Bill just another bump in Sino-US road

Editorial | Mary Ma 29 Nov 2019

After keeping everyone guessing for the past week, US President Donald Trump finally signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, declaring: "I stand with Hong Kong. I stand with freedom."

And, in typically Trumpian fashion, he was quick to remind everyone he also stands with Xi Jinping because Xi is "a friend of mine."

Trump is one of the few world leaders and US politicians not to have loudly criticized the SAR government or come out strongly in support of the protesters and pan-democrats as the months of violence unfolded.

Perhaps he was genuinely non-committal, or maybe he had too many other pressing issues on his mind - not least his long-drawn-out trade war with China and the ongoing impeachment hearings against him - to give Hong Kong too much thought.

But, as the bill was passed following near unanimous bipartisan support in both the houses, it gave Trump very little wriggle room to veto it even if he wanted to without upsetting both critics and supporters.

Fellow Republicans, including the hawkish Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, were highly vocal in their condemnation of Beijing and the SAR government, and were doubtless exerting great pressure on Trump to sign the bill into law.

And, naturally, US democrats were chomping at the bit to show solidarity with their fellow Hong Kong political travelers, many of whom were eager to pose with them for Washington photo ops.

Never mind that the signing of the bill into law throws a huge spanner in the trade talks and endangers an interim trade agreement that Trump so desperately wants.

He put his signature to the bill despite immense pressure from Xi and threats of retaliation. Beijing was hoping Trump would use his veto powers to buy time and allow the dire situation in Hong Kong to play out - similar to the strategy that it has been pursuing in the trade talks.

For the US president, it was a classic case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't" - upset just about everyone at home, or really anger his good friend Xi.

As the impeachment proceedings in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives grab headlines, Trump must unite Republicans in the Senate to save his hide. As both political parties were chomping at the bit for the bill to be passed, vetoing it would not have been a smart move for Trump on the domestic stage.

The big question now is whether the new US law will derail the delicate and painfully slow trade talks between the world's two biggest economies? Will China be so angry over the Hong Kong move as to actually pull out of the talks in revenge and plunge the world economy into chaos once again?

That's hardly likely as continuing the trade talks is crucially important to both the US and China. Despite some slight jitters on stock markets yesterday, there was no major panic.

Trump's act of self preservation and China's anger will result in many furious words being spoken, but will the newly enacted act have any real impact?

Our special trade status is now subject to annual US review, with possible sanctions against anyone deemed to have breached the city's human rights or democratic ambitions.

Some pro-Beijing supporters will undoubtedly be singled out over the years and made examples of but, for now at least, the repercussions of the new act may be more symbolic than damaging.

As the heat dies down, the US and China will continue as before to seek common ground in their ever-rocky relationship.

And Trump and Xi will again become best of buddies.

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