Faced with a choice between irritating Congress and irritating Xi, Donald Trump decided to chance the latter.
On Wednesday evening in the US, Trump signed bipartisan legislation** in support of the pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong. It’s been a week since the Senate passed the bill and more than a month since the House first approved similar legislation.
The bill would have become law one way or another – it had a theoretical veto-proof majority. Still, Trump waffled. “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi”, Trump said late last week, during an interview with Fox & Friends. After signing the bill on Wednesday, Trump offered this:
Today, I have signed into law S. 1838, the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019” (the “Act”). The Act reaffirms and amends the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, specifies United States policy towards Hong Kong, and directs assessment of the political developments in Hong Kong. Certain provisions of the Act would interfere with the exercise of the President’s constitutional authority to state the foreign policy of the United States. My Administration will treat each of the provisions of the Act consistently with the President’s constitutional authorities with respect to foreign relations.
I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong. They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all.
Sure, whatever you say, sir.
In addition to his “concern” for “long term peace and prosperity for all”, Trump also signed the bills because he likely didn’t want to chance a confrontation with the Senate one month on from the Syria debacle and just weeks before likely impeachment in the House.
It’s entirely possible the inevitability of the situation was communicated to the Chinese ahead of time in a bid to soften the eventual blow.
Although the decision was expected, risk assets wobbled on the news. It’s not known how (or even if) China will respond.
Beijing has variously threatened to retaliate and publicly urged Trump to stop the bill from becoming law on several occasions. China views the legislation as an intolerable intrusion into the country’s “internal” affairs, and reiterated as much on Wednesday, calling the bills a “severe violation of international law”.
Last week, state media ramped up rhetoric blaming nefarious external actors for the escalating violence in the city. “Their evil hope is that Hong Kong will go down in chaos and become a card in their hands”, a laughably overwrought People’s Daily commentary published Sunday declared.
Read more: Hong Kong Is Center Of Geopolitical Universe
Over the weekend, Hong Kong’s district council elections saw record turnout and produced a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates. The vote was widely viewed as a stinging rebuke of Carrie Lam and, by extension, of Beijing.
Between the elections and Trump’s begrudging decision to sign legislation in support of the pro-democracy movement, demonstrators will likely feel emboldened. After all, they’ve scored two “big league” (sorry) wins in the space of a week.
Hong Kong’s government expressed “extreme regret” on Wednesday, calling the acts “unnecessary and unwarranted”. The legislation “obviously interferes” with the city’s internal affairs, a statement reads.
Markets worry it will be impossible to separate the issue from the ongoing trade talks, which are still hung up over familiar sticking points. The Hong Kong bill makes it less likely that Xi will be willing to offer the kind of meaningful concessions Trump’s more hawkish advisors have demanded in exchange for tariff rollbacks.
This makes the December 15 deadline for deciding one way or another on next steps all the more crucial.
**The bills are:
S. 1838, the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019,” which reaffirms and amends the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, specifies U.S. policy towards Hong Kong, directs assessment of the political developments in Hong Kong, and other purposes; and
S. 2710, which prohibits U.S. exports of specified police equipment to Hong Kong.