US outrage over national security law for Hong Kong puts Donald Trump and China trade talks in an awkward spot

(Oringinally published here on May 25, 2020 in South China Morning Post.)

If you missed the statement last week from the US Trade Representative’s office about hopeful progress in its phase-one deal with China, that’s entirely understandable. It came through quietly amid the uproar created by the Beijing’s plan to promulgate a new national security law for Hong Kong and the international response to the move.

“These are difficult times for both our countries. It is important that we each continue to work to make our agreement a success,” the USTR said in a statement, while the US State Department was railing against the National People’s Congress move. A discordant note of optimism drowned in a chorus of opprobrium.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo must deliver his verdict soon on whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous to retain the different trading status Hong Kong has with the United States, compared with mainland China.

The passage last year of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which US President Donald Trump had no choice but to sign given overwhelming, bipartisan support for the bill, gives Pompeo more flexibility in what countermeasures he can take.

Anyone expecting drastic measures should take the USTR’s statement into account. Trump is often accused of policy inconsistency, and rightly so. But if we’re to find any shred of certainty about what he values in dealing with other countries, we can count on two: a deep respect for autocrats and their ability to buy US goods.

After the CIA concluded in 2018 that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Trump used his executive powers to speed about US$8 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

In doing so, he swept aside objections from US lawmakers, who insisted on further investigation of the crown prince’s role in the murder.

Need more evidence on where Trump stands on Beijing’s plan to unilaterally amend Hong Kong’s Basic Law? Pushed for a comment on Thursday on reports that the NPC’s announcement about the legislation was coming, he said: “I don’t know what it is because nobody knows yet. If it happens we’ll address that issue very strongly.”

On Friday, after NPC spokesman Zhang Yesui confirmed the plan, Trump did not bring up the matter in any of his public appearances, even as the president’s ally, Senator Lindsey Graham, pushed Trump to “put China on notice” and the Republican-friendly Heritage Foundation hosted pro-democracy politicians Martin Lee and Dennis Kwok by video link.

This must be a difficult time for Trump. With top officials at the State Department and many lawmakers in both parties enraged by Beijing’s apparent determination to ignore the will of Hong Kong’s people, Trump is facing a default instinct that cuts across party lines.

Washington has a history of hypocrisy when it comes to defending democratic freedoms abroad – that is, it will step up for them as long as they don’t impede commercial interests. Note that there were never any lasting repercussions for Trump’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

However, a national security law for Hong Kong written by Beijing creates risks for hundreds of US companies that have made the city their headquarters for Asia.

Corporate executives in the soon-to-be-less-autonomous city will be left to wonder how the new national security law will change what differentiates commercial violations, theft of state secrets and subversion.

When American multinationals have as much to fear as human rights activists, you can bet that Washington won’t back down. The question is whether Trump has enough power to tame Washington.

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