New flashpoints facing China show as tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters march in Hong Kong on January 1, 2020. Photo: Yat Yeung / NurPhoto / AFP

As relations rapidly cool between China and the United States, Washington has been urged to dust down the old Cold War playbook.

Diplomatic disputes in the past two years have chilled the atmosphere between the world’s two leading economic powers. 

What started as a vicious trade conflict has now expanded into a broader ideological battle, involving the Covid-19 pandemic, rising tensions in the South and the East China seas, and the Hong Kong crisis.

A new draft security law for Asia’s leading financial city has become the latest flashpoint.

To combat Beijing’s increasing encroachment on the “One Country, Two Systems” model, President Donald Trump’s administration should allow Hong Kong people to “emigrate in large numbers” to the US, according to two American academics.

“US leaders could render the CCP’s victory a hollow one. They could create a haven in this country for Hong Kong’s greatest assets – its human and financial capital,” John Yoo, of the University of California at Berkeley, and Robert Delahunty, of the University of St Thomas in Minneapolis, said.

“[This would] underscore the sharp differences between the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party] dictatorship and Western-style free democracies. It would inflict a blow to China’s reputation and score a moral victory for the US,” they wrote in a commentary for Newsweek.

Opening the doors on this sort of scale would invoke memories of the Cold War, which eventually led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the demise of the Iron Curtain that split Europe in half for more than 40 years.

“It would continue the great American tradition of welcoming to our free shores those fleeing from communist tyrannies in Hungary, Cuba and elsewhere,” Yoo and Delahunty, who both worked at the US Department of Justice, said.

Earlier this week, the simmering row about the status of Hong Kong erupted again. Critics of the new anti-sedition bill have been quick to sound the “death knell” of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy hammered out by the United Kingdom and China after British rule ended in 1997.

‘Bastion of freedom’

Pressure increased on Friday when the US, the UK, Canada and Australia condemned Beijing’s move after the National People’s Congress rubber-stamped the decision. They pointed out that Hong Kong had “flourished as a bastion of freedom” and that the international community was concerned about the city’s “prosperity and stability” if the law was enacted.

“Rebuilding trust across Hong Kong society by allowing the people of Hong Kong to enjoy the rights and freedoms they were promised can be the only way back from the tensions and unrest that the territory has seen over the last year,” a statement said.

The UK went even further, offering reassurances to up to three million British National Overseas passport holders in the city. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab confirmed that visa rights would be extended to allow a “pathway to future” British “citizenship” if China failed to back down.

“In relation to BNO passport holders, currently they only have the right to come to the UK for six months. If China continues down this path and implements this national security legislation, we will change that status. And we will remove that six-month limit and allow those BNO passport holders to come to the UK and to apply to work and study for extendable periods of 12 months, and that will itself provide a pathway to future citizenship,” Rabb said.

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Four weeks ago, China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office called the pro-democracy protest movement in the city a “political virus.” It warned that President Xi Jinping’s administration would not stand idly by and watch this “demented force drag Hong Kong off a cliff” after massive demonstrations last summer created turmoil.

Beijing has also focused in on a small hardcore group of radicals. They were involved in pitch battles with the Hong Kong police, who have, in turn, been accused of using excessive force such as tear gas and water cannons.

Accusations of “foreign interference” in the running of the Special Administrative Region have also been splashed across China’s state-controlled media.

“China opposes outside forces interfering in Hong Kong affairs, which has been the country’s consistent stance. Hong Kong is part of China, and its affairs are China’s internal affairs. As an administrative region, the HKSAR has constitutional obligations to preserve China’s national sovereignty, security and unity,” Li Huan, of the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations in Beijing, said.

“Numerous incidents of violence and sabotage occurred during the turmoil [last year], some with obvious terrorist characteristics. Legal order in Hong Kong was undermined, society was torn apart and some foreign forces have taken advantage of the opportunity to create chaos in Hong Kong,” Li continued.

“They intend to make trouble for the central government, leading to strong feelings that it’s now imperative to act to preserve national sovereignty, security and development interests in Hong Kong,” she wrote in a commentary for China-US Focus.

Still, the city’s future has been dragged into a wider diplomatic drama between Washington and Beijing. Already concerns are growing that China’s increasingly hardline foreign policy after the Covid-19 pandemic could plunge the world into a New Cold War.

Xi has used the country’s economic might to upgrade the Chinese military with a 21st-century navy flexing its muscles across the Asia-Pacific sea lanes. 

Commercially, the Belt and Road Initiative has become a statement of the ruling Communist Party’s global ambitions, while the Made in China 2025 policy symbolizes its high-tech prowess, illustrated by companies such as Huawei, Alibaba and Tencent.

Weaning Hong Kong’s 7.4 million citizens off the elixir of democracy with draconian legislation is just a prelude for China’s main goal to unify democratic Taiwan with the motherland. And by force if necessary.       

Against this backdrop, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien stressed there would an economic fallout if Beijing goes ahead with the new security law.

“I think you’re also going to have a terrible brain drain,” he said in media reports. “I think Hong Kong citizens, many of whom can travel under certain circumstances to the United Kingdom or seek refuge in other places, they’re not going to stay in Hong Kong to be dominated by the People’s Republic of China and the Communist Party.”

Echoes of an old Cold War or the opening shots of a new one?