On Tuesday, US President Donald Trump said he will end Washington’s special trade status with Hong Kong. What he really communicated, though, is that Asia is now in the most dangerous phase of his off-the-rails presidency.
Trump, after all, was AWOL in 2019 when China tried to impose an extradition bill on Hong Kong. The countless protestors who waved American flags and sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” in the streets heard deafening silence from Trump’s White House. Then, the phase one trade deal with Beijing was all that mattered.
Silence also largely met Beijing’s decision in June to impose by fiat a chilling, vaguely written national security law. Now, as Trump’s White House comes out swinging, it’s painfully obvious why: He’s losing the war on Covid-19 and very likely the one against Joe Biden, who polls show is thrashing the “America First” president.
Consider, for a moment, how a smart and competent US leader could’ve handled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Hong Kong clampdown.
Last year, US officials would have shown solidarity with young democracy activists. Last month, the US would’ve conferred with other world powers, perhaps using the Group of Seven (G7) infrastructure, to call out Beijing’s actions. More recently, Trump could have been standing with Hong Kongers clamoring for full suffrage.
Instead, he threw them under the proverbial bus.
Hours after Trump’s maneuver, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition vowed to fight China’s sweeping new national security law. Why isn’t Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, voicing support?
Trump’s announcement Tuesday, which drew a rebuke from Beijing, exacerbated the uncertainty for businesses, including banks, in the wobbly financial hub.
He also signed legislation to sanction Chinese officials quashing dissent in the former British colony and the banks with which they deal. Trump says he’s wielding “powerful new tools to hold responsible the individuals and the entities involved in extinguishing Hong Kong’s freedom.”
The cynicism and political expediency inherent in Trump’s action is impossible to miss. It also reminds Asia what a long, long 111 days it’s going to be until the US election. So how else might Trump lash out in Asia to shore up his base and reelection prospects?
Are new China tariffs on the way? Is a longer, broader list of banned mainland companies about to hit the airwaves? Might Trump make good on threats for 25% taxes on cars and auto parts, further decimating Asian supply chains? What about a move to weaken the US dollar?
Earlier this week, Trump backed away from an idea to monkey with the Hong Kong dollar’s peg to the greenback as a way to punish Xi’s government. Cooler heads, however, prevailed. But the mere suggestion shows the dangerous lengths to which Trump’s inner circle is willing to go to score points on Xi in an election year.
This is economic nihilism at its worst, and Asia should worry about what else might be in store. US Navy warships are making appearances in the South China Sea, just as Pompeo is making noises about Beijing meddling in the US election to help Biden win.
Never mind that that’s preposterous, as Xi’s surrogates have made it clear that Xi’s inner circle is keen on four more Trumpian years. No one in Beijing likes the trade war, but the more Trump destroys America’s soft power, the more space there is for China to position itself as an alternative.
China, remember, is using the chaos of the Trump era to meet long-sought goals. This includes for Hong Kong, on which a succession of Chinese leaders sought to impose anti-sedition laws since the early 2000s. Beijing didn’t dare when George W Bush or Barack Obama was in the White House.
But Trump is a man so desperate for a win – any win – on the world stage that he’d sell out most allies for even a perfunctory China trade deal. When would Xi have had a better crack at taming Hong Kong?
Former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s book The Room Where It Happened detailed how Trump tried to pull a Ukraine-like quid pro quo with Xi. Talk about Trump showing his hand to Xi’s Communist Party.
Should Taiwan be worried? With Trump so out of his depth geopolitically speaking, and willing to do virtually anything to beat Biden, why wouldn’t Xi figure now is as good a time as any to make a move on Taipei?
Of all the things Hong Kong thought it might experience in 2020, being at the center of a Trump-Xi proxy war probably wasn’t among them. Trump’s move will disrupt tens of billions of dollars worth of trade and investment – and it raises more questions than it offers answers about what he might do next in Asia.
Pompeo, Trump’s geopolitical hatchet man, seems an odd messenger to be complaining about opacity, media freedom and the rule of law. One could make the same critique of the America that Trump has been fashioning since January 2017.
The fact that Pompeo is participating so enthusiastically in the Chinafication of America makes his Hong Kong rebukes hard to take at face value.
As scandals and investigations mount, a caged and paranoid Trump is desperate to change the narrative. What better way than an escalating trade war that cheers Trump’s base and trolls Xi at the same time?
Hong Kong is just the vanguard of the Trumpian storm to come. US election day, November 3, can’t come fast enough for Asia.