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Beijing won’t make trade concessions if US plays Hong Kong card, Chinese state media says

Shi Jiangtao

The United States should not link trade negotiations with China to the Hong Kong protests, Chinese state media has said, denouncing such a move as a miscalculation.

Chinese diplomatic observers also said Beijing considered the worsening situation in Hong Kong a sovereignty issue and would be highly unlikely to cave to Washington’s pressure.

Their remarks came as US Vice-President Mike Pence on Monday reiterated President Donald Trump’s demand to tie the largely stalled trade talks with Hong Kong’s deepening crisis, a day after hundreds of thousands of people marched peacefully in defiance of repeated intimidation from Beijing.

A short commentary published by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily late on Monday said that events in Hong Kong were the internal affairs of China, and linking them with trade negotiations was a “dirty” aim.

“Making a fuss about Hong Kong will not be helpful to economic and trade negotiations between China and the US,” the commentary said. “They would be naive in thinking China would make concessions if they played the Hong Kong card.”

The top priority for Hong Kong was to stop violence and restore order, it said, adding that US politicians should not send the wrong message to people creating chaos in the city.

“In the face of political intimidation, we not only dare to say no, but also take countermeasures,” it said.

Global Times, a tabloid controlled by the flagship state-run newspaper People’s Daily, also warned in an editorial on Monday that American political and public opinion elites should not harbour the illusion they could influence China’s decisions on Hong Kong.

“Because of the trade war, the US has lost the ability to impose additional pressure on China,” it said.

“The US should stop its meaningless threat of linking the China-US trade talks with the Hong Kong problem. Beijing did not expect to quickly reach a trade deal with Washington. More Chinese people are prepared that China and the US may not reach a deal for a long time.”

A Hong Kong protester in military costume waves a US flag. Photo: AP

In an address at the Detroit Economic Club on Monday, Pence said the Trump administration would continue to urge Beijing to resolve differences with the protesters peacefully and warned that it would be harder for Washington to make a trade deal with Beijing if there was violence in the former British territory.

Chinese analysts noted Trump appeared to have hardened his stance on Hong Kong in the past week or so, under growing pressure from US lawmakers and extensive media coverage of the increasingly violent protests. 

Trump initially focused on making a deal with China ahead of his 2020 re-election bid and adopted a hands-off approach by characterising the protests as “riots” which were a matter for China to handle. Over the past few days, he suggested Chinese President Xi Jinping should resolve the situation by meeting with protest leaders and warned that any violence in the handling of the Hong Kong crisis would exacerbate difficulties for attempts to bring an early end to the trade war. 

“Trump’s about-face on Hong Kong, from being neutral to piling pressure on Beijing, is largely due to domestic political pressure ahead of the presidential elections,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University and an adviser to the State Council – China’s cabinet.

“But the Hong Kong issue concerns China’s sovereignty and the government’s ability to maintain stability, which in Beijing’s view is of superior priority. China cannot afford to make much compromise and will do everything to fend off interventions from abroad, in spite of all the risks and ramifications,” he said.

Despite the soured mood between China and the US over their spiralling trade war – as well as escalating tensions over Huawei, Taiwan and other geopolitical rifts – both sides were planning further trade talks in the coming 10 days, according to White House chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow on Sunday.

But analysts said the US attempt to play the Hong Kong card would further complicate the trade talks which have so far failed to produce any solution to the expanding year-long tariff war.

The worst downward spiral in US-China relations showed signs of accelerating towards a collision course, they said, after Washington’s decision on a US$8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan and Trump’s warning against Huawei citing national security threats.

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“When a long list of old problems between the two countries remains unsolved, the US side is now ramping up the pressure on Hong Kong,” said Shen Dingli, a professor of US studies at Fudan University. “China has so far refused to make concessions in the absence of adequate mutual respect and trust and I don’t think we’ll have much room to compromise on Hong Kong or other issues. We’ll have to wait and see what the US would do next,” he said. 

Shi also said none of the flashpoints in the bilateral ties – from Hong Kong, Taiwan, to the South China Sea and the denuclearisation of North Korea – had any easy solution in sight, with both sides showing little willingness to cooperate and accommodate the other’s interests. 

He said the increasingly hardline, confrontational approach on China by Trump – who faced mounting pressure in his bid for re-election, especially amid signs of a looming global economic recession – would only make a trade deal increasingly unattainable. 

“Even if there were no Hong Kong crisis, could the US and China reach a trade deal? Even if Beijing caved into Washington’s pressure on Hong Kong, would it make it easier for them to bridge their glaring differences in the trade talks and cut a deal?” he asked.

Additional reporting by Teddy Ng

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