William Zarit, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, speaks at a news conference to unveil the group's 2018 China Business Climate Survey Report in Beijing on Jan. 30. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

American companies overwhelmingly feel less welcome than before in China and want the U.S. government to put more pressure on Beijing to level the playing field, the American Chamber of Commerce in China said Tuesday.

William Zarit, chairman of AmCham China, warned that Chinese officials had told him they would "definitely" retaliate if the U.S. administration introduced tariffs or other restrictions on Chinese imports as a result of ongoing investigations into steel and aluminum imports and intellectual property violations.

Zarit said U.S. companies do not want to see a trade war develop because it would obviously undermine their business in China.

But there is support, he said, for a tougher stance by the Trump administration toward China after years of bilateral talks that haven't yielded much in the way of results, especially in terms of issues such as greater access to the Chinese market.

"There is a sense that strictly just dialogue has not really brought much in terms of progress, so perhaps some pressure will help get us more progress to a more balanced economic and commercial relationship," he said.

Earlier this month, President Trump told the Reuters news agency he was preparing to impose a big "fine" on China for its alleged theft of intellectual property as part of a broader effort to cut the U.S. trade deficit with China and level the playing field.

Lester Ross, chairman of AmCham China's policy committee, said it was likely that Chinese authorities would target retaliation toward sectors that have "political resonance" in the United States. 

In particular, he said, that might mean favoring Europe's Airbus over Boeing for aircraft orders, or cutting imports of agricultural commodities, whose producers "are predominantly in states that voted for Trump."

Companies say they are effectively excluded from several growing sectors of the Chinese economy, especially in the services sector, where U.S. companies tend to be strong. Foreign companies as a whole, for example, account for just 2 percent of China's banking market, Ross said.

Yet AmCham China's annual survey of business conditions also suggested growing optimism about the Chinese economy, with nearly two-thirds of members reporting revenue growth and nearly three-quarters reporting they are profitable, the highest proportion in three years.

Members were surveyed between Oct. 23 and Nov. 26, around the time of Trump's visit to China, and some 400 companies responded. 

Some 78 percent said positive bilateral relations between China and the United States are "extremely" or "very" important for their business growth, up from 64 percent in 2015. There was also growing optimism about those relations: 36 percent forecast that relations would improve this year, up from 17 percent a year before, and only 16 percent thought they would deteriorate.

The greatest challenge to doing business in China: inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws, followed by rising labor costs. Some 75 percent of respondents said they felt less welcome here than before, compared with 81 percent in 2016.