Why Trump’s Legacy and America’s Future in the Region Hinges on the Hong Kong Crisis – The new Tiananmen

Hong Kong protests

The crisis in Hong Kong may not be receiving the full attention of the Trump administration with their focus on trade negotiations, immigration, Iran, North Korea, and the economy with those being the issues pre-occupying the American people but how it ends will decide how Trump is remembered internationally and if American influence in the region is preserved. This is why Trump must take immediate action.

Over recent weeks the Trump administration has been silent over the crisis that has engulfed Hong Kong. The media have unanimously condemned China and the Hong Kong government for their actions; while many media outlets have criticized the Trump administration for its silence because they appreciate the crisis, which has already witnessed Hong Kong citizens’ civil rights being impinged upon by their own government and police, has the potential to manifest into a new Tiananmen Square massacre with China massing forces on the border. Consequently, many media outlets have argued the Trump administration has a moral responsibility to prevent another state-orchestrated crackdown, especially as the protestors are waving American flags and singing the US national anthem.

The crisis in Hong Kong, which has resulted in 20-25% of the Hong Kong population protesting in the streets, violent clashes with the polices, and the airport being temporarily shut down, has been caused by an extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government in March 2019, which has since been postponed indefinitely (but not repealed). This bill will allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China – as well as to other nations. Hong Kongers balked at this reform because it will mean Hong Kong will ‘be exposed to China’s deeply flawed justice system’, with China being accused of indulging in ‘arbitrary detention’, torture and kidnapping especially of those who are anti-government. Inextricably linked, the Hong Kongers also find these proposals unpalatable because they fear it will ‘lead to further erosion of the city’s judicial independence’ which was inherent in the policy of “one country, two systems” that was enshrined into law for 50 years, and agreed to by the Chinese government, when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997. China acknowledging Hong Kong’s judicial independence and democratic values while concurrently agreeing to not ‘interfere with’ their cherished values of ‘transparency and due process’ for 50 years was, for the aforementioned reason of China’s alleged judicial corruption and abuses, one of the issues upon which Hong Kong’s agreement to join China in 1997 was contingent upon. Consequently, Hong Kongers have felt the proposed bill is an affront to those values and that they have been betrayed by their own government, which are sentiments that have been exacerbated by police brutality and crackdowns; thus explaining why the protests have now manifested into calls for ‘an inquiry into police brutality’ and greater democracy. China is only going to deploy its troops, which it has been massing on the Hong Kong border, as a last resort because they have given the Hong Kong police a carte blanche to suppress the protestors using any means necessary thus using the police to suppress democratic freedoms so they do not have to get their hands dirty.

There is only one feasible explanation for the Trump administration’s silence and inaction regarding the crisis embroiling Hong Kong. This explanation is that Trump recognizes the crisis requires outside intervention before the Chinese troop columns cross the border and instigate another government crackdown against pro-democracy activists 30 years on from Tiananmen Square but is unwilling to intervene as he fears it will risk a possible US-China trade deal evaporating (which is why Trump’s recent statements regarding China have been directed at a possible trade deal); while also being unwilling to intervene because he does not feel America should be the world’s policeman, as it has been in the past, fighting every injustice in the world unless America’s interests or national security are endangered.

The Trump administration’s apparent decision to ignore the Hong Kong crisis, demonstrated by an absence of an official White House condemnation of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments and Trump’s focus on trade negotiations in his dialogue with President Xi, is a deeply flawed and short-sighted decision. This is because President Xi has not been forthcoming in trade negotiations with him imposing new $75 billion tariffs on US goods and rejecting Trump’s suggestion the tariffs are “constructive”; meaning there is little point in Trump holding out for a trade deal rather than being tough with China over Hong Kong when Xi is playing hard-ball. Also, inextricably linked to the aforementioned any trade deal will only materialize in the long-term after many more ruinous sanctions have been imposed by both sides; by which time the tariffs may have very well precipitated a recession. Consequently, it would be better for Trump to abandon a policy that will potentially economically ruinous and take a moral stand against an increasingly aggressive China. Furthermore, Trump using the Hong Kong crisis as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations and not taking a moral stand is strategically flawed because by doing so it will give China the license to continue its belligerent practices in South East Asia as they recognize, Trump wants a trade deal at any cost. This would contribute to America’s influence contracting in one of the most crucial geopolitical regions for the next generation.

