Trump floats big fine for China's ZTE

Jeff Mason and Patricia Zengerle
US President Donald Trump has signalled easing a ban on ZTE, with congress moving to block him

US President Donald Trump has floated a plan to fine ZTE Corp and shake up its management, as his administration considered rolling back more severe penalties that have crippled the Chinese telecommunications company.

Trump's proposal ran into immediate resistance in Congress, where Republicans and Democrats accused the president of bending to pressure from Beijing to ease up on a company that has admitted to violating sanctions on Iran.

Their reaction could complicate Trump's efforts to win concessions from China that would narrow a $US335 billion annual trade gap.

Speaking at the White House, Trump said US technology companies have been hurt by an April Commerce Department decision that prohibits them from selling components to China's second-largest telecommunications equipment maker.

ZTE shut down most of its production after the ruling was announced.

"They can pay a big price without necessarily damaging all of these American companies," Trump said.

Trump said ZTE may instead face a fine of up to $US1.3 billion, new management and a new board of directors, though it was not clear whether he had the legal authority to impose new financial penalties.

Some 26 senators, including the chamber's top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, and No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn, urged the administration in a letter to keep penalties in place for "serial and pre-meditated violators of US law, such as ZTE."

The Senate Banking Committee also voted 23-2 to make it harder for the president to modify penalties on Chinese telecommunications firms, drawing the support of liberal Democrats like Chris Van Hollen and conservative Republicans like Tom Cotton.

The Republican-controlled House of Representatives is weighing a proposal that would block the sale of ZTE products and those of another Chinese company, Huawei Technologies , until national security officials certify they are safe.

A proposed trade deal with China would lift a seven-year ban that prevents US chipmakers and other companies from selling components to ZTE, which makes smartphones and telecommunications networking gear.

In return, China would eliminate tariffs on US agriculture or agree to buy more farm products from the US.

The US Commerce Department had imposed the ban in April after it determined that ZTE had broken an agreement after it pleaded guilty to shipping US goods and technology to Iran.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told lawmakers the treatment of ZTE was not "a quid pro quo or anything else" related to trade, and said it would not undermine national security.