The US Must Deal Swiftly with an Assertive China

By Joseph DeTrani

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, while also serving as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence.  He currently serves on the Board of Managers at Sandia National Laboratories.  The views expressed represent those of the author.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is a fluent Mandarin Chinese speaker who served over two decades with the Central Intelligence Agency as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service. He also served as former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and was the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations.

OPINION — The recent decision of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) to draft a National Security Law for Hong Kong was unfortunate but predictable.   China had made it abundantly clear from its recent actions – the 2015 apprehension of Hong Kong bookseller Lee Po, the 2019 proposed Extradition Law, the April 2020 arrest of pro-democracy leader Martin Lee and fourteen pro-democracy advocates – that Hong Kong no longer enjoys a “high degree of autonomy”.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration of December 19, 1984, memorialized by Prime Ministers Zhao Ziyang and Margaret Thatcher, agreed to a “one country, two systems” return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997.  A mini constitution for Hong Kong was drafted – the Basic Law – which mandated that for fifty years – until 2047 – Hong Kong would retain a high degree of autonomy, with freedom of speech and assembly and law making by its own Legislative Council and independent Judiciary.   Beijing would approve Hong Kong’s selection of a Chief Executive and control Hong Kong’s foreign affairs and defense.

The proposed National Security Law, being drafted by the Standing Committee of the NPC, should be activated in a few months, reportedly outlawing secession, sedition, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers, while permitting China’s security services to operate in Hong Kong.  With this law, it’s hard to accept China’s narrative that Hong Kong’s social and economic systems and lifestyle will remain unchanged until at least 2047.

The U. S. response was swift.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “Hong Kong was no longer significantly autonomous from Beijing.”  President Donald Trump said he would begin removing policy agreements with Hong Kong, citing an extradition treaty, commercial relations and export controls.  China’s spokesman at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was critical of these responses, saying they were the latest attempts to interfere in Hong Kong.  Similar comments appeared in China’s People’s Daily newspaper.

One has to assume the leadership in Beijing expected this type of response from the U.S.  Given the significant U.S. investment in Hong Kong, with over 1,200 U.S. enterprises doing business in Hong Kong and over 80,000 Americans living there, one would have expected China to give the U.S. a heads-up on their plan to impose a national security law in Hong Kong, with particulars on the proposed law and its likely impact on U.S. businesses and investments in Hong Kong.

This development comes at a time when China is moving aggressively in the South China Sea, with the establishment of two new administrative districts in contested areas and the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel; its brinksmanship in the Himalayas with Chinese troops crossing into Indian-controlled territory of Ladakh and the spate of disinformation about Covid-19 originating in the U.S.

It appears that the hawks in China are proponents of these and other decisions that have put China on a collision course with the U.S.  Indeed, China’s recent reported decision to temporarily halt purchases of U.S. products, including soybeans and pork, puts into question the viability of the recently negotiated trade agreement with China.

This comes at a time when globally the Covid-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of people and infected millions.  The human toll is staggering, as is the economic consequences, with significant unemployment and negative GDP growth, presaging a likely global recession.

The hawks in China espouse a negative view of the U.S., claiming that the U.S. wants to contain China and is concerned that President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of a strong, unified China eventually will out-compete and surpass the U.S. as a global power.  That the Chinese people should never forget the “century of humiliation” and the unequal treaties imposed on China, starting in 1840 with the Opium War and the ceding of Hong Kong to Great Britain.

What China should never forget is that the U.S. has core values that transcend geopolitics: Human Rights and the Rule of Law.  It was the U.S. after World War 2 that spent billions of dollars of aid to finance the rebuilding of Western Europe; it was the U.S. that was there for China and Chairman Deng Xiaoping in 1979 with the establishment of a close bilateral relationship that gave China access to U.S. universities and research centers for Chinese students and scientists while opening up our economy to China and investing billions of dollars in joint ventures that transferred sophisticated technology and know-how to a developing China.  So, China shouldn’t be surprised when the U.S. comments on the human rights situation in Xinjiang or the status of the “rule of law” in Hong Kong with a planned national security law.

Before bilateral relations deteriorate to the point of economic decoupling and a nascent cold war environment, it would seem prudent if China reached out to the U.S. to discuss its proposed national security law for Hong Kong and how it would affect the U.S. presence in Hong Kong and the status of the rule of law.  It would also seem appropriate for both countries to enter into a series of senior level negotiations to discuss the status of the recently negotiated trade agreement and the dangerous situation in the South China Sea.

Hopefully, China will cease its disinformation campaign with Covid-19 and agree to cooperate with the U.S. on this and other potential pandemics.  Cooperation of this type, on global humanitarian issues, is for the common good, devoid of any political advantage.   These actions would be applauded by all people who want and deserve a safe and secure world.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert Ambassador Joseph DeTrani was first published by our friends at The Washington Times.

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