US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer (left) and the director of the White House National Trade Council, Peter Navarro, two of Washington's most outspoken critics of China, are heading to Beijing to talk trade. Photo: AFP / Mandel Ngan

US President Donald Trump is reportedly gearing up for his next move on trade, this time directly targeting China in what many analysts fear would be more likely to trigger an all-out trade war than the recently announced tariffs on metals.

Reuters reports that Trump wants tariffs on up to US$60 billion in Chinese imports, targeting the technology and telecommunications sectors. The report, citing two sources which had spoken with the Trump administration, dovetails with an article in Politico which described the president’s insistence on big tariffs.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer recently proposed a package of tariffs targeting the equivalent of US$30 billion a year in Chinese imports, one White House official told Politico. Trump said the number needed to be bigger, and an announcement on the move could be expected in the coming weeks.

Trade experts see the potential action on China as a significantly bigger threat to global trade than the tariffs on steel and aluminum.

“If [the Trump administration] decides to impose sweeping tariffs on a large number of Chinese products or other market access barriers, that would be something the Chinese, I think, would react very strongly to, and there would be a much stronger response than what may be the case for the [steel and aluminum tariffs],” Eric Altbach, former deputy assistant US trade representative for China affairs, recently told Asia Times.

Despite the potential harm many economists warn will come from such an action, tough trade measures targeting China could actually earn more support from American lawmakers than the metals tariffs. The loudest criticisms directed at the recent move pointed out that the tariffs would hit allies. Many of the same members of Congress who expressed criticism of the steel and aluminum measures also urged specific action against China.