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US-China Tensions Rise as Beijing Signals Tightening Controls on Hong Kong

FILE - Protesters hold U.S. flags during a gathering at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong, China, Nov. 28, 2019.

China's decision to propose new legislation tightening control over Hong Kong has sparked a wave of condemnation from American lawmakers and officials, in yet another sign of worsening relations between the economic superpowers.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a statement Friday saying he "condemns" China's parliament for proposing legislation that he claimed "would be a death knell for the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised for Hong Kong."

FILE - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, May 20, 2020.
FILE - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing at the State Department in Washington, May 20, 2020.

He also vowed that "any decision impinging on Hong Kong's autonomy and freedoms … would inevitably impact our assessment of One Country, Two Systems and the status of the territory."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, also denounced Beijing's moves, saying China has used the global crisis around the pandemic as cover for increasing authoritarianism.

"A further crackdown from Beijing will only intensify the Senate's interest in reexamining the U.S.-China relationship," McConnell said.

White House report

Even before Beijing's Hong Kong announcement this week, the Trump administration was reviewing its China policy, publishing a strategic report aimed at changing Washington's long-term approach to China

US: China’s Security Law Would be ‘Death Knell’ for Hong Kong’s Autonomy
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The report highlights how four decades of U.S. government policy of engagement with Beijing, dating back to the administration of President Richard Nixon, has failed to encourage China's government to be a responsible stakeholder in the international community.

"If you take a step back and you look at the past 40 years of U.S. policy towards China, the Trump administration has really almost done a 180 divergence from that policy," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus told VOA on Thursday.

According to the administration report, the Trump administration sees "no value" in engaging with Beijing for symbolism and pageantry, and will publicly increase its pressure on the Communist regime.

This week showed examples of what that approach may look like. In recent days, U.S. officials have showered Taiwan's president with praise, announced new measures that could further restrict Chinese tech giant Huawei's access to key technologies, and directly appealed to the Chinese people in Mandarin to explain U.S. criticisms of Chinese government policies.

Beijing also expressed its "strong indignation" this week over U.S. criticisms, with statements from China's foreign, defense and Taiwan affairs departments accusing Washington of violating the One-China Policy and interfering in China's internal affairs.

Bipartisan criticism

The U.S. Congress remains sharply divided along party lines on many domestic issues, but on China policy there is broad agreement among lawmakers to reexamine the U.S. approach.

Democrat Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, and Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said Thursday that they plan to introduce a bill that would impose sanctions on Chinese officials for violating Hong Kong's independence, and also impose secondary sanctions on banks that do business with entities found to violate the law guaranteeing Hong Kong's autonomy.

Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida told VOA that China is taking away the basic rights of Hong Kong citizens, and "that's wrong." He visited Hong Kong last year amid its pro-democracy protest against the then-proposed extradition law, which would have allowed Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in other countries, including China.

"We've got to start standing up to communist China. They are going to do it here and then they're going to try to do it in Taiwan," he told VOA.

Democratic Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey told VOA that Beijing's unilateral push for the security law is "another oppressive snap by CCP."

Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas released a statement on Twitter that said "there must be consequences for Beijing's tyrannical actions against the people of Hong Kong."

Zhang Jian, director of Hong Kong/Macau Department of Shanghai International Studies Institute, offered a contradictory stand, telling VOA that Hong Kong's independence movement and "foreign forces" involvement make the new national security legislation urgent and necessary.

"The existing laws are not enough in maintaining national security," he said. "Of course Hong Kong's legislative body will still exercise its function, but I expect more national security regulations from the central government in the future."

High-profile support for Taipei

America also showed its support for Taiwan this week by offering high-profile congratulations to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen for her inauguration and approving a possible arms sale to the island off mainland China — gestures that have drawn sharp criticism from Beijing.

FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at the Taipei Guest House as part of her inauguration for her second term in office, in Taipei, May 20, 2020, in this handout picture taken by the Taiwan Presidential office.
FILE - Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen speaks at the Taipei Guest House as part of her inauguration for her second term in office, in Taipei, May 20, 2020, in this handout picture taken by the Taiwan Presidential office.

Addressing Tsai formally as "president," Pompeo became the highest-level U.S. official to offer congratulations to a Taiwan president. In the past, top U.S. officials refrained from speaking out in order to not offend Beijing, which does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country.

Russell Hsaio, executive director with Global Taiwan Institute, told VOA that the U.S. needs to send a strong signal of political support to Taiwan at this moment.

"This was probably as much a signal to Beijing as it was to Taipei," he said, "To the former, while the United States still adheres to its One-China Policy, Washington will not allow Beijing to dictate how it conducts relations with a democratic ally and important security partner of the United States."

A day after Tsai's inauguration, the U.S. approved a possible sale of heavy weight torpedoes to Taiwan in a deal estimated to cost $180 million, a gesture certain to anger Beijing.

Hsaio said the enhancement of U.S.-Taiwan ties is a function of growing trust between Washington and Taipei.

Katherine Gypson contributed to this report.