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The Trump administration launched a fresh trade attack against China on Tuesday, with Washington initiating an anti-dumping investigation against a major trading partner for the first time in more than a quarter century amid fears that it is preparing for the opening skirmishes of a trade war. 

The move to “self-initiate” an anti-dumping investigation into imports of aluminium sheeting from China marks the first time since 1985 that the US Commerce Department has launched its own investigation without a formal request from industry. The last case was brought by the Reagan administration against Japanese semiconductor imports and came at a time of high trade tensions. 

A parallel investigation launched Tuesday into illegal subsidies given to the Chinese sheet industry marks the first time since a 1991 Canadian lumber case that the Commerce Department has self-initiated a probe into subsidies. 

“President [Donald] Trump made it clear from day one that unfair trade practices will not be tolerated under this administration. He made a promise to American businesses, workers, and farmers that he would vigorously enforce our trade laws . . . Today’s action shows that we intend to make good on that promise to the American people,” said Wilbur Ross, the US Secretary of Commerce. 

“While the general use of antidumping and countervailing duties is normal fare for the US government, an administration that self-initiates an investigation is sending an aggressive signal that it is eager to impose import protection,” said Chad Bown, a trade expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “The Trump administration is not simply going to wait for US industries to come forward and ask for it — they are showing a desire to provide import protection, perhaps even if the American companies themselves do not want it.”

Mr Ross said the Commerce Department had worked with the US aluminium industry to develop the case launched on Tuesday and was joined on a call announcing the move by the head of the US industry association.

The step comes just weeks after Mr Trump returned from a trip to China during which he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping sought to portray an atmosphere of bonhomie and what both sides claim is an increasingly strong personal relationship. 

But Mr Trump has also been facing growing criticism at home over delays in other trade actions that he has promised to take against China, including his failure to formally label Beijing a currency manipulator as he pledged to do during his presidential campaign. 

The administration is responding by promising a tougher line with Beijing, with Tuesday’s move joining a series of provocative steps seen by some as likely to lead to the trade war with China that US economic nationalists crave. 

The results of controversial national security investigations into aluminium and steel imports launched in the spring and aimed at reining in a surge in Chinese exports in recent years are forthcoming, officials insist, with deadlines looming in January.

A separate investigation into Chinese intellectual property theft and rules that force foreign investors to transfer key technologies is also under way and expected to lead to action within months. 

Congress is also considering new legislation that would tighten scrutiny of foreign direct investment in the US and particularly Beijing’s increasing interest in strategic sectors such as semiconductors

Tuesday’s move also marks the latest way in which the Trump administration has departed from trade orthodoxy in Washington. Investigations into subsidies or dumping — the selling of exported goods below cost to gain market share — are usually requested by industry.

That is in large part because the US has long responded to complaints from trading partners by insisting that the Commerce Department’s rulings in such disputes are quasi-judicial and technocratic. But by self-initiating the investigation on Tuesday, Mr Ross has removed that veneer and inserted the Commerce Department as a party in the very dispute it will be deciding. 

Mr Ross said evidence gathered by his department showed that Chinese producers were selling aluminium sheet in the US below fair value and that Beijing was unfairly subsidising their exports, at a cost to US industry. In 2016 US imports of such aluminium sheet from China were worth more than $600m. 

Officials said the investigation would follow the same processes that normal trade cases do, with final decisions on the tariffs to be applied due in April and July of next year. 

The Commerce Department separately on Tuesday announced new punitive duties of up to 96 per cent on imports of tool chests and cabinets from China. 

It also faces a challenge from Canada over its decision to impose new tariffs on imports of Canadian softwood lumber with the Canadian government saying on Tuesday that it would contest that decision at the World Trade Organization. 

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