional allies pledged to reset their relationship after years of setbacks.

The two sides vowed to hold “frequent high-level exchanges” and strengthen communications at all levels, China’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The visit was Kim’s first outside North Korea since he came to power in 2011. Ties between Beijing and Pyongyang have been stormy in recent years.

According to a report by the Korean Central News Agency, Kim said he and Xi should meet more frequently to consolidate the two nations’ relationship, and that he had extended an invitation to Xi to visit North Korea.

Stressing their shared past, Xi said a strong relationship between the two countries was “a strategic choice and the only right choice for the sides to make based on history and reality”.

“This should not and will not change because of any single event at a particular time,” Xi said, without referring to any specific incidents.

Relations between China and North Korea had been on a downward trend before the leaders’ meeting, with Pyongyang conducting a nuclear test during an important event in China last year and a lack of high-level exchanges.

Xi said Kim’s visit came at a “critical moment” and was “very significant” to the development of relations between the two nations.

Although the foreign ministry described Kim’s visit as informal, he was afforded all of the honours bestowed on state leaders, including a formal welcoming ceremony, a review of troops at the Great Hall of the People and a banquet after the leaders’ talks.

China’s Premier Li Keqiang, Vice-President Wang Qishan and Politburo Standing Committee member Wang Huning also met the North Korean leader.

During his short stay in the country, Kim visited the Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he watched presentations on nuclear physics, space, energy and agricultural technology.

North Korean state television broadcast a 30-minute programme about Kim’s visit in a sign of how highly Pyongyang regards the country’s relationship with China.

Analysts said the meeting of the two leaders also provided clear evidence of the nations’ alliance ahead of Kim’s planned summit with US President Donald Trump.

In a tweet on Wednesday, Trump said he had received a message from Xi that the meeting with Kim had gone well and that Kim was looking forward to meeting him. Trump added, however, that it was essential to maintain both sanctions and political pressure on Pyongyang.

Boo Seung-chan, a research fellow at Yonsei Institute of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said Kim might have been seeking reassurance from China ahead of his talks with Trump, at which he is expected to raise the issue of US troops in South Korea.

“Kim knows that the US and South Korea would never agree to the withdrawal of US troops, so he may take the dovish line of changing the nature of US troops, so they no longer target the North,” he said. “He wants his ally, China, to be part of the assurance deal so as to ensure his regime’s survival.”

In the years since Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, the relationship between China and North Korea has deteriorated. Pyongyang’s repeated missile launches and nuclear tests, as well as Beijing’s endorsement of United Nations Security Council resolutions against the regime, including a ban on North Korean exports, have done little to help the situation.

One of Pyongyang’s nuclear tests was conducted on September 3 last year as China was hosting an emerging markets summit – a move critics said embarrassed Beijing.

North Korea has also repeatedly criticised China for siding with the United States, and warned Beijing to stop the “dangerous move of collapsing the pillar of North Korea-China relations”.

Although Xi has never visited North Korea, when Song Tao, the head of the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department travelled to Pyongyang in November, Kim did not meet him.

The statements released by the two nations on Wednesday made no mention of their disputes, but did declare their mutual commitment to the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.

As well as proposing more frequent high-level visits, Xi suggested the two sides enhance communications on key strategic issues, promote regional peace and strengthen exchanges between ordinary people.

Zhang Baohui, a security analyst at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said Kim’s trip was a significant move by both sides to repair damaged ties.

For China, having an ally on the Korean peninsula provided an essential counterbalance to the United States’ relationship with South Korea, he said.

Nick Bisley, an international relations professor at La Trobe University in Australia, said the trip was a sign that the gap between North Korea and China had closed.

“North Korea and China are back – it’s like the old days, that whole lips and teeth image,” he said, referring to a quote by the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

“Whether it’s true or not, “the messaging is pretty clear,” he said.

Tong Zhao, a fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank, said it was also important for North Korea to maintain its relationship with China ahead of Kim’s talks with Trump.

“If North Korea has a strong relationship with China, it will be hard for the US to consider military action against North Korea or increase its economic sanctions without China’s support,” he said.

Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng and Jeongho Lee

http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2139342/chinese-president-xi-jinping-north-korean-leader-kim

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Kim Jong-un’s China Visit Strengthens His Hand in Nuclear Talks
The New York Times

In images and in words, President Xi Jinping of China and Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, signaled on Wednesday that they had repaired the relationship between their countries.CreditNorth Korean Central News Agency

BEIJING — With a dose of mystery and the flair of a showman, North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong-un, used his debut as an international statesman on Wednesday to present himself as confident, reasonable — and willing to bargain.

Mr. Kim’s surprise two-day visit to Beijing, his first known trip abroad since taking power, was effectively a reminder of how much he has set the agenda in the crisis over his nation’s nuclear arsenal — and of what a strong hand he has going into talks, first with President Moon Jae-in of South Korea next month and later with President Trump.

Mr. Kim has yet to say what concessions he is willing to make, or what he may demand from the United States in return. But he continued to dominate the diplomatic process, reaffirming his willingness to meet with Mr. Trump and repeating his vague commitment to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in talks with President Xi Jinping of China, according to Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency.

During Mr. Trump’s first year in office, Mr. Kim raced ahead with breakthrough tests of missiles capable of hitting the United States mainland and what he claimed was a missile-ready hydrogen bomb. Then he abruptly changed course and used the Winter Olympics to seize the initiative, surprising the world with a rapprochement with the South and then an offer to meet with Mr. Trump.

Through it all, the Trump administration has been largely relegated to reacting and catching up to Mr. Kim. And so it was again this week, when Mr. Kim suddenly showed up in China on an armored train and was shown beaming next to Mr. Xi, whose cooperation has been critical to Mr. Trump’s strategy of “maximum pressure” on the North. The state media in China and North Korea announced the meeting on Wednesday, after two days of secrecy.

In images and in words, Mr. Kim and Mr. Xi signaled that they had repaired the relationship between their countries, which had soured as Mr. Kim had accelerated his nuclear program and Mr. Xi had responded by endorsing — and enforcing — more punishing sanctions proposed by the United States.

“The friendship between North Korea and China that was personally created and nurtured together by former generations of leaders from both our sides is unshakable,” Mr. Kim told Mr. Xi, according to Xinhua. Mr. Xi went out of his way to recall the warm friendship between his father, a high-ranking Communist Party official from the Mao era, and Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, the North’s previous leader.

It is too soon to say whether the meeting marks a softening of China’s posture toward Mr. Kim or of its commitment to international sanctions against North Korea. But the visit served to highlight Beijing’s unique leverage over North Korea, even as Mr. Trump is threatening China with a trade war.

 

Mr. Trump can talk about maintaining “maximum pressure” on the North, but ultimately China — the North’s main trade partner — still decides what that means, because it can choose how strictly to enforce sanctions.

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Mr. Kim, Mr. Xi and their wives at a banquet in Beijing this week. The visit highlighted Beijing’s unique leverage over North Korea, even as President Trump is threatening China with a trade war.CreditNorth Korean Central News Agency

“China is saying to the United States and the rest of the world: Anyone who wants a deal on anything on the future of the Korean Peninsula, and certainly something which deals with nukes, don’t think you can walk around us, guys,” Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister who is on good terms with the Chinese leadership, said in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

Bruce Klingner, a former Korea analyst at the C.I.A. who is now at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said China had been bypassed by the diplomatic outreach that resulted in Mr. Trump’s agreement to meet with Mr. Kim. “Beijing has been on the sidelines of North Korea’s recent charm offensive and likely saw it necessary to finally invite Kim for a summit to get a readout of the upcoming diplomatic meetings and to be seen as a major player,” he said.

The Chinese government said it had briefed the White House on Mr. Kim’s visit, adding that Mr. Xi had sent a personal message to Mr. Trump.

