Trump urges Xi to end tensions by meeting personally with protesters

US President Donald Trump (left) tweeted that Chinese President Xi Jinping should be "humane" in dealing with protesters in Hong Kong.
US President Donald Trump (left) tweeted that Chinese President Xi Jinping should be "humane" in dealing with protesters in Hong Kong.PHOTO: REUTERS

US President Donald Trump, under pressure from Congress and critics to speak out over the Hong Kong crisis, yesterday urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to meet personally with the Hong Kong protesters, saying it would lead to an end to ongoing tensions.

"If President Xi would meet directly and personally with the protesters, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem. I have no doubt!" Mr Trump tweeted.

A day earlier, he tweeted that President Xi should be "humane" in dealing with protesters in Hong Kong, and seemed to suggest a "personal meeting", though it was unclear between whom.

And he seemed to link US-China trade negotiations, set to resume next month, with the crisis, tweeting: "Of course China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!

But Mr Trump has also been careful to specify that Hong Kong is part of China, and therefore an internal affair. And analysts do not expect that fundamental position to change. Just weeks ago, while blasting China on trade, he said Beijing "doesn't need advice" on Hong Kong. "That is between Hong Kong and… China because Hong Kong is a part of China," he said.

Asked about the issue again on Tuesday, his answer was a non-committal: "The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation."

He added: "I hope it works out for everybody, including China."

When pressed about worries over a crackdown, he said: "It is a very tricky situation. I think it will work out. And I hope it works out for liberty. I hope it works out for everybody, including China… I hope nobody gets hurt, hope nobody gets killed."

Analysts do not expect anything beyond tougher words from Mr Trump, notwithstanding China hawks in Congress who have targeted China with legislation on a broad front - from construction in the South China Sea, to oppression of Tibetans, and to the internment of Uighurs.

Some analysts see this as not necessarily a bad thing. For Mr Trump to wade into and take sides on the Hong Kong crisis could give the protesters "false hope", one diplomat said. And it is also not clear what exactly Mr Trump could do. While China's economy is suffering from the trade war, so is the US economy, with fears of a recession dampening business and market confidence.

 
 
 
 

"The President has a one-track mind," an analyst said, asking for anonymity. "Trump cares about his base and about celebrity stuff, something that makes him look good. Hong Kong is none of these. His one-track focus on China is simply trade. His one-track focus on Afghanistan is troop withdrawal looking like a victory. He doesn't care about the Taleban, about human rights, about women's rights."

The State Department earlier called China's regime "thuggish". But on Wednesday, it was more formulaic, saying: "We condemn violence and urge all sides to exercise restraint, but remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong."

Under Mr Trump, Congress and the State Department do not decide foreign policy. It is the President who has shown that he is the "decider-in-chief". And while pursuing a "peace through strength" foreign policy, the US should not have to be a global policeman. So, the President walks his own line.

"He has abandoned rules on trade and defined it as zero-sum, so size and power, not norms, determine the basis for trade," Dr Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security, told The Straits Times.

"This is his Hobbesian world where geopolitics trumps economics, and US nationalism trumps both," he added. "As with North Korea, Trump on the one hand appears to be pursuing economic decoupling... while on the other massaging his friendship with Xi Jinping."

The President is under pressure to be sure, as concern mounts over a build-up of China's security forces in neighbouring Shenzhen, which is on the border with Hong Kong, ostensibly for exercises.

But he is at heart more isolationist than interventionist. Some analysts see this as part of a broader picture - of the US ceding global influence under Mr Trump, opening up space for other forces.

They point to souring relations between Japan and South Korea - both US allies - and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's unilateral change to the status quo in Kashmir and Ladakh. In both instances, the US has not visibly exerted any pressure on the parties.

North Korea's tests of short-range missiles also do not bother Mr Trump, who has said that while they may violate United Nations Security Council resolutions, they do not violate his Singapore handshake last year with North Korea's Chairman Kim Jong Un.

Thus, expectations of his influence on the direction of the Hong Kong crisis are muted. "If there is a Tiananmen-type disaster, Trump will read some tough-sounding words off his teleprompter, but will do nothing," Dr Manning said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2019, with the headline 'Trump urges Xi to end tensions by meeting personally with protesters'. Print Edition | Subscribe