The investment restrictions will allow the United States to block a far wider array of foreign transactions that are deemed a threat to national security. And though the rules will apply to all countries, they are aimed largely at China.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration said Wednesday that it would more aggressively police foreign investment in the United States, outlining a rigorous review system that is aimed primarily at preventing China from gaining access to sensitive U.S. technology.
The investment restrictions will allow the United States to block a far wider array of foreign transactions that are deemed a threat to national security, including minority stakes and joint ventures in technology, telecommunications and other cutting-edge companies.
While Congress passed the expanded review system into law this summer, the administration signaled that it would apply its new authority broadly and would review any foreign transaction involving a business that designs or produces technology related to 27 industries, including telecom, semiconductors and computers. Foreign investors will be required to submit declarations notifying the panel of their intentions when making a bid and could be assessed a fine up to the value of the transaction if they fail to comply.
The toughened investment regime will apply to all countries but is aimed largely at China, which President Donald Trump has accused of trying to gain access to valuable U.S. technology through nefarious means. The White House has criticized China for trying to obtain trade secrets by investing in U.S. companies, pressuring domestic firms doing business in China to hand over intellectual property and committing outright cyberespionage.
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On Wednesday, a Chinese intelligence official was arrested in Belgium and brought to the United States to face espionage charges, further escalating the China crackdown. Law-enforcement officials said the official tried to steal trade secrets from GE Aviation.
The administration has already taken several steps to stop Beijing from harnessing U.S. technology in critical sectors, such as the next generation of 5G wireless technology, and to thwart China’s strategic plan to dominate cutting-edge industries, known as Made in China 2025. It has imposed tariffs on $250 billion worth of Chinese goods as a form of punishment and has threatened to tax all Chinese imports if Beijing does not change its trade practices.
But the foreign-investment review takes things up a notch and threatens to exacerbate tensions between the world’s two largest economic powers, which have engaged in a tit-for-tat trade war and increasingly harsh exchanges about each other’s policy and approach.
Chinese officials canceled a trip to D.C. late last month to resume trade talks after Trump moved ahead with a second round of tariffs. On Monday, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, chided the Trump administration for “ceaselessly elevating” trade tensions and “casting a shadow” over relations between the two countries. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Beijing for talks, said the United States had a “fundamental disagreement” with China on the issues that it raised.
The Treasury Department said Wednesday morning that it would begin a pilot program using new powers under the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA). The law expanded the purview of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS, an interagency panel led by the Treasury Department that can block acquisitions on national security grounds, and the department is moving swiftly to take advantage of its new tools.
Until now, only takeovers and controlling stakes in U.S. companies could be reviewed. Under the pilot program, CFIUS will be able to review a wider array of deals, including joint ventures and investments by foreigners in U.S. businesses making technology deemed critical for U.S. security.
Beginning on Nov. 10, the panel can review — and block — a deal if a foreign investor takes a stake in a business that makes sensitive technology and if that investor gains potential access to nonpublic technical information or can engage in substantial decision-making over the company, such as getting a board seat.
Senior Treasury Department officials emphasized that the program would not be focused on China and would apply to any foreign investors.
The new law, which passed with bipartisan support, gave the Treasury Department 18 months to develop rules governing the new powers, but the program announced on Wednesday will allow it to be put in place more quickly.
“These temporary regulations address specific risks to U.S. critical technology while informing the development of final regulations that will fully implement FIRRMA,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.
China has increasingly been looking to invest in high-tech industries in the United States. According to data from Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group and think tank, 56 percent of Chinese investments in the United States last year were in industries that Beijing defines as “strategic,” such as aviation, biotechnology and new-energy vehicles — up from 25 percent in 2016.
But the administration’s trade measures have already chilled Chinese investment in the United States, which fell more than 90 percent from the first half of 2017 to the first half of 2018, to its lowest level in seven years, according to tracking by Rhodium Group.
Nicole Lamb-Hale, head of the CFIUS advisory practice at the risk-management firm Kroll, said that the global nature of the new pilot program could have a chilling effect on businesses seeking foreign investment. However, she acknowledged, with recent reports that Chinese spies have been using chips to infiltrate U.S. companies, there is greater urgency to protect American intellectual property.
“I think that really brings into focus the concern that we are at a point where if we don’t do something very quickly, we’re going to be in a position where from a national security standpoint we’re at risk,” said Lamb-Hale, who previously handled CFIUS matters at the Commerce Department.