The announcement followed a call Friday night between Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On Monday, Trump is expected to direct U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer to look into alleged Chinese violations of U.S. trade, including forced intellectual property transfers and patent thefts, according to senior administration officials who spoke Saturday.
"China's unfair trade practices and industrial policies, including forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft, harm the US economy and workers", a second official said.
President Donald Trump gestures to a crowd gathered to watch him depart on Marine One from the White House on August 4, 2017 in Washington, DC. en route to Bedminster, N.J. for his summer break.
If the investigation finds that China is harming USA companies, the Trump administration could respond by imposing tariffs, negotiating an agreement with China or other measures, the officials said. Trump said last month that he was "very disappointed in China" over its failure to put pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile tests.
Still, Trump praised China Friday for supporting the recent United Nations vote to ratchet up sanctions against North Korea.
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It's impossible, however, to see the move as somehow disconnected from the back-and-forth rhetoric between the USA and North Korea over the past week.
Section 301 of the Trade Act of 1974, a popular trade tool in the 1980s that has been rarely used in the past decade, allows the president to unilaterally impose tariffs or other trade restrictions to protect US industries from "unfair trade practices" of foreign countries.
In a report to lawmakers released in July, the USTR accused China of engaging in "widespread infringing activity, including trade secret theft, rampant online piracy and counterfeiting, and high levels of physical pirated and counterfeit exports to markets around the globe".
Despite Trump's previous comments, officials at the briefing repeatedly rebuffed any attempt by reporters to connect the possible investigation to the North Korea situation.
That statement didn't mention the executive action, but said the leaders discussed North Korea policy and Trump's visit to China later this year.
"If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so". However, the US pledged in the mid-1990s to settle disputes through the World Trade Organization dispute settlement system rather than by taking unilateral action.
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"President Trump's pattern continues: Tough talk on China, but weaker action than anyone could ever imagine", he said in a statement.
"We're at the beginning of this process and no firm decisions have been made as to how that is going to work in terms of whether we would pursue WTO action or action outside the WTO", the first administration official said. "If China helps us, I feel a lot different towards trade".
The administration has been eyeing other moves to rebalance the U.S.
"An important question going forward will be whether US 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 U.S.
"China also funds and facilitates the acquisition of U.S. firms that possess advanced technologies", the officials said.
"Trade is trade, national security is national security", the official stated.
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American companies "should not be forced or coerced to turn over the fruits of their labour", the official said, adding that the cost of intellectual theft on U.S. economy is estimated to be as high as United States dollars 600 billion a year.