U.S. companies in China are in a tough spot.
On the one hand, many business executives have told CNBC they want the Trump administration to focus more on intellectual property theft as well as market access instead of manufacturing and the trade deficit.
Scott Palmer, an intellectual property expert with law firm Sheppard, Mullin, Richter, and Hampton, said the U.S. needs to press for greater trade secret protection, easier trademark filings, and cooperation to fight counterfeits sold online.
However, several American businesses are also feeling vulnerable to retribution in one of their key markets. And since Trump’s election, Chinese officials and the state press have already said that, if need be, China would prepare for tit-for-tat retaliation.
What is also worrying executives in China is the possibility that retaliation could affect entirely different industries. For example, back in 2009, the Obama administration slapped a hefty tariff on Chinese tires. Soon after, Beijing imposed penalties on U.S. chicken parts — costing American poultry producers.
The two issues weren’t explicitly linked, but the timing raised eyebrows.
Executives are also concerned that the business climate could get even tougher for U.S. companies more generally. Top corporate complaints these days include tighter controls on the internet and crackdown on virtual private networks, requirements for data storage on local servers, as well as uncertainty about getting money out of the country.
American companies want the U.S. government to help, but they are nervous about the real impact on their operations.