US-China wrangling on HK just sound & fury?

Columnist  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

Washington plays these games when it has problems with China that have nothing to do with Tibet.

US President Donald Trump (Photo: File)

The Chinese could take as much exception to the August 30 march in New Delhi by exiled Tibetans in support of the Hong Kong protesters as to US President Donald Trump signing the so-called Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last Thursday. India would have exploded in fury at any such gesture of sympathy for Kashmiris who are regarded as “terrorists”. Or in earlier years for the Naga, Mizo and Khalistani secessionists.

So it’s understandable that Beijing should be stunned by the ferocity of the protests and even more by the recent election when candidates seeking to loosen China’s control seized an overwhelming majority of the 452 elected seats in the city’s 18 district councils. The outcome indicated the Hong Kong public’s loss of confidence in the “one country, two systems” formula which Beijing put in place when British rule ended in 1997 and the former colony was merged with China. It is interpreted as a rebuke to Beijing and to 62-year-old Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, whom Beijing appointed in 2017 as Hong Kong’s fourth chief executive. Ms Lam, who earlier dismissed calls for political reform while insisting that a silent majority supported her, has been forced to eat humble pie. The pro-democracy camp is now demanding direct popular elections for the city’s leadership and legislature, and a probe into alleged police brutality against demonstrators.

Although comments by foreigners are resented as interference in China’s internal affairs, the Chinese are politically mature enough to know that the American bark is worse than its bite. Despite fulminations about human rights in Tibet, the United States has done precious little to compel Beijing to introduce reforms, or make it possible for exiled Tibetans to return, or to restore the Dalai Lama’s authority. Every so often an American President stages an “accidental” meeting with the Dalai Lama to remind China that he still has an ace of spades up his sleeve. But does he play it? Never! Doing so would close his ultimate option.

Washington plays these games when it has problems with China that have nothing to do with Tibet. The last meeting between the Dalai Lama and a US President (Barack Obama) was in 2016, and coincided with Japanese and American accusations that China was extending its influence into the Western Pacific with submarines and surface vessels and pushing territorial claims in the South China Sea. In one incident of brinkmanship, a Chinese observation ship shadowed a US aircraft carrier as it joined warships from Japan and India for drills (the famous Quad) close to waters which Beijing considers its backyard. China’s official news agency accused Washington of breaking its promise not to support Tibet’s independence — the US had “seriously jeopardised China-US relations, and deeply hurt the Chinese people’s feelings”.

But both sides pulled back from the brink. This time too, the sound and the fury are expected to stop short of action. Vowing retaliation, China has denounced Mr Trump’s new law as illegal interference and twice summoned the American ambassador in one week for a dressing down. But just as the Chinese are not expected to break the trade talks with the US, the Americans are not expected to impose sanctions on China which the new law permits. Trade matters more than human rights. Soybean is more precious to Washington than students.

Hefty Chinese tariffs have already seen US soybean sales to China fall by 90 per cent since 2017, largely replaced by imports from Brazil, which is expected to harvest a crop 27 per cent bigger than the US, according to the agricultural data provider Gro Intelligence. If the China-US trade talks drag on for another two months, American farmers will miss the best sales chance to China in the new marketing year and unsold soybeans will add further to US stockpiles. China bought more than 13 billion pounds of Argentinian beans this year, out of its total demand of roughly 187 billion pounds. In October, almost 100 per cent of Argentina’s soybean exports went to China. Expecting a bumper crop in 2020, Argentinian farmers are keeping their fingers crossed hoping that efforts to clinch a China-US deal will continue to be frustrated.

Sanctions are a two-way street. The Institute for International Economics in Washington calculated as long ago as 1995 that sanctions cost the US economy a staggering $20 billion in lost exports, and some 200,000 Americans their jobs. America’s own interest was another reason for seeking a way out of the sanctions which the US imposed on India and Pakistan after the 1998 nuclear tests. America’s wheat-growing Pacific northwest states feared another glut and a slump in world prices that would severely affect US incomes if they could not sell to South Asia. Pakistan, which had bought 37 per cent of the wheat grown in this particular region of the US the previous year, faced another food shortage but sanctions prevented a similar deal. So, despite his gesture of support for democracy in Hong Kong, there’s little likelihood of Mr Trump cutting his nose to spite his face by using sanctions against China.

Democracy in Hong Kong can expect more than lip service only if the cause also serves someone else’s interest. That factor ensured Indian support for East Bengal (which eventually became independent Bangladesh) in 1971. The coalescence is unlikely to be repeated.

Readers in Kolkata, and especially the old boys of La Martiniere, will be interested to learn that the Hong Kong protesters last met in the park named after Sir Paul Chater (1896-1926), whom the school prayer eulogises as “our benefactor”. Born Khachik Pogose Astwachatoor, one of the 13 offspring of Armenian parents, Chater was orphaned at the age of seven, and admitted to La Martiniere on a scholarship. As a banker and broker, he made good in Hong Kong. His `11-lakh bequest in 1924-25 saved the institution from closure.