Pompeo is kicking the can down the road with Hong Kong
Tom Fowdy
A bird's-eye view of Hong Kong. /VCG

A bird's-eye view of Hong Kong. /VCG

Editor's note: Tom Fowdy is a British political and international relations analyst and a graduate of Durham and Oxford universities. He writes on topics pertaining to China, the DPRK, Britain and the U.S. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

On April 6, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a delay in the official legal "review" of Hong Kong's autonomy as legally obligated by the State Department as part of the "Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act" passed last December. The legislation pledged that the department had to make a given judgement within a certain time period of being passed, and in turn determine whether to sanction officials and thus review the city's "special status."

Despite this, Pompeo postponed such a judgement citing that it was better to wait until after the meeting of China's National People's Congress at the end of May in order to determine if Beijing would make any moves pertaining to the status quo there. This came despite criticism from the Secretary of State, who has had no shortage of things to say about China as of late, over the arrest of given activists in the past few weeks responsible for formulating unrest in the city.

What is going on here? Pompeo is kicking the Hong Kong can down the road. Despite growing antagonism towards Beijing from the United States and the White House, the Trump administration has minimal interest in pursuing a conflict with China over the Special Administrative Region. At a time of global economic implosion, the President is subtly aware that imposing sanctions on Hong Kong would cause turbulence to global financial markets.

The "act" was passed by hawkish congressmen and against the will of the Trump himself, who signed it reluctantly. Thus, in postponing until after the NPC meeting, Pompeo is in fact giving the administration cover as the congress will obviously not announce any major changes to the status quo in a way which triggers the "act."

Despite the political push in Hong Kong by many American politicians, the Trump administration has been largely ambivalent to the issue and was so throughout the entire crisis last year. The prevailing reasons for this were economic, than conciliatory to China.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing in Washington D.C., the United States, March 5, 2020. /Xinhua

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing in Washington D.C., the United States, March 5, 2020. /Xinhua

Firstly, Trump was negotiating a trade deal with Beijing and did not want to be seen as encroaching on China's national sovereignty during such discussions. Secondly and more broadly, Hong Kong's status as a global financial center which hosts many American institutions establishes it as pivotal to U.S. interests and the global economy at large. For the administration to directly destabilize Hong Kong would pose tremendous risks for markets all over the world.

In doing so, the alleged Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was championed by hawkish congressmen not the administration itself. Trump did not want to sign and was forced to on the grounds he had no ability to veto it. This produced an extremely reluctant statement in which he accused congress of impeding the American President's constitutional right to lead the country's foreign policy. Thus, he played it down softly.

In this case, it always seemed fanciful that the President would actively use its provisions to place sanctions on Hong Kong in any aspect, derail the city's special status and thus undermine stability for financial markets. This is amplified given the size of the economic crash caused by the virus.

Given this, Mike Pompeo, despite spreading vehemently anti-China rhetoric over the past few weeks, deliberately postponed its review and cited the meeting of the National People's Congress at the end of the month as his criteria moving forwards. He says he will say if the meeting introduces any major changes.

Whilst this is accurate for the fact that the NPC does maintain power over the interpretation of Hong Kong's basic law, in practice the body will not make any changes which undermine the principle of "One Country, Two Systems" and thus impair the status quo itself. Given this, the administration is not likely to argue that the arrangement has been seriously undermined to the point of warranting action.

Therefore, as a whole, it is important to observe that even in the midst of aggressive anti-China sentiment being pushed by leading American politicians, the impact on rational policymaking, at least in the short term, appears to be negligible.

Trump did not and does not have an interest in seriously undermining the status quo in Hong Kong, therefore will never apply the "act" as stridently as many hawkish Republican senators would hope. The impact on America's own interests would be significant. As a result, Pompeo appears to be kicking the can down the road; but only time will tell.

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