By Ian Talley

WASHINGTON -- Chinese officials have warned of retaliation against the U.S. if Washington levies tariffs on the world's second-largest economy as President-elect Donald Trump has threatened, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said Tuesday.

"The Chinese have said they'll have to retaliate," Ms. Pritzker said in an interview on the sidelines of high-level U.S.-China trade talks here in Washington. That could harm U.S. workers and industries and hurt the U.S. economy, she said.

Mr. Trump has said one of his top priorities when he takes office will be to label China a currency manipulator. He has repeatedly threatened to slap Chinese imports with hefty tariffs.

Ms. Pritzker also criticized Mr. Trump's promise to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal the Obama administration struck with nearly a dozen other nations.

Abandoning the TPP gives China an advantage as Beijing is "aggressively pushing its own trade agenda" and will hit U.S. economic and strategic interests in Asia and globally, she said.

"Ceding ground to China doesn't make sense," she said.

Some nations are already beginning to coalesce around a China-led trade group after the president-elect reiterated Monday a plan to pull out of the trade deal.

Earlier Tuesday, China Vice Premier Wang Yang told a gathering of U.S. government and business officials that Beijing is taking a "wait and see" attitude to a Trump presidency.

Mr. Wang, speaking through an interpreter, said China was finding it difficult to predict what Washington's relationship will look like under soon-to-be President Trump. But, he said, Beijing is optimistic U.S. business interests will help preserve a strong economic relationship between the two powers.

Economists warn Mr. Trump risks sparking a trade war with China if his campaign rhetoric turns out to be more than election hyperbole.

"Everyone is interested in what kind of trade policy the new government will take with China and what is the prospect of China-U. S. economic cooperation," Mr. Wang said. That is "difficult to predict," just like the U.S. presidential election, he said.

Some analysts say it is too early to tell whether Mr. Trump will temper his threats with the more pragmatic approach taken by the Obama administration, which relied on slow, tedious diplomacy to encourage greater access for U.S. investment in China and to curb policies that harm American businesses.

Mr. Trump's stance on trade policy with China has been murky. David Malpass, a former U.S. deputy assistant Treasury secretary in President George H.W. Bush's administration who is leading the presidential transition team's economic unit, could help moderate White House policies most likely to inflict lasting economic damage. Mr. Malpass helped craft Nafta and is former chief economist of a major Wall Street investment bank.

Former Nucor steel chief Dan DiMicco, who is leading the search for U.S. Trade Representative post, could indicate the president-elect plans to take a tough stance on China. The U.S. steel industry has been particularly enraged by China's excess industrial capacity. Too much steel, aluminum and other products are keeping prices artificially low, forcing layoffs and plant closures, U.S. firms say.

Along with restrictions on U.S. investment in China and cybersecurity, the excess capacity issue has been one of the top trade irritants between Washington and Beijing in recent years.

Write to Ian Talley at ian.talley@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 22, 2016 17:48 ET (22:48 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2016 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.