China's Hong Kong crackdown could put Trump in an unwelcome spot

US President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he departs the White House on May 21, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - China's plans to impose sweeping new security powers over Hong Kong could inflict even more damage on already fraught relations between Washington and Beijing, and force President Donald Trump into uncomfortable decisions about whether to maintain his self-described friendly ties with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

The proposal announced in Beijing on Thursday (May 21) provoked outrage in Congress, where bipartisan support grew quickly for new sanctions on Chinese officials and entities that Trump - who has shown limited interest in Hong Kong's plight and a continued desire to cut a trade deal with Beijing - may not welcome.

Giving the government broad new powers to crack down on pro-democracy activists could effectively end Hong Kong's limited independence and crush a protest movement that has agitated for nearly a year against China's authoritarian Communist Party.

"This move by Beijing would rip away the remaining veneer of 'one country, two systems.' It would precipitate a crisis in US-China relations," said Evan Medeiros, a senior Asia director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama and a professor at Georgetown University.

"Nationalist voices in the US and China would have a party with this; 2020 is beginning to feel more and more like 1948 when the first crises of the Cold War broke out over Berlin," Medeiros said, predicting that the United States and China would probably impose sanctions on each other.

China's Communist Party, which announced the move, is likely to implement it by fiat during the National People's Congress, which begins on Friday. How Trump will react is unclear.

Leaving the White House for a trip to Michigan on Thursday, he told reporters that he did not know "what it is", but added, "If it happens, we'll address that issue very strongly."

The White House otherwise had no comment.

When mass demonstrations against Beijing took place in Hong Kong last summer, Trump - who has shown little interest in issues of democracy and human rights generally - had a muted response despite bipartisan pressure to show more support for a protest movement with open sympathies for the United States.

And even as he has lashed out at China's government for its handling of the winter coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, helping to prompt the sharpest downturn in relations with Beijing in decades, Trump has taken care not to insult or offend Xi.

Because of the pandemic's economic toll, China has yet to meet purchasing demands outlined in a January trade agreement between the two nations. Trump and his economic advisers would like to see the agreement implemented to aid his reelection prospects.

But in recent months the Trump campaign has increasingly focused on its message of China as a villainous threat to American economic and security interests, while portraying Trump's Democratic opponent, former Vice-President Joe Biden, as too conciliatory toward Beijing. Trump has repeatedly muddied that message with his deferential tone toward Xi.

"Any effort to impose national security legislation that does not reflect the will of the people of Hong Kong would be highly destabilising, and would be met with strong condemnation from the United States and the international community," Morgan Ortagus, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement on Thursday.

"We urge Beijing to honour its commitments and obligations in the Sino-British Joint Declaration - including that Hong Kong will 'enjoy a high degree of autonomy' and that people of Hong Kong will enjoy human rights and fundamental freedoms - which are key to preserving Hong Kong's special status in international affairs, and, consistent with US law, the United States' current treatment of Hong Kong," she said.

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the State Department has yet to issue to Congress a mandatory report examining the autonomous status of Hong Kong in order to gauge ongoing actions from Beijing before coming to a conclusion. The department might recommend that the United States no longer give Hong Kong preferential treatment as a territory that has autonomy under China.

By midday Thursday, Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., announced that they would propose legislation to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and entities that enforce the planned national security laws.

The measure would also impose sanctions on banks that do business with entities deemed to violate China's Basic Law, a legal document that is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong significant autonomy until 2047.

"The communist regime in Beijing would like nothing more than to extinguish the autonomy of Hong Kong and the rights of its people," Toomey said in a statement.

"In many ways, Hong Kong is the canary in the coal mine for Asia. Beijing's growing interference could have a chilling effect on other nations struggling for freedom in China's shadow."

China's attempted crackdown on Hong Kong has been a rare cause for unity between the parties, with both liberals and conservatives rallying to the cause of democracy and condemning Xi's increasingly authoritarian impulses.

"The USA cannot let this stand," Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. and a staunch Trump ally and China hawk, wrote on Twitter. Hawley said he would introduce a Senate resolution "condemning this attempted crackdown" and calling on "all free nations to stand with" Hong Kong.

"Beijing's insecurity around the status of Hong Kong is truly remarkable: No one contends that Hong Kong is anything but a part of China, but we only ask that China uphold its commitment to one country, two systems," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"This proposed legislation is a sign of Beijing's weakness, not its strength. Hong Kong's special status is a benefit to China and the world. I don't understand why Beijing continues to imperil that status with proposals such as this," Engel added.

It is unclear whether Trump would resist efforts to impose sanctions and veto any legislation from Congress.

After Congress passed legislation last fall authorising sanctions on Beijing for sometimes violent crackdowns on mass summer protests in Hong Kong, Trump was noncommittal about whether he would sign the measure. He eventually did on the evening before Thanksgiving, ensuring it gained minimal publicity.

Regardless, experts said that Beijing's move would inevitably worsen a relationship that many already believe has become a kind of new Cold War.

"Beijing seems to have made the calculation that there is no financial price it won't pay in order to eliminate the sight of millions of Chinese clamouring for democracy on a daily basis," said Elizabeth Economy, the director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"The Trump White House, unfortunately, has little leverage and even less influence with the Xi administration at this point," she added. "Relations between the United States and China are essentially in a free fall."

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