An administration official said the administration's 301 investigation identified Chinese efforts to steal or coerce US companies into disclosing their intellectual property.
The White House said the actions come after years of failed talks about the issue.The move is the latest effort by Washington to grapple with competition from China's state-led economy.
US President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticised China for hurting America's economy.
Deputy director of the National Economic Council Everett Eissenstat, who was also on the call, said that USTR will publish a "long list" of proposed Chinese imports within 15 days. A notice and comment period will then open up for stakeholder input.
The Treasury department has until 60 days from memorandum's signing to submit recommendations for a final list of tariffs.
The tariffs, senior officials say, will be designed to offset "the gains that the Chinese have received through unfair trade practices."
The memorandum will also direct the Treasury department to make recommendations on restrictions to Chinese investments to the President within 60 days. While the tariffs will be imposed unilaterally, Eissenstat also said that Trump will direct the World Trade organization to "address China's discriminatory licensing practices."
Beyond the threat of a far-reaching trade war, economists have warned US consumers are likely to bear the cost of the tariffs and worries about Chinese retaliation are mounting.
"A trade war does no good to anyone. There is no winner," China's Premier Li Keqiang said at a news conference in Beijing in anticipation of the Trump administration's tariff action.
The Trump administration, though, has said it is simply taking long-overdue action following years of unfair Chinese trading practices that they argue previous administrations have insufficiently countered.
China: We will hit back
According to the Wall Street Journal, China is preparing to hit back with tariffs aimed at President Donald Trump's support base. Beijing has renewed a warning that it will retaliate if President Donald Trump goes through with plans
"China will certainly take all necessary measures to resolutely defend its legitimate rights and interests," if the United States imposes new restrictions, the Ministry of Commerce said in a statement on Thursday.
This would include levies targeting US agricultural exports from Farm Belt states.
China is also the biggest creditor of the United States: It owns more US government bonds than any other country. It recently cut some of its US debt holdings, though investors don't expect China to immediately dump its US debt. China has repeatedly said that it doesn't want a trade war but warned that it would take "firm and necessary" countermeasures if necessary.
"It's unrealistic and unreasonable to demand complete equality in trade," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Thursday. "We hope that both sides can sit down and talk calmly."
"China’s countermeasures will be extraordinary and unconventional," said Gao Zhikai, a former Beijing-based diplomat and former vice president of crude oil giant CNOOC Ltd. "The reported $50 billion of tariffs against China are weapons of mass destruction for trade. They will violate WTO rules and leave no way out for China."
"China will absolutely not sit back watching its rights and interests be damaged," said an unnamed official in charge of the ministry's treaty and law department, Xinhua reports.