Read the rest:

NYT:https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/28/world/asia/china-kim-north-korea-visit.html?hpw&rref=world&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well

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Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe can lead the ‘Asian century’, if China and Japan are able to bury the past

November 25, 2017

Chandran Nair says Xi and Abe, strong leaders of economic powerhouses, have a historic opportunity to shape the 21st century in Asia, as the US wavers. But first, they must recognise legitimate concerns and embrace the symbolic elements of Asian-style diplomacy

By Chandran Nair
South China Morning Post

Friday, 24 November, 2017, 7:12pm

Donald Trump’s first visit to Asia showed the region at its best and its worst. In Japan, South Korea and China, the US president was greeted with extreme deference. From his ­address to the Korean National Assembly, to Shinzo Abe’s buddy routine, to dinner with Xi Jinping in the Forbidden City, he was treated as a political ­celebrity, and not a politician unpopular abroad and at home.

On the one hand, this shows how Asian countries continue to feel subservient to the US. Trump has criticised these countries at every turn, even during his trip earlier this month, insisting that they are taking advantage of America. In an ideal world, these countries would treat the US president with the same level of respect he has shown them.

On the other hand, we do not live in an ideal world. Although to many in the region, the visit of Trump made it clear that the United States is a diminished power, its president still wields a great deal of clout, and so Asian governments wisely “played” him. If the symbolism and flattery of a state visit is what is needed to ensure Trump listens to Asian views, and to prevent him from acting belligerently, then perhaps it’s a bitter pill that can be swallowed.

Highlights of Donald Trump’s 12-day visit to Asia

But strategic seduction still reveals a problem. If Asian stability is shaped by – or relies so much – on the US, to the point where Asian countries must bend over backwards to keep someone like Trump happy, is the status quo truly stable? Does it rely too much on the capriciousness of US politics? And is it outdated?

Even if you think America’s presence in Asia is a good thing, it is going to change, and undoubtedly get smaller. The US may bow out peacefully, or end up more like Trump: more muscular and zero-sum, where Washington doesn’t even pay lip service to “common solutions”, as it pursues “America First”.

Asians must take the lead in developing what comes next. The crux will be the relationship ­between China and Japan, which is fundamental to issues in East Asia, such as the Korean peninsula. It is time to bury the hatchet. After all, these two economic powerhouses of Asia can lead the transformation of the region if they come together as allies.

China is East Asia’s largest rising power, with a proven model of economic development and governance. Yet, many of its people remain poor, and its growth has had serious environmental repercussions. In this regard, Japan has much to offer. Also, China’s rapid rise – rightly or wrongly – is unnerving its neighbours, which Beijing sometimes seems ­blind to, and this is exploited by its detractors.

Xi and Abe are the strongest leaders their countries have seen in at least a generation

Japan is a hub for modern business and technology. It is also a symbol of peace and tranquillity. Its post-war history, investments and popular culture make it a trusted partner and an admired country.

But economic stagnation and China’s rapid rise have pushed Japan from its position as the premier Asian country. China as a good friend and ally has many upsides for Japan. Also, imagine a Japan that is engaged with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative, rather than pressing ahead with the formerly US-led ­Trans-Pacific Partnership, to the ­exclusion of China.

Finally, President Xi and Prime Minister Abe are the strongest leaders their countries have seen in at least a generation. After Xi’s consolidation of power at the 19th party congress, achieving a status akin to that of Mao Zedong, and Abe’s ­resounding victoryat the polls, both leaders have the strength to take the first step towards an “Asian century”.

Historical antagonism should not be enough to prevent a rapprochement. After all, France and Germany were able to come together as partners a few decades after the most devastating war ­between them. The Paris-Berlin relationship now defines Europe – even more so now, after Brexit.

Why can’t a relationship between Tokyo and Beijing do the same for Asia? One clear difference is that France and West Germany were both US allies, and so friendship between them did not threaten Washington. The same would not be true of a friendship between China and Japan. And therein lies the rub.

Xi Jinping says a stable China-Japan relationship will benefit Asia and the world

This is where Abe and Xi, both newly strengthened, have a historic opportunity to shape the course of the 21st century in Asia. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and they must seize it.

To do so, both sides will need to accept the other’s legitimate interests and concerns. A recent example is the understanding between Seoul and Beijing, ­announced just before Trump’s trip, concerning the US-provided THAAD missile defence system.

