US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is a longstanding critic of China. Photo: AFP/Eric Baradat

US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he will end Hong Kong’s special status in response to China’s tightening grip on the autonomous city is a pivotal moment in an emerging new Cold War, one where nations will increasingly be forced to choose superpower sides.  

“We will take action to revoke Hong Kong’s preferential treatment as a separate customs and travel territory from the rest of China,” Trump said, warning of sanctions against Chinese officials involved in “smothering, absolutely smothering, Hong Kong’s freedom.”

While Trump’s administration has expanded strategic cooperation with authoritarian partners, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, it has continued to highlight China’s repressive policies in a bid to seize a democratic high ground, one it clearly hopes to leverage to win allies to its Cold War side.

Beijing-picked officials in Hong Kong were quick to dismiss the threats and measures, with Security Minister John Lee saying that the US won’t “succeed in using any means to threaten the (Hong Kong) government because we believe what we are doing is right.”

Justice Minister Teresa Cheng characterized US criticisms as “completely false and wrong”, while defending the legality of the new security law. The law will allow mainland security agencies to conduct law enforcement and intelligence activities in Hong Kong, powers Beijing feels it needs to suppress a new round of anti-China protests.

The war of words and legal actions over Hong Kong are part of the Trump administration’s broader campaign to contain China’s economic, political and technological influence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump in a file image. Image: Youtube

In particular, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been at the forefront of an increasingly aggressive diplomatic offensive against China’s Huawei Technologies, which has been front and center of the escalating US-China tech war.

At the same time, critics say, Pompeo’s offensive underscores America’s tone-deaf diplomacy and lack of strategic sophistication, just when leading Asian partners and allies have called for clear and constructive US leadership to counterbalance China’s rise.

Over the past two years, Pompeo has consistently highlighted China’s real, perceived and imagined threats to the liberal international order, while bidding to mobilize allies and partners in a maximum pressure campaign aimed at hemming in Beijing and its ambitions.

Earlier this month, the US imposed new restrictions on usage of American software and machines for production of Huawei’s semiconductors. The new measures are expected to primarily affect key US partners including South Korea and Taiwan, both of which have been a vital source of critical technology for the Chinese company.

American tech restrictions, however, have coincided with concerted pressure on top allies to reject Huawei built or supplied 5G networks, lest they risk security cooperation with the Pentagon.

Pompeo’s diplomatic offensive recently reached a crescendo when Trump’s top diplomat warned his country could “simply disconnect” from Australia if its Pacific ally signed up to sensitive projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Pompeo’s roughshod approach has provoked uproar both at home and in Australia, with Chinese state media seizing the opportunity to question the strength of the US-Australia alliance.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and US President Donald Trump are upping the pressure on China. Photo: Facebook

The episode highlights the Trump administration’s willingness to hammer friends and foes alike in the mounting new Cold War.

Last March, Pompeo warned the Philippines, an Asian treaty ally, to turn down Huawei’s push into the country’s domestic telecommunication industry.

“Our task has been to share with the world the risks associated with that technology, the risks to the Filipino people, the risk to Philippine security,” Pompeo warned, telling his Filipino hosts “that America may not be able to operate in certain environments if there is Huawei technology adjacent to that.”

Manila, like other traditional US allies in Southeast Asia, are continuing to engage China regarding their own 5G build outs.

During his recent trip to Israel, Pompeo reiterated that adoption of advanced Chinese telecom technology will “put the capacity for America to work alongside Israel on important projects at risk.”

“We do not want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure, Israeli communication systems, all of the things that put Israeli citizens at risk and in turn put the capacity for America to work alongside Israel on important projects at risk, as well,” he added.

There are certain signs that Pompeo’s anti-China messaging is paying off. In late May, the Israeli government rejected a $1.5 billion bid by China-based CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd for the world’s largest desalination water plant in the Middle Eastern country.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom has also reversed its earlier plans to welcome Huawei’s partial participation in its 5G network plans amid heavy American opposition.

Under the so-called “Project Defend”, the Boris Johnson government is opting for greater self-sufficiency in critical infrastructure, while rolling back dependence on Chinese technology.

Currently, British officials are exploring plans to reduce Huawei’s involvement in the country’s next-generation of telecommunication infrastructure to zero by 2023.

“This is very good news and I hope and believe it will be the start of a complete and thorough review of our dangerous dependency on China,” said Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a major conservative leader, praising the new direction in the Johnson government’s policy.

Many, however, were shocked by Pompeo’s threat to “disconnect” Australia from longstanding intelligence cooperation if the country’s Victoria state moves ahead with perceived as sensitive projects under China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Australia, China ties have deteriorated as the US has upped pressure on Beijing on various fronts. Photo: Facebook

“I don’t know the nature of those projects precisely, but to the extent they have an adverse impact on our ability to protect telecommunications from our private citizens or security networks for our defense and intelligence communities, we will simply disconnect. We will simply separate,” Pompeo said during an exclusive interview on the Australian program “Outsiders.”

While the southeastern Australian state has signed up to the BRI, the Australian federal government has banned Huawei 5G network projects while shunning the BRI. Along with the UK, Canada and New Zealand, Australia is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance led by the US.

Pompeo’s statements provoked an uproar, forcing the US Embassy in Australia to clarify that he was simply referring to a “very remote” hypothetical and reiterated Washington’s “absolute confidence in the [Australian] government’s ability to protect the security of its telecommunications networks and those of its Five Eyes partners.”

Back home, US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel lambasted Pompeo’s statement, lamenting how “[o]nly in the Trump Administration would our most senior diplomat casually threaten to ‘disconnect’ from a long standing ally.”

“The [bilateral] alliance is strong enough to withstand such irresponsible, thoughtless comments, but it shouldn’t have to,” Engel added.

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