The White House says the exemptions will last until May 1, 2018, pending ongoing discussions.
The White House says any country not now benefiting from the exemption is welcome to discuss being added to the list "based on a shared commitment to addressing global excess steel and aluminum capacity and production".
China's commerce ministry warned that a 15 percent tariff on 120 goods worth nearly $1 billion-including fresh fruit, nuts and wine-would be imposed if the US fails to reach a "trade compensation agreement" within an unspecified timeframe.
But some labor unions are applauding the move.
The call between Mnuchin and Liu, a confidante of President Xi Jinping, was the highest-level contact between the two governments since U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans for tariffs on up to $60 billion of Chinese goods on Thursday. "If they charge us, we charge them the same thing".
The commerce ministry toughened its rhetoric in response, saying the United States "disregards China's efforts to strengthen the protection of intellectual property rights, ignoring WTO rules, and disregarding the voices of the broad masses of the industry".
A senior US official said the latest USA moves are meant to spur Beijing to fulfill longstanding promises to broaden access to the Chinese market.
"It does not look like just a trade war, but rather the United States is trying to bully China and the rest of the world in order to make China concede economic resources and development opportunities to the USA and make the U.S. forever big and strong".
Liu He told US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Beijing was ready to defend its interests.
"We have repeatedly told the USA side that steel and aluminum imports from its ally Japan will not adversely affect America's national security, and that Japan should be excluded", Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a routine news conference Friday. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of OR asked him which countries will be exempted from the looming tariffs, "as of tomorrow".
The US action will target key areas identified in China's "Made in China 2025" program, including electronics, robotics, aviation and aerospace products, Trump advisor Peter Navarro told reporters. Trump had said Canada and Mexico would only be excluded after the successful renegotiation of NAFTA. He also specifically named Europe, Australia, Argentina and Brazil.
In a second step, a 25 percent tariff would be imposed on eight goods totaling almost $2 billion, including pork and aluminum scrap, after "further evaluating the impact of the USA measures on China", the statement said.
Lawmakers are calling on the Trump administration to provide more clarity on which countries will be exempted from looming tariffs on steel and aluminum.
That said, global demand for Chinese exports has helped fuel growth recent, offsetting other economic ills, such as excess capacity in the industrial sector.
"American business wants to see solutions to these problems, not just sanctions such as unilateral tariffs that may do more harm than good", USCBC president John Frisbie said in a statement.
A former Chinese finance minister said at the China Development Forum in Beijing that the commerce ministry's response so far had been relatively weak. A Chinese Commerce Ministry trade negotiator, Chen Fuli, said that Beijing objects to the unilateral trade actions by the US and won't negotiate as long as it insists on acting unilaterally.
Mr. Mei, the researcher affiliated with the Commerce Ministry, said that as the largest foreign holder of U.S. debt, China can also retaliate by selling its holdings of U.S. Treasurys. Companies in many industries including auto manufacturing that want to operate in China are required to work through local partners, which requires them to give technology to potential Chinese competitors. The penalties could restriction Chinese investment and affect billions of dollars' worth of Chinese products.
Mr Trump signed a memorandum imposing the restrictions after a Section 301 investigation found Chinese violations of technology intellectual property rights. That would be less than 1 percent of Chinese imports of USA goods and far smaller than the range of imports targeted by Trump's order Thursday in the technology dispute.
The administration argues that years of negotiations with China have failed to produce results.