By dropping the issue, Beijing probably recognised that South Korea feels genuinely threatened by the North, and needs something to defend against the worst. Yet, Seoul recognised that Beijing’s worry about being encircled warranted a promise that THAAD was not the first step towards a trilateral America-Japan-South-Korea alliance.

For China and Japan to come together, each has to accept that the other has legitimate concerns. Beijing needs to give up its anger over the second world war. It must also offer some kind of guarantee in ­exchange for Japan loosening its agreement with the US. And Tokyo must accept that its strong American ties hinder its ability to act as an honest broker in East Asia and prevent its rise as a central and independent player in the region. It must understand that, to Beijing, a neighbour, Tokyo’s relationship with Washington, a distant ally, appears to be a threat.

China rolls out the red carpet for Donald Trump

Finally, both sides will need to seriously embrace the symbolic elements of Asian-style diplomacy.

Sometimes pejoratively called “giving face”, it is an understanding that countries, governments and populations want to be treated seriously, shown great respect and, importantly, not bullied or insulted in the international arena. If the Vietnamese can roll out the red carpet for the US president, the Chinese can do the same for the Japanese, and vice versa.

Reciprocal visits by Xi and Abe should have all the pomp and circumstance of Trump’s visit. They may be the turning point that the region needs at the outset of “the Asian century.”

Chandran Nair is founder and CEO of the Global Institute For Tomorrow

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2121383/xi-jinping-and-shinzo-abe-can-lead-asian-century-if-china

Trump Eyes China Sanctions While Seeking Its Help on North Korea

August 13, 2017

BEIJING — In a diplomatic gamble, President Trump is seeking to enlist China as a peacemaker in the bristling nuclear-edged dispute with North Korea at the very moment he plans to ratchet up conflict with Beijing over trade issues that have animated his political rise.

Mr. Trump spoke late Friday with his counterpart, President Xi Jinping of China, to press the Chinese to do more to rein in North Korea as it races toward development of long-range nuclear weapons that could reach the United States. Mr. Xi sought to lower the temperature after Mr. Trump’s vow to rain down “fire and fury” on North Korea, urging restraint and a political solution.

But the conversation came as Mr. Trump’s administration was preparing new trade action against China that could inflame the relationship. Mr. Trump plans to return to Washington on Monday to sign a memo determining whether China should be investigated for intellectual property violations, accusing Beijing of failing to curb the theft of trade secrets and rampant online and physical piracy and counterfeiting. An investigation would be intended to lead to retaliatory measures.

The White House had planned to take action on intellectual property earlier but held off as it successfully lobbied China to vote at the United Nations Security Council for additional sanctions on North Korea a week ago. Even now, the extra step of determining whether to start the investigation is less than trade hawks might have wanted, but softens the blow to China and gives Mr. Trump a cudgel to hold over it if he does not get the cooperation he wants.

While past presidents have tried at least ostensibly to keep security and economic issues on separate tracks in their dealings with China, Mr. Trump has explicitly linked the two, suggesting he would back off from a trade war against Beijing if it does more to pressure North Korea. “If China helps us, I feel a lot differently toward trade, a lot differently toward trade,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Mr. Trump has sought to leverage trade and North Korea with China for months, initially expressing optimism after hosting Mr. Xi at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, only to later grow discouraged that Beijing was not following through. The effort has now reached a decisive point with the overt threats of American military action against North Korea — warnings clearly meant for Beijing’s ears.

China is widely seen as critical to any resolution to the nuclear crisis because of its outsize role as North Korea’s main economic benefactor. China accounts for as much as 90 percent of North Korea’s total trade and supplies most of its food and energy while serving as the primary purchaser of its minerals, seafood and garments.

But even though the effectiveness of the new United Nations sanctions depends largely on China’s willingness to enforce them, the Trump administration so far has failed to come up with enough incentives to compel China to do so, analysts said.

In their phone conversation on Friday night, Mr. Xi stressed that it was “very important” for the two leaders to maintain contact to find “an appropriate solution to the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula,” according to a statement carried in the Chinese state-run media. The language indicated China wants to push forward with a diplomatic proposal for North Korea that the Trump administration has brushed aside.

