WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is studying whether it can legally challenge Chinese Internet restrictions that hurt Google and other U.S. companies operating in China, but direct talks with Beijing might yield faster results, the top U.S. trade official said on Tuesday.At the same time, U.S. trade officials are "trying to make our own determination whether we believe in fact this is not WTO compliant and if the best resolution is to go forward and file an appeal," Kirk said. "We are still dialoguing not just with Google, but with other Internet providers, to make sure we fully understand what is happening in China," U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said in remarks at the National Press Club.
A U.S. free speech group known as the First Amendment Coalition had been urging such a case for years before Google threatened to leave China in January due to hacking incidents and Web restrictions. A case challenging censorship practices that affect Google and other Internet providers who operate in China would be the first of its kind at the WTO.
U.S. companies cannot wait that long for a solution in the current economic environment, although the United States will not hesitate to go to the WTO when that is the only solution it has left, Kirk said.
Kirk said trying to resolve the issue through bilateral forums such as the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) was "much more preferable than the uncertain path of what can be a two-, three-, four-year legal battle in the WTO." Kirk noted Google and China have been in "very intense negotiations" since the company's threat to leave.
The government procurement policy is intended to spur Chinese companies to be more innovative, but the United States argues it is essentially a trade barrier that does not reflect how products are developed in the global economy. On another matter, Kirk said the United States also hoped to persuade China to change "indigenous innovation" rules favoring companies that develop the intellectual property for new products in China.
"This was one of the prime topics of concern" in preparatory talks with the Chinese for two upcoming high-level bilateral forums, the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue this spring and the JCCT next fall, Kirk said.
"Our objective is just to get the government's thumb off the scale," Kirk said.
(Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Xavier Briand)