WASHINGTON >> 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 today 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 carry out terms of 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 U.S.-China relations,” said Evan Medeiros, a senior Asia director at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama and a professor at Georgetown University.
“Nationalist voices in the U.S. 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 or other punishments on each other.
The Chinese government, which announced the move, is likely to put it in place by fiat during the National People’s Congress, which begins Friday. How Trump will react is unclear.
Leaving the White House for a trip to Michigan today, 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 deal fulfilled 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.
By midday today, 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 the 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.”
Trump’s China policy has long been a battleground for dueling camps, usually featuring economic officials who favor a more conciliatory relationship and national security policymakers, led by Pompeo and senior National Security Council aides, who view China as a dangerous strategic rival that must be checked.
At the height of Trump’s trade negotiations with China in 2018 and 2019, the economy-centric view seemed to prevail and helped to explain Trump’s repeated fulsome praise of Xi as a “brilliant leader” and a “great man.”
But the emergence of the coronavirus from Wuhan, and the Chinese government’s initial efforts to conceal it, enraged Trump, who saw his reelection imperiled as a result, and in recent weeks the hawkish camp has pressed the theory, with no evidence, that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab.
On Wednesday, the National Security Council released a White House strategy document detailing a “competitive” American approach devised in part to “to compel Beijing to cease or reduce actions harmful to the United States’ vital, national interests and those of our allies and partners.”