The Chinese statement urged the “relevant sides” — a reference to North Korea and the United States — to “avoid words and actions that exacerbate tensions.” It did not explicitly criticize North Korea, which issued its own searing rhetoric all week, including a threat against Guam, and did not draw a clear distinction between Washington and Pyongyang.

In its own account of the call, the White House emphasized points of concurrence. “President Trump and President Xi agreed North Korea must stop its provocative and escalatory behavior,” read a statement from the White House issued early Saturday morning. “The presidents also reiterated their mutual commitment to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

If Mr. Trump was trying to move Mr. Xi toward bolder action against the North, he did so while the Chinese leader is preoccupied with his own domestic political machinations, attending to a once-every-five-year political shake-up in the top ranks of the Communist Party.

Mr. Xi is believed to be at the beach resort at Beidaihe on the coast east of Beijing, where the leadership conducts a secretive retreat every summer, sometimes emerging casually dressed in open neck shirts and Windbreakers for photographs on the strip of sand along the beachfront.

The final stages of the political process to win Mr. Xi’s favor for a place on the standing committee of the party, now a seven-member body that makes the final decisions on the nation’s affairs, is underway among the resort’s villas and hotels, China’s political analysts said.

The selection will be unveiled at a national congress in Beijing sometime between September and November. Until then, almost all other matters, including foreign policy, are put on hold, the analysts said.

Still, the leadership has been vexed that the Trump administration has paid scant attention to China’s proposal for a “freeze for freeze” solution to North Korea. Described many times by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, the notion calls for North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program at current levels in exchange for the United States drawing down military exercises off the Korean Peninsula.

So far, the United States has dismissed the proposal as a nonstarter. Instead, to China’s irritation, the United States is looking to increase missile defenses in South Korea. In some respects, though, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has tried to please Beijing by pledging that Washington does not seek to overthrow the North Korean leader, and does not plan to send American troops north of the 38th parallel that divides North and South Korea.

Mr. Xi is said to be exasperated with Kim Jong-un, a leader much his junior, whom he openly disparaged during his meetings in Florida in April with Mr. Trump, American officials say. But despite the frustration with Mr. Kim, China still prefers to have what it considers a relatively stable North Korea under Mr. Kim rather than a collapsed state that could result in a united Korean Peninsula on its border, with American troops in control.

In rebuffing the “freeze for freeze” proposal, Washington has raised suspicions in Beijing about its true intentions, said Yun Sun, a China expert at the Stimson Center in Washington. Chinese leaders believe the United States sees its true rival as China, a mammoth economy, and not North Korea, one of the poorest countries on earth, Ms. Sun said. In this estimation, Washington is merely using North Korea to mount a military containment strategy around China, she said.

“The Chinese operate from the conviction that China remains and will always be the No. 1 strategic threat to the U.S., so the issue of North Korea will be used against China — through sanctions, provocations and everything else,” she said. China was also annoyed, Ms. Sun said, that the United States refuses to discuss a “grand bargain” or “end game” on the future of the Korean Peninsula. Of most interest to China, she said, is the future disposition of American forces in South Korea, now standing at 28,500 troops.

The phone conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi will be followed by a visit from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., who is expected in Beijing on Monday. General Dunford will also visit South Korea and Japan.

The general’s visit, planned earlier this summer, is the first by a senior American official to Beijing since Mr. Tillerson met with Mr. Xi in March.

Much of the diplomacy between China and the United States has been conducted between Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the Chinese ambassador in Washington, Cui Tiankai. Those talks have concentrated on Mr. Cui’s efforts to stave off punishing trade tariffs against China that are gathering momentum in White House discussions.

During his two-day visit, General Dunford is likely to use the opportunity to drive home arguments for the Chinese to put more pressure on the Kim government, said Brian McKeon, who was a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration.

A major point of dispute will likely be American plans to deploy more missile defenses in South Korea, he said. China vehemently opposes the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, that has already been deployed in South Korea, calling it a threat to its own security.

