President Trump declared last night that Hong Kong would have no more “special privileges” from the US as he signed legislation imposing sanctions on Chinese officials involved in Beijing’s clampdown on the territory.
At a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, he declared himself tougher than ever on China and said that “no other country in the world” had “ripped off” the US as much.
“Hong Kong will now be treated the same as mainland China: no special privileges, no special economic treatment and no export of sensitive technologies,” the president said.
“Their freedom has been taken away; their rights have been taken away. And with it goes Hong Kong, in my opinion, because it will no longer be able to compete with free markets. A lot of people will be leaving Hong Kong.”
The Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which passed overwhelmingly with the support of both parties in Congress, authorises sanctions against Chinese officials and Hong Kong police seen to be impeding the territory’s autonomy, as well as any banks that carry out significant transactions with them.
Mr Trump forecast that Beijing’s stricter approach to Hong Kong would mean “We’re going to do a lot more business because of it, because we just lost one competitor. It’s the way it is.”
The announcement preceded a long broadside against Joe Biden, his Democratic rival, who he said had been pressured onto the “radical left” and was weak on China.
China had earlier accused the US of seeking to undermine regional peace and stability after Washington called its pursuit of resources in the South China Sea “completely unlawful”, widening the rift between the two still further.
Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, hardened US policy against China’s “maritime empire building” and went on to encourage pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong.
It followed tit-for-tat sanctions imposed by China on Monday on four senior Americans; retaliation for US travel bans and asset freezes for four Chinese officials involved in the suppression of minorities in the western province of Xinjiang.
The Trump administration has vented its anger in recent weeks over China’s role in the pandemic and its patchy honouring of commitments in a trade deal meant to lead to a more comprehensive package that now seems dead in the water.
“Congratulations to Hong Kong’s pan-democrats for a successful primary. The Legislative Council election in September should be equally free and fair,” Mr Pompeo tweeted after unofficial elections. Beijing is expected to use new laws banning secessionism to bar some pro-democracy candidates.
Mr Pompeo had earlier set out Washington’s strong objection to any Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, where it has designs on resources in waters surrounding half a dozen groups of islands and atolls.
“The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire. America stands with our South East Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources,” Mr Pompeo said.
The waters in question, hosting some of the most important shipping lanes in the world, are contested by at least six countries.
Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, denied that Beijing had sought to build a maritime empire in the South China Sea. Beijing had treated neighbouring nations as equals, he said, exercising “maximum restraints” in protecting its sovereignty.
Mr Zhao accused Washington of stirring up tension by deploying warships and fighter jets. “The world can see it very clearly that the US is the destroyer of regional peace and stability and is the troublemaker,” he said. “As an outside country, the US, out of selfishness and bent on causing chaos, resorts to all means to provoke trouble.”
The governments are locked in confrontation on a wide range of issues, including Beijing’s assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan, trade and tariffs, cybersecurity and the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.