Donald Trump has signed an executive order prohibiting US investors from holding shares in companies with suspected ties to the Chinese military, in his first major foreign policy action since losing the presidential election to Joe Biden.
The order would prevent US citizens and companies from conducting new transactions in shares of the targeted companies from January 11, nine days before Mr Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th US president. Investors who currently hold shares in the designated companies would have until November 2021 to divest them.
“The president’s action serves to protect American investors from unintentionally providing capital that goes to enhancing the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Republic of China intelligence services, which routinely target American citizens and businesses,” said Robert O’Brien, the US national security adviser.
The action affects more than 30 Chinese companies that the Pentagon earlier this year warned were enabling PLA military activity that posed a national security threat to the US.
The list, which was first reported by the Financial Times in June, includes several Chinese state-owned companies. It also includes China Mobile and China Telecom, two big Chinese telecoms groups with subsidiaries listed on US exchanges.
The move is the latest in a series of increasingly tough actions that the Trump administration has taken against China over everything from concerns about cyber espionage to human rights abuses in the northwestern Xinjiang region. More recently it has targeted the imposition of a security law in Hong Kong to crack down on the pro-democracy movement.
Mr Trump took the action by invoking the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA, a powerful tool that provides the US president wide latitude to take actions to protect national security.
The Biden transition team declined to comment on the order. The incoming president will have the power to rescind it once he assumes office.
China experts in Washington had expected Mr Trump to take more assertive action against China if he lost the election, in the hope that Mr Biden would be reluctant to overturn actions that might lead to accusations he was not sufficiently tough on China.
Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican who heads the Senate intelligence committee, welcomed the administration’s move, which dovetails with legislation he is pushing in Congress that would have a similar effect.
“The Chinese Communist party’s exploitation of US capital markets is a clear and ongoing risk to US economic and national security,” Mr Rubio said. “Today’s action by the Trump administration is a welcome start to protecting our markets and investors.”
Earlier this year the Trump administration took several other actions that were intended to make US investors more cautious about investing in Chinese companies.
Ed Al-Hussainy, a currencies and rates analyst at Columbia Threadneedle, said investors had been “very aware that some of these names are just vulnerable to this risk”, referring to the companies on the Pentagon list.
What was less certain, he said, was how the order would be put into action, he added. “It is not clear what the implementation is going to be.”
Kathy Bostjancic, chief US financial economist at Oxford Economics, said markets had presumed that the latest Trump administration salvo would come to an end with the White House transition in January.
“The certainty quotient should go up under a Biden presidency even if there is gridlock,” she added. “We shouldn’t get this unusual type of dictum.”
Shares in Chinese companies fell during US hours after the list was reported late in the trading day, shaving 0.8 per cent off of an earlier gain in the popular iShares MSCI China exchange traded fund. The ETF ended the day only marginally higher.
The American depositary receipts of China Mobile fell 4 per cent in New York trading, while China Telecom shares trading in the US dropped 5.3 per cent.
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Additional reporting by Eric Platt in New York