Generally speaking, Trump’s position that America should not and cannot be expected to fight every injustice in the world and constantly force Western values on nations which the west perceives to have archaic values and instead put ‘America first’ and be a realist in foreign policy is valid, especially considering this idealism and arrogance has for decades trapped America in an incessant cycle of endless wars around the world. However, there are, as argued by Elizabeth McCord in episode six of Season 1 of the hit CBS drama Madam Secretary, ‘events that transcend national interest’ and the Hong Kong crisis should be one for Trump and America. This is because Hong Kong, as demonstrated by Hong Kongers singing the Star spangled Banner, waving the American flag and reciting the declaration of independence to protest their oppression, is the beacon of hope for liberalism in Communist China and represents what China could be in the future just as America represents what other nations could be; thus if the Trump administration permits Communist China, who is controlling the Hong Kong government’s response to the crisis, to quell and subdue the remnants of democracy in China then it will prove that America is disinterested in fighting communism. Trump should be concerned about this because if America fails to intervene and China cracks down on the Hong Kong protestors then Trump’s reputation internationally will be ruined preventing him from delivering on his foreign policy objectives and with Trump being remembered with bitterness by Hong Kongers, Chinese, and Asians for allowing China to subdue the liberalism of Hong Kong that many hope will eventually reach the rest of China. Consequently, if Trump chooses to not act he will be remembered like JFK and Obama are by Germans and Iranians respectively for their failures to act during the Berlin crisis and the Green Revolution respectively. However, the case for American intervention in the Hong Kong crisis is made stronger with the fact that, contrary to what Trump may believe, it is in America’s strategic and national interest to intervene. The reason for this is because, as has already been alluded to, if China is allowed to subdue the protestors in Hong Kong – China is in full control over the response to the crisis – then people and nations across South East Asia will lose trust in Trump’s America and, legitimately, question whether they can rely on America to protect them and their interests from oppressive governments and outside threats resulting in them discontinuing their alliance with the US. This will therefore allow China and Russia to capitalize by increasing their geopolitical influence in the region by making new allies and attacking other nations while pushing America out of the region causing a new cold war; which happened in Syria after Obama failed to maintain his ‘red line’ allowing Russia and Iran to gain influence over Syria and Turkey. This has already happened in Europe with European nations increasingly feeling they cannot rely on Trump’s America, and is reminiscent of how Europe became suspicious of America for a generation after Kennedy failed to stand up to Russia during the Berlin crisis. Furthermore, if Trump does not intervene in the crisis then China, as has been alluded to, may attack Taiwan feeling the USA’s resolve is weak; they will be undeterred from continuing their aggressive tactics in the South China Sea in an attempt to control what represents one of the most important shipping lanes in geopolitics; while also being undeterred from continuing their technological surveillance.

The Chinese government blocking the Hong Kong government from repealing the currently postponed Extradition Bill in an effort to placate the pro-democracy protestors, so they will not fear that the thousands incarcerated will be sent to China where they will disappear, shows the Chinese government wants innocent bloodshed to prevent the spread of pro-democracy protests. Furthermore, the Chinese moving troop columns and tanks near Hong Kong and arresting protest leaders for ‘unlawful assembly’ has fueled fears that the Chinese will crackdown in the next few days on the pro-democracy protestors and potentially suspend the Hong Kong constitution indefinitely under the veil of returning order to Hong Kong thus nullifying the policy of “one country, two systems”. To support Hong Kong America can continue its support for Taiwan through arm sales and the US navy sailing through the Taiwan strait as a ‘self-confident assertion of power’ to communicate that if China thinks they can repeat their actions in Tibet and Tiananmen Square to gain unfettered access to the Pacific and prevent growing liberalization within their borders they are mistaken. Furthermore, to prevent a crackdown against the pro-democracy Hong Kong protestors Trump should also work across the aisle in Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act which will make the ‘State Department…justify the special treatment afforded to Hong Kong’ in trade as China is ‘exploiting America’s special trading relationship with Hong Kong to circumvent U.S. export controls…as well as to conduct influence and espionage operations’. Consequently, this will allow the USA to target specific individuals with sanctions who engage in espionage and who kidnap Hong Kong citizens, while conveying to China that the USA is prepared to sever the special relationship so China cannot benefit from it any longer if they expunge the “one country, two systems” policy as they did with Tibet. Finally, the Trump administration can work with America’s Asian and Oceanic partners to continue to frustrate China’s expansion into the South China Sea by increasing its naval presence in the region and funding the military build-up of its allies in order to force China to negotiate and offer concessions; while reaffirming to their partners that they are not succumbing to Chinese aggression and that they can be relied on.

Hong Kong is the first battleground in the new Cold War between America and China, how Trump chooses to respond will determine who will have the advantage and gain geopolitical supremacy in the region for the next generation.

Image credit: Studio Incendo [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.