Punish China over Hong Kong? Why Trump may pull his punches.

Why We Wrote This

Even before Beijing’s decision to curb freedoms in Hong Kong, China-bashing had become increasingly popular among Americans. But it’s hard to keep principle, policy, and politics in sync, especially in an election year.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters
Protesters in face masks take part in a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park to mark the 31st anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, after Hong Kong police rejected the city's mass annual vigil on health grounds, June 4, 2020.

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As President Donald Trump seeks to fulfill his pledge to punish China over its new security law on Hong Kong, he finds himself in a tight spot. Actions that showcase a president playing tough with Beijing are likely to play well with Americans, who have turned increasingly negative on China, surveys show.

But with 40 million Americans out of work in the wake of the pandemic, the president can also ill afford to take any steps that risk slowing the arrival of an economic recovery in time for November elections.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signaled that U.S. actions will be forthcoming, including, possibly, a special visa program for Hong Kongers. Yet what is striking about the actions being considered is that none explicitly target the U.S.-China economic relationship.

The president’s advisers are divided on the best course of action, says Allen Carlson, an expert on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations at Cornell. But “it is not hard to see that tensions with China – as Trump and [Joe] Biden compete with each other over who will win the mantle of being China’s most vocal critic – will continue to rise over the spring and summer. This simply makes political sense.”

With the Trump administration considering additional measures aimed at pressuring China over its revision of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status, the White House has come to resemble a heavyweight boxing ring.

In one corner is the pugilistic trade and manufacturing policy adviser, Peter Navarro. In the other, the more conciliatory Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin.

Let’s use the moment to hit China hard and loosen our economic bonds with Beijing. American voters will love it! advises the team surrounding the hard-punching Mr. Navarro.

Not so fast! parries the more pragmatic Mr. Mnuchin. Actions that remind America that our boss is tough on China, sure – but let’s do nothing that risks weakening the economy further and harming the president’s prospects in November.

That little allegory illustrates the tight spot President Donald Trump finds himself in as he seeks to fulfill his pledge to punish China over its decision to impose a new security law on Hong Kong. Beijing’s move would upend guarantees that residents of the former British colony would have greater personal and political freedoms than those enjoyed on the mainland.

Actions that showcase a president playing tough with Beijing are likely to play well with an electorate that has turned increasingly negative on China over Mr. Trump’s presidency, surveys show. But with the economy already weak and with 40 million Americans out of work in the wake of the pandemic, the president can also ill afford to take any economic steps with China that risk slowing the arrival of a recovery in time for the November elections.

“Rhetorical cold war”

“The angry battle over China has been going on in this White House from the beginning,” says Harry Kazianis, an expert in China and U.S. national security issues at the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “China hawks like Peter Navarro and [national security adviser] Robert O’Brien [are] pushing very much for a containment approach” and a decoupling from the Chinese economy, with “Mnuchin pushing a ‘compete but not confront’ approach to China.”

But events this year – from the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, China, to the disappointing payoff for the United States so far from the phase one trade accord reached with China in January, and now Hong Kong – have struck the deciding blow, he adds.

“Basically the Navarro-O’Brien camp has won this debate, it’s pretty much over now,” Mr. Kazianis says.

But he underscores that Mr. Trump’s reelection battle means that relations with China will devolve into a “rhetorical cold war” that gives the president a popular punching bag while sidestepping any actions that could further weaken the economy.

“This president needs a foe, and they have found the bogeyman they need to blame problems on in China,” he says.

President Trump announced on May 29 that China’s new security law gave him no choice but to eliminate the special status the U.S. granted Hong Kong after the United Kingdom returned the city-state to China in 1997. That would curtail special trade and investment arrangements with the island city.

Mr. Trump offered few concrete steps; however, he did announce the U.S. will pull out of the World Health Organization, which the administration has deemed to be beholden to Beijing. This prompted a sigh of relief on Wall Street, which had feared the president would cancel the China trade deal.

Economic relationship

But since last Friday’s announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has signaled that more action will be forthcoming. The administration has decided to revoke the visas of Chinese students with ties to the Chinese military, and administration officials hint at sanctions targeting officials with a role in Hong Kong’s security.

Moreover, sanctions concerning Beijing’s treatment of Tibet and repression of China’s minority Muslim Uyghurs are also on the table. And Mr. Pompeo has confirmed that the administration is considering a special visa program for Hong Kongers seeking an alternative location to live and develop business interests.

On Wednesday, citing Britain’s “profound ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said nearly 3 million Hong Kong residents would be granted a pathway to British citizenship.

The Trump administration is “taking a look at” the idea of a special visa program, “but we will not be limiting ourselves to things that impact Hong Kong, but also doing our best to deter China from continuing its efforts to deny freedom to peoples to whom they had previously promised them,” Mr. Pompeo said in an online conversation with American Enterprise Institute foreign policy experts this week.

Yet what is striking about this list of actions is that none of them explicitly targets the U.S.-China economic relationship.

What this tells experts in U.S.-China policy is that even as China becomes that central bogeyman to the presidential campaign, White House worries over the economy – along with Mr. Trump’s desire to be able to cite the China trade deal as an accomplishment of his first term – will likely put off any action that could further disrupt ties to the world’s second-largest economy.

“The limits on U.S. actions might stem more from the politics within the administration itself than anything else,” since “the president’s advisers are quite sharply divided about the best course of action to take” concerning economic relations with China, says Allen Carlson, an expert on Chinese politics and U.S.-China relations at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

“That being said,” he adds, “it is not hard to see that tensions with China – as Trump and [presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe] Biden compete with each other over who will win the mantle of being China’s most vocal critic – will continue to rise over the spring and summer. This simply makes political sense.”

As Mr. Navarro, the trade adviser, said last month on ABC News’ “This Week,” “I do think this election is going to be a referendum in many ways on China.”

Unrest in America

But if indeed there is to be a “rhetorical cold war” between the two major powers in the months leading up to the U.S. elections, it won’t be a one-sided battle.

Already China – fortified by an increasingly assertive leader, Xi Jinping – is having a field day with the social unrest sweeping the U.S. in the wake of the police killing on Memorial Day of African American Minneapolis resident George Floyd.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying recently tweeted simply “I can’t breathe” – Mr. Floyd’s last words. That was followed by another tweet in which she highlighted U.S. “hypocrisy” for last year labeling Hong Kong protesters as “freedom loving” while now denouncing demonstrators on U.S. streets as “thugs” – a reference to Mr. Trump’s characterization on Twitter of U.S. protesters.

In the wake of the Hong Kong dispute, the Chinese government has also ordered state enterprises to curtail imports of U.S. products, including pork and soybeans – purchases that were already far behind the levels China agreed to in the trade deal.

Professor Carlson of Cornell says one factor that could weaken the public’s perception of the president as a China warrior is the mixed messaging that has emanated from the White House.

“Trump has been less than a model of consistency when it comes to China,” he says. “He certainly talks tough about the country, but at the same time has frequently professed his admiration for Xi Jinping.” 

Professor Carlson recalls the president tweeting in the midst of last summer’s Hong Kong protests that he knew the Chinese leader to be a “good man” in a “tough business.”

Mr. Trump then added: “I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it.”

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