THERE IS MORE bark than bite to China’s response to US President Donald Trump signing into law last month the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The legislation mandates an annual review of whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous from China to justify its special trade status with the United States among other provisions.
The US Navy will be refused requests to visit Hong Kong, and several US-based non-governmental organisations concerned with human rights will be sanctioned. These include the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.
These NGOs are among the ‘foreign forces’ Beijing claims are instigating the Hong Kong protests and are about as close to the authors of the legislation it can get without sanctioning members of the US Congress directly. However, sanctioning them may be a shot across their bows in warning that their operations in Hong Kong and China may come under yet further scrutiny.
US Navy ships visit Hong Kong typically several times a year. The photo above shows the USS Essex visiting in June 2015. The last one was the Seventh Fleet’s USS Blue Ridge in April; it had visited previously in 2013. The USS Lake Erie and USS Green Bay were refused permission to visit in August, by when the protests in Hong Kong were well underway.
The suspension will have little if any military impact on the US Navy. Beijing has done this before, and there are alternative bases the US Navy can use in the region, although it maintains a small logistics office in the US consulate in Hong Kong to support its forward-deployed forces in the area. There are eight such logistics offices in the region, coordinated from Japan. Hong Kong, one of the smallest, is used for coordinating US Navy visits to China. There has not been any indication that the latest measures will affect those visits. Three ports in China are open to it, Shanghai, Qingdao and Zhanjiang.
A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said:
China will take further necessary actions in accordance with the development of the situation to firmly defend the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong and safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.
That is a pro-forma condemnation of the United States.
None of this suggests any easing of US-China diplomatic relations, though equally no significant deterioration. Where this all leaves the putative trade deal between the two countries remains mired in who-the-hell-knows country. Sovereignty always trumps trade for China, but the routineness of Beijing’s response to the legislation supporting Hong Kong’s protesters suggests it will not let it sidetrack the trade discussions. But then there are plenty of other reasons that they may come off the rails anyway.