Why Trump’s China announcement leaves room to de-escalate tensions



President Donald Trump’s long-touted response to China for its crackdown on Hong Kong included a barrage of criticism but stopped short of fully escalating tensions between the two nations.

While the U.S. president’s speech Friday was heated in rhetoric, it lacked specifics around measures that would directly impact Beijing. He announced the U.S. would begin the process of stripping some of Hong Kong’s privileged trade status without detailing how quickly any changes would take effect and how many exemptions would apply.

The president also promised sanctions against Chinese and Hong Kong officials “directly or indirectly involved” in eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy but didn’t identify individuals. The administration hasn’t yet decided under what authority it would implement that action, according to a person familiar with a matter, who declined to be named because the deliberations are private.

“Our actions will be strong. Our actions will be meaningful,” Trump said in the White House Rose Garden.

U.S. stocks erased losses and traded little changed as Trump stopped short of implementing more draconian measures against China, with the S&P 500 Index rising 0.5% at the close in New York.

The president said that the U.S. will terminate its relationship with the World Health Organization, which Trump has accused of being too deferential to China and of failing to provide accurate information about the spread of the coronavirus. He also said he would limit visas for certain Chinese students.

Both those moves are tangential to China’s escalations in Hong Kong and don’t strike at Beijing to the degree that some in markets had feared earlier in the week. For instance, there was no unraveling of the phase-one trade deal signed between the world’s two biggest economies in January.

Trump repeated a list of his grievances with China and punted tougher policy measures that his administration had discussed, including financial sanctions.

His remarks also didn’t include mention of legislation passed by Congress this week that could sanction Chinese government officials over the treatment of Uighurs, who have been forcibly detained in internment camps in China’s Xinjiang region.

“This binds the president to nothing with regards to China,” Derek Scissors, a China analyst at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “With regards to a Hong Kong policy, it is a non-event. Nothing happened.”

Hawks Pushing

The Trump administration and China for weeks have been trading barbs over who’s to blame for the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. and Republican lawmakers have been pushing Trump to hold the country accountable. More hawkish advisers wanted the president to take decisive action against Chinese Communist Party officials for alleged human rights violations in the city.

Trump’s announcement came after China’s legislature this week approved a plan to draft legislation that Hong Kong democracy advocates say will curtail freedom of speech and undermine the island’s independent judiciary, and after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo decertified the former British colony’s autonomy under U.S. law.

That certification determination, however, doesn’t mean the U.S. has to treat Hong Kong exactly like mainland China for purposes of tariffs, sales of sensitive technologies or visas. Instead, the administration has a wide spectrum of options for actions to take — but most of them do little harm to Beijing and instead hurt not only Hong Kong but also the U.S.

Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng said it’s within the central government’s rights to pass national security laws since the city is part China, even though it operates under a separate administrative system.

“In so far as the national security is concerned, as in any other country in the world, this is a matter that belongs to the central authorities, whether it is a unitary or federal state,” according to a government transcipt of her comments to the media. “Any other state that tries to use coercion or whatever means with a view to interfering with the sovereign right of a state to pass its own national security law is arguably infringing on the principle of non-intervention under public international law, and that is not acceptable.”

The city’s security chief, John Lee, told the media Saturday that the government is looking into the possibilities for the proposed legislation, including whether it’s necessary to set up a special unit on national security, and how police and other enforcement bodies should work with the mainland, according to a transcipt posted on the government website.

Relationship Bottom

Trump’s remarks omitted key details about what actions he’s taking, but his tone marked an escalation of hostile relations with China, said Jude Blanchette, China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This further entrenches the view in Beijing that we haven’t found rock bottom yet in the relationship,” he said.

The president said Beijing “unlawfully claimed territory in the Pacific Ocean” and “broke its word with the world on ensuring the autonomy of Hong Kong.”

“The Chinese government has continuously violated its promises to us,” Trump said. “These plain facts cannot be overlooked or swept aside. The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government,” he added, referring to the pandemic.

Chinese officials earlier Friday called potential U.S. actions over Hong Kong “purely nonsense,” saying the matter was an internal affair and that essential freedoms in the city would remain intact.

Read More: What Hong Kong Losing Its ‘Special Status’ Would Mean: QuickTake

Beijing urged the U.S. to stop its “frivolous political manipulation,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters at a daily briefing, reiterating Beijing’s support for Hong Kong police in upholding the law. Chinese officials have indicated they may retaliate against U.S. firms over the president’s decisions.

The U.S. plan is “gross interference” in China’s affairs and is “doomed to fail,” the People’s Daily, mouthpiece of the Communist Party, said in a commentary Saturday. Beijing would be firm in responding and would not be forced into making concessions on sovereignty or security, the newspaper said.

Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, said: “This looks like a new Cold War, and Hong Kong is being made a new Berlin — we are caught right in the middle of it.”

“China is not likely to budge,” she said in a texted message on Saturday. China “must have considered such consequences and decided it could take them. Beijing will retaliate, it’s just a matter of how and when.”

Trump ramped up expectations for his announcement on China actions for several days this week. Even without many immediate actions outlined, the president used Friday’s announcement to laud his administration’s tough stance on Beijing with less than six months left before the presidential election.

“This was an election speech,” Blanchette said. “This will be the tone and tempo until November.”

(Adds Hong Kong official’s from 16th paragraph.)

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