Hong Kong’s nascent civil disobedience movement was certainly not the main agenda on the table in Washington’s recent interactions with Beijing, but the issue did come up in private conversations between the leaders of the two nations.
Barack Obama said at a joint news conference in Beijing last week that the Umbrella Movement did figure in talks with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the APEC summit, but stressed that he was “unequivocal” in telling the Chinese leader that Washington had no role in fostering the protests.
The US president also emphasized that “these are issues ultimately for the people of Hong Kong and the people of China to decide”.
As the pro-democracy protests continue in the Chinese special administrative region, Hong Kong’s significance in the geopolitical context has risen in recent weeks. Beijing is deeply suspicious of foreign powers’ meddling in Hong Kong affairs, and some Communist Party mouthpieces have openly condemned the US for trying to fish in troubled waters.
For people wondering whether the accusation has some basis or is just a fallacy, it is something like “believing is seeing”. Hong Kong Executive Councilor Starry Lee, has in fact, said: “If you believe this, you will see evidence everywhere.”
Yet, as the street protests enter their eighth week, there hasn’t been any concrete proof of overseas forces stirring up trouble, although Beijing may think that some Hong Kong academics or NGO programs supported by US-based think tanks – some directly sponsored by the US Department of State – could be playing a role.
Brookings Institution’s Richard Bush points out that the divergence between Beijing and Washington over the matter is that while remarks on the movement by a number of senior US officials — including Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Obama himself — merely stress democracy and freedom, and amount to nothing more than “lip service”, China however feels offended and deems the US stance as constituting interference in China’s internal affairs.
Obama is taking the usual high ground, expressing verbal support for universal values. He noted at the Beijing news conference that as a matter of foreign policy, and also of core US principles, Washington “is going to consistently speak out on the right of people to express themselves” and have elections that are “transparent and fair and reflective of the opinions of people”.
During a recent question and answer session at a seminar held by the National Committee on US-China Relations, former US President Jimmy Carter commented that Beijing would never give in to students’ demands, and suggested that the focus be shifted to ways to enhance the transparency of the 1200-strong nominating panel for chief executive candidates – like an open election for the panel.
Despite all these words from American leaders, Hong Kong can’t expect much in concrete terms from the US.
Hong Kong Global Studies Institute analyst Ling Kim-ho told the Hong Kong Economic Journal that Obama’s Pivot to Asia – seen as a strategy to contain China – is based on multipartite paramilitary agreements and alliances including treaties of mutual defense and security with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines as well as Taiwan (Taiwan Relations Act).
The US does have a specific bill for Hong Kong (United States – Hong Kong Policy Act) enacted in 1992 by the US Congress, but it mainly deals with economic affairs: it allows the US government to keep on treating Hong Kong separately from China for matters concerning trade export and economics control after the 1997 handover.
But even in business and trade, when Washington initiates new cross-regional frameworks, it seems that Hong Kong is not in the loop any more.
One example is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade bloc in which the US doesn’t reserve a seat for Hong Kong but Singapore is already a participating member and Taiwan is also welcomed into the group.
Although it’s obvious that finding a place amidst the shifting economic and trade landscape is vital to Hong Kong’s core interests — as its APEC, WTO and OECD membership have already shown over the past decades, the territory’s government is yet to express its stance toward the TPP. Some observers believe it is because local officials don’t want to offend Beijing and would rather opt to stay politically correct.
Also, when world leaders laid down broad strokes for a new free trade initiative for the Asia Pacific region (Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific) at the APEC summit, Hong Kong was not in the picture either.
Perhaps there are other more important things to worry about right now.
While Washington is not prepared to take on Beijing strongly over Hong Kong reforms, the territory’s relations with China have been clouded by mistrust.
For instance, Hong Kong is conspicuous by its absence in China’s FTA deal with ASEAN countries and its own talks with those countries for a similar agreement won’t be inked by 2016. Some observers have expressed concern that before a Hong Kong-ASEAN FTA can be reached, the territory’s role as a vital entrepôt for trade between China and Southeast Asia — US$44.6 billion worth of goods and services flowed through Hong Kong in 2012 — could be taken over by Singapore or mainland cities.
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