The US commerce secretary warned that China’s failure to reform its economic policies plays into the hands of US lawmakers eager to ‘build protectionist barriers around the US market.’

Carlos Gutierrez said the US-China trade relationship has become bogged down by a $202 billion trade deficit and by widespread piracy of US products.

‘If our economic relationship is to stay afloat,’ Gutierrez told a crowd gathered for a luncheon sponsored by the Asia Society, ‘China needs to lighten the load by carrying out reforms and delivering results.’

Beijing, he said, must assume responsibility for strengthening the same international trade system that has boosted its impressive economic growth.

As the White House prepares to welcome Chinese President Hu Jintao in April, US officials are increasingly voicing misgivings over what they call unfair Chinese economic practices that make it impossible for American workers to compete.

Gutierrez noted Washington’s rising level of trade tension, saying, ‘When China fails to act, it only strengthens those who want to build protectionist barriers around the US market. That’s the last thing we need.’

Without better economic reform from China, he added, US officials, ‘‘may be forced to reassess our bilateral economic relationship.’

Lawmakers in recent months have introduced several bills that reflect a growing worry over China’s booming economy and its influence on American workers, including legislation that would revoke normal trade relations with China.

Last year, China’s state-controlled CNOOC Ltd. gave up an $18.5 billion takeover bid for Los Angeles-based oil company Unocal Corp. after critics complained the deal might jeopardize US security.

China has said repeatedly that it hopes trade issues between the two countries will not be ‘politicized.’

In his speech, Gutierrez described massive piracy of copyrighted American products in China, where, he said, theft of music and movies was normal and legitimate sales the exception.

Two years ago, he said: 18 out of 20 copies of software installed on computers in China were pirated, costing US companies more than $1 billion; 17 of 20 music recordings sold in China were pirated; and 19 of 20 DVDs were fake, costing US companies $280 million.

‘Imagine going to the grocery store and watching 17 out of 20 customers shoplifting items from the shelves and walking out of the store without paying,’ Gutierrez said. (Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)