“I would expect that Dunford will make the usual request that they put more pressure on the regime to behave, and to recognize that Kim’s actions threatens our core interests, which means we will have to continue to take measures that Beijing doesn’t like, for example the deployment of Thaad,” Mr. McKeon said.

Trump Administration to Begin Probe of Alleged Chinese Technology Theft

August 13, 2017

Investigation of China’s government agencies is unrelated to North Korea nuclear crisis, officials say

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Updated Aug. 12, 2017 2:33 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON—The Trump administration announced plans Saturday to pressure China over alleged intellectual property theft, adding the threat of trade retaliation to an ongoing campaign seeking greater cooperation from Beijing in the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Aides said President Donald Trump will sign a directive Monday ordering his trade representative to start a formal probe into whether Chinese government agencies and companies were unfairly acquiring valuable patents and licenses from U.S. firms, either through outright theft, or by pressuring Americans to turn over their inventions as the price of entry into China’s market.

“Such theft not only damages American companies, but can threaten our national security,” a senior administration official said in a Saturday morning briefing for reporters.

Officials at the briefing stressed that while they were casting a spotlight on what they consider a major irritant in bilateral commercial relations, they weren’t rushing into action. They said Monday’s directive would launch a study into whether a formal trade investigation was warranted, and that probe would take a year or more. They declined to discuss what sorts of penalties the U.S. might impose against China, saying that question was “premature.”

The administration made the announcement a day after Mr. Trump held a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss escalating tensions over North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapons program. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he would cut Beijing slack over trade issues if he felt the Chinese were being helpful in reining in Pyongyang.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier in the month that a new trade investigation over China’s alleged forced technology transfers was in the works and had been planned for an early August announcement. But that was delayed until after an Aug. 5 U.N. Security Council vote imposing new financial penalties on North Korea, which China supported.

Asked if Mr. Trump discussed the pending trade investigation with Mr. Xi on Friday, an official pointed to the official White House summary of the call, which didn’t mention trade issues.

The White House aides said the new trade probe wasn’t tied to the administration’s North Korea strategy, despite the president’s earlier linkage of the subjects. “These are totally unrelated events,” one official said. “Trade is trade. National security is national security.”

Write to Jacob Schlesinger at jacob.schlesinger@wsj.com

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced plans Saturday to pressure China over alleged intellectual property theft, adding the threat of trade retaliation to an ongoing campaign seeking greater cooperation from Beijing in the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Aides said President Donald Trump will sign a directive Monday ordering his trade representative to start a formal probe into whether Chinese government agencies and companies were unfairly acquiring valuable patents and licenses from U.S. firms, either through outright theft, or by pressuring Americans to turn over their inventions as the price of entry into China’s market.

“Such theft not only damages American companies, but can threaten our national security,” a senior administration official said in a Saturday morning briefing for reporters.

Officials at the briefing stressed that while they were casting a spotlight on what they consider a major irritant in bilateral commercial relations, they weren’t rushing into action. They said Monday’s directive would launch a study into whether a formal trade investigation was warranted, and that probe would take a year or more. They declined to discuss what sorts of penalties the U.S. might impose against China, saying that question was “premature.”

The administration made the announcement a day after Mr. Trump held a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss escalating tensions over North Korea’s rapidly advancing nuclear weapons program. Mr. Trump has repeatedly said he would cut Beijing slack over trade issues if he felt the Chinese were being helpful in reining in Pyongyang.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier in the month that a new trade investigation over China’s alleged forced technology transfers was in the works and had been planned for an early August announcement. But that was delayed until after an Aug. 5 U.N. Security Council vote imposing new financial penalties on North Korea, which China supported.

Asked if Mr. Trump discussed the pending trade investigation with Mr. Xi on Friday, an official pointed to the official White House summary of the call, which didn’t mention trade issues.

The White House aides said the new trade probe wasn’t tied to the administration’s North Korea strategy, despite the president’s earlier linkage of the subjects. “These are totally unrelated events,” one official said. “Trade is trade. National security is national security.”

