New security law for Hong Kong: Move marks a shove in the back for Sino-US ties

In Canberra, Washington and New Delhi, a theory that China’s President Xi Jinping is overreaching was further cemented last week by the implementation of Beijing’s security law for Hong Kong, which in effect consigned the “one country, two systems” idea to the dustbin.

The move was part of a growing list of faits accomplis China has presented the international community – for years in the South China Sea, and recently with India in Ladakh, where weeks of tension broke on June 15 when in the deadliest clash in decades, Chinese soldiers killed 20 Indian troops in hand-to-hand fighting.

This presumed overreach has been eliciting pushback that is also gaining momentum.

Well before last week, the relationship between the two big powers was already going downhill; China’s move on Hong Kong was just another shove in the back.

In recent days, the United States’ national security adviser has compared President Xi to former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. And in only the most recent of a string of measures, the US has imposed visa restrictions on unnamed Chinese officials involved in the Hong Kong law, halted exports of US-origin defence equipment to Hong Kong, and suspended preferential treatment for Hong Kong – with only “a few” as yet unknown exceptions.

Last Wednesday, the Departments of State, Treasury and Commerce warned that businesses with potential exposure in their supply chain to entities that engage in human rights abuses in Xinjiang, or to facilities in China that use forced labour from Xinjiang, should be aware of “reputational, economic, and legal risks of involvement with such entities”.

Last Thursday, the US Senate approved legislation to penalise banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement Beijing’s new security law on Hong Kong, sending it to the White House for President Donald Trump’s signature.

Last Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission designated Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE as national security threats. The next day, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “We welcome India’s ban on certain mobile apps that can serve as appendages of the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party) surveillance state.”

Separately, State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus told The Straits Times: “We’re looking at all tech and infrastructure-related tech from China, and that’s principally because we know these companies… based on Chinese law, are beholden to the CCP.”

US WANTS EUROPE ON BOARD More broadly, the US – which has acted largely unilaterally under President Trump in keeping with his “America First” doctrine – is trying to persuade European countries to band with it against the perceived China threat.

On June 25, Mr Pompeo accepted a proposal to create a new US-EU dialogue on China. Speaking to the Brussels Forum, he accused China of “provocative military actions” including “continued aggression in the South China Sea, deadly border confrontations in India, an opaque nuclear programme and threats against peaceable neighbours”.

Separately, Mr Pompeo told ST, in answer to a question on a review he mentioned of the US’ posture and resource allocations overseas: “We have consistently been looking for not only how we deploy our forces, Department of Defence forces, but all of the assets that we have.

“We have certainly raised our game with respect to thinking about the threat that the Chinese Communist Party poses to the United States of America.”

Ms Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told ST that with the possible exception of the United Kingdom, there may be reluctance to follow the US’ actions on Hong Kong.

“My expectation is that the Europeans and the Japanese will express regret, or perhaps condemn Beijing’s actions, but rhetoric won’t be followed up with actions that could inflict pain or even reputational costs,” she said.

Domestic political considerations are a complicating factor, especially in the US where Mr Trump is battling for re-election, and also in China, which has seen its reputation dented because of the coronavirus.

Pushback is growing. India is speeding up purchase of additional arms, including fighter jets from Russia.

Australia will spend US$186 billion (S$259 billion) on its military in the next decade – including on long-range missiles. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last Wednesday: “We need to… prepare for a post-Covid-19 world that is poorer, that is more dangerous and that is more disorderly.”

MISREADING RAISES RISK Ms Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Programme, and director of the China Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, told ST: “China has to deal with the pushbacks.

“It originated from Xi’s desire to make China strong and push for its great power status everywhere. Whether it is ‘overreach’ depends on whether China can handle it. If it can, then it’s not overreach for Xi.

“Personally I think that is a dangerous thing for both sides: for China to overreach and for others to see China as overreaching. That sounds like a recipe for conflict to me.”

Meanwhile, though much will change if Mr Trump loses to the Democratic Party’s presumptive candidate Joe Biden, America’s position on China will not.

Dr Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific Security chair at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said: “Americans will continue to empathise with Hong Kongers seeking to preserve local rights. Washington will remain committed to deterring the use of force against democratic Taiwan.

“The United States will build a larger and more capable coalition of allies and partners throughout South-east Asia and the Indo-Pacific. You can expect renewed multilateral economic engagement. The bloody clash on the Himalayan frontier will accelerate our alignment with a stronger democratic India.

“Ancient Chinese wisdom suggests that allowing a confrontation to escalate into an open clash exacts a price, even in victory. Yet that is precisely what will come from Xi’s assertive foreign policy.”

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