Successive administrations have struggled with an increasingly aggressive China, while factoring in the geopolitical reality that it is, and will likely continue to be, a global heavyweight. With just six months to go until the US presidential election, China has become a popular political football.
China’s latest move to introduce national security legislation in Hong Kong — a semi-autonomous city that was guaranteed its own legal system and certain democratic freedoms until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” framework — has sent shockwaves across the world. The draft legislation would ban sedition, secession and subversion of the central government in Beijing as well as “foreign interference.” — all codewords that the Chinese Communist Party uses to quash political dissent. The legislation would also allow for mainland security forces to be deployed in Hong Kong, among other measures that would erode the territory’s autonomy.
While China feels increasingly empowered lately, its training wheels came off a long time ago when it comes to achieving its territorial ambitions. In the last few years, it has continued efforts to erode Hong Kong’s special status.
After Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014, Trump inaccurately claimed former President Barack Obama “allowed a very large part of Ukraine to be taken.” Now Trump is likely to have his own Crimea moment, as China plans to assert its control over Hong Kong.
When the history books detail the Trump administration’s posture on China, they will tell a tale of two policies. The State Department and the Commerce Department, for example, have taken an increasingly punitive stance against China while the intelligence community has laid out the threats that China poses to US elections, arms control, cyberspace, and more. Trump, on the other hand, clung to China as he worked to iron out a trade deal, often parroting the ruling Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda on issues like Hong Kong and, at times, praising China on crises like the coronavirus.
During a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong last year, President Trump called the protests “riots” and continued to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump also wavered in his support for bipartisan legislation that authorized US sanctions on those responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong and prohibited the sale of tear gas and other items to Hong Kong police. In a November 2019 interview with “Fox & Friends,” Trump said, “I stand with Hong Kong…but we’re also in the process of making the largest trade deal in history.”
Human rights in Hong Kong took a back seat until the trade deal wrapped up and Congress passed bipartisan legislation to support human rights in Hong Kong with veto-proof majorities.
Now, with politics in play, the President is singing a different tune.
In addition to now criticizing China’s response to Covid-19, Trump has threatened to “address that issue very strongly” if China moves ahead with the national security legislation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also publicly put Hong Kong’s status — a special administrative region as enshrined in the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act — on the line. In a statement Friday, Pompeo said that Washington “strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, abide by its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, democratic institutions, and civil liberties, which are key to preserving its special status under US law.”
But the President’s credibility gap on China undercuts the idea that Trump will follow through on this threat. If the legislation passes, sounding what Pompeo called the “death knell” of autonomy in Hong Kong, the question is: can anyone convince Trump to try to do something about it?
In certain respects, Trump’s track record on territorial integrity is catching up with him. He has not been a cheerleader for sovereignty, including here at home. He has failed to condemn Russia’s interference in US democracy, for starters, and he’s been meeker than milquetoast when it comes to confronting Russia over its annexation of Crimea. And while the CCP has eroded the special status of Hong Kong over the last few years, he’s been mostly quiet, except for when he praises Xi. Trump’s track record gives the CCP little reason to fear that he’ll draw a line in the sand over further encroachments on Hong Kong’s autonomy, especially given the economic implications of doing so.
The administration has already floated some response options. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said on Sunday that the administration is likely to impose sanctions if China moves ahead with this legislation and outlined the economic costs, including to Beijing, if the national security law moves ahead. A more significant action would be revisiting the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 and revoking special treatment that Hong Kong currently gets under that legislation on matters like trade.
Hong Kong is not currently subject to the tariffs the US imposes on Chinese goods, for example. Aside from trade,Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub could change too if Beijing’s law causes changes to the operating environment and it’s no longer seen as as a safe transparent and stable place for business. The CCP would suffer some economic costs if there is mass capital flight and market impacts, but that’s a risk they appear prepared to take.
In addition to potential action by the administration, Congress is already stepping in.
A bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Pat Toomey and Chris Van Hollen would impose mandatory sanctions on “entities that violate China’s obligations to Hong Kong under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.” The legislation would also impose mandatory secondary sanctions on banks that do business with those entities in violation of the Basic Law. While it is unlikely to deter the CCP from moving ahead, Congress is trying to step in and take immediate action.
All options come with costs. If Congress or President Trump do decide to take direct action against the CCP for its efforts to do away with the “one country, two systems” framework, it could prompt China to retaliate and push the global economy in a downward spiral at a time when Covid-19 is already threatening to send the world into a deep recession. But the costs of inaction are significant too. Not only would lack of action undermine democratic freedoms and human rights for the people of Hong Kong, it would set a precedent that China can act with impunity. In the days ahead, Trump’s team should be working overtime to try to convince global partners in Europe and around the world — and the President himself — to lay out the costs for China if it destroys Hong Kong’s autonomy. One of the team’s biggest battles may be convincing the President himself. He’s prioritized trade with China over all else to date, and human rights haven’t been top of his agenda. Right now, however, politics may persuade him to act. His campaign has tried to rewrite his own history praising Xi, inaccurately painting Trump’s likely 2020 opponent Joe Biden as “China’s puppet.”
There are no good choices here. But, absent decisive action, the people of Hong Kong will suffer for generations to come. While Trump has been reluctant to stand up to Beijing in many cases, the political ramifications of clinging to China in the midst of his re-election campaign could motivate him to take a stronger stance on Hong Kong.