The new probe does signal a bit of a hardening shift in Trump administration’s China trade policy, as it is the first White House trade directive aimed directly at Beijing. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Mr. Trump regularly blasted the U.S.’s $347 billion trade deficit with China, and vowed to take swift, drastic retaliation if he were elected, from across-the-board tariffs to branding Beijing a “currency manipulator.”

But the early months of Mr. Trump’s presidency have seen a considerably softer tone toward China over trade. He quickly dropped the campaign-trail threats, and during a genial April summit with Mr. Xi at his Mar-a-Lago Florida resort, the two countries launched a new “comprehensive economic dialogue” aimed at resolving bilateral commercial disputes amicably. A month later, China announced some modest market-opening moves, like ending a 14-year ban on U.S. beef imports, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross declared economic ties between the world’s two largest economies were “hitting a new high.”

But the first round of economic dialogue talks in mid-July were tense and ended up with no agreements. Officials said Saturday that impasse was one factor behind the decision to launch the new trade review.

In focusing on China’s voracious appetite for American intellectual property, the Trump administration responding to a longstanding complaint by Western trade groups, who say the country’s industrial policies effectively force foreign companies in sectors such as autos to transfer technology to stay in the market.

Beijing has been emboldened by the growing strength of its own companies to make more demands of foreign firms, industry executives say, and the government is careful to keep regulations vague. U.S. high-tech companies have struck a string of investments and technology-sharing agreements in software, semiconductors and other areas in the past couple of years, often under pressure from officials in closed-door meetings.

China’s government rejects assertions that it forces foreign companies to transfer technology or permits infringement of intellectual property. Premier Li Keqiang denied it was using industrial policies to strong-arm foreign companies into turning over technology, telling a World Economic Forum meeting in Dalian in June that “such cooperation is voluntary and helps companies expand in the Chinese market and even in third countries.”

While many U.S. companies and policy makers agree Chinese forced technology transfer is a problem, they also say it is difficult to figure out a solution.

One challenge is that many U.S. firms are reluctant to lodge formal complaints, making it difficult for trade officials to make their case.

“An important question going forward will be whether U.S. companies and trade associations who have highlighted the problem will actually come forward and assist our government in the investigation,” said Michael Wessel, a member of the congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Or, he added, “whether they will hide the facts fearful that our government won’t follow through, that the Chinese will retaliate against their interests or that they’ll have to admit what’s happened to their critical assets.”

Another question is just what remedy the U.S. government might pursue if it felt it had a case. Options might include imposing new limits on technologies that U.S. firms could license to China, or imposing new limits on Chinese investment in the U.S. But those would likely draw complaints from U.S. firms, and may contradict other policy goals. Mr. Trump personally touted China’s Foxconn Technology Group’s announcement in July to build a new display panel factory in Wisconsin.

The new China probe also marks a noticeable change in the process for how the Trump administration is processing trade policies, and suggests that a newly more organized and measured way to proceed with those complaints may be emerging.

Earlier Trump trade threats were made seeking swift action, and were done without broad consultation from stakeholders, drew widespread concern from business groups and lawmakers. Among them, an April promise to impose new steel and aluminum tariffs by June — a plan that remains stalled amid resistance. Mr. Trump also in April threatened to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement, but backed down after intense lobbying from allies, business groups, lawmakers and his own aides. He instead agreed to renegotiate the pact with Canada and Mexico, a process that begins Wednesday.

In choosing the China trade probe, Mr. Trump is targeting an area that business groups and Republican and Democratic lawmakers have identified as a concern. His aides Saturday also stressed that in contrast with the rushed earlier attempts at handling trade matters, they were setting no deadline and that any investigation would closely follow intricate procedures, including discussions with Beijing.

Before making any decisions on an investigation, the trade representative “would consult with the appropriate advisory committees,” one official said, and “if the investigation is instituted, we would consult with China. We would give interested parties the opportunity to comment. There would likely be a hearing. And these investigations can take as much as a year before we reach a conclusion.”

Eva Dou in Beijing contributed to this article.

Write to Jacob Schlesinger at jacob.schlesinger@wsj.com

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