By Alison O’Neil and Andrew Jarocki

Sun Tzu and an “Enlightened” American Strategy in Hong Kong

Protestors swarm the streets in dramatic demonstrations, while armor-clad law enforcement douse the “terrorists” in teargas.

Sound familiar? Last summer, Hong Kong erupted in protests when local legislators proposed a new extradition bill. Since the 1997 handover, China had formally agreed that the former British colony would maintain domestic rule and a Western-style judiciary distinct from the mainland. Protestors decried the extradition bill—later withdrawn by the city’s Chief Executive—as a gross violation of Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy under the policy of “one country, two systems.”

Hong Kong’s protests in summer 2019 garnered worldwide media attention. A year later, with the world distracted by pandemic and unrest elsewhere, the situation has only grown more drastic. Hong Kong recently criminalized mockery of China’s national anthem on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and a new national security law marks Beijing’s most aggressive move yet to subordinate the city. “‘One country, two systems’ is now completely torn apart,” says Victoria Hui, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. 

The national security law, which has already prompted numerous arrests in the city, has generated controversy around the world. The phrasing implies that the new legislation applies to everyone on the planet, not just Hong Kongers. In addition to the implications of the law itself, international media has fixated on Hong Kong demonstrators’ tactics—specifically, their waving of American flags and appeals for intervention. As pressure mounts in Hong Kong, the United States must decide what strategy to pursue. We believe that American strategists and policymakers should ask themselves three questions. First, what core American interests are truly at stake in Hong Kong? Second, what interests will motivate Chinese action towards both Hong Kong and the US? Lastly, considering these two confines, what strategic tools are at our disposal?

We argue that the U.S. has important but limited interests in Hong Kong’s fate. China, on the other hand, will suffer any price to exert sovereignty over the city. Knowing this, the U.S. should consider new policy tools—immigration policy, for instance—that will allow it to adopt a highly cautious strategy. The US must balance sympathy for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement with a clear-eyed consideration of American interests and the need for a working relationship with China.

American Interests

Put bluntly, why should the US pay attention to matters in Hong Kong at all? First, for no small commercial reasons. U.S. foreign direct investment in Hong Kong totals $82.5 billion, and the city is host to approximately 85,000 U.S. citizens as well as 1,300 U.S. companies. And from a political point of view, the US shares many of Hong Kong’s democratic leanings. The erosion of the legal system that has made Hong Kong the traditional point of entry for American business to China contrasts starkly with American support for democratic values abroad. 

Even realists must be “conscious” of the debate over values in foreign policy, argues Rachel Odell of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. But equally important in the discussion of what is at stake in Hong Kong is what is not at stake: American geopolitical or security concerns. Odell states that “domino or credibility arguments,” which hold that the U.S. must act in Hong Kong to prevent increased aggression towards Taiwan, are “highly exaggerated.” In other words, the US must not conflate its commitment to Taiwan with its economic and “soft” political support for Hong Kong. 

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticized China’s incursions and voiced his support for Hong Kong’s protestors, the United States has made no security commitments to Hong Kong. Thus, what happens to the city does not change the world’s understanding of bipartisan American commitment to Taiwan. Consider, for instance, that the U.S. has never supplied Abrams tanks or Stinger missiles to Hong Kong. While the US has engaged in limited arms exports to Hong Kong (exports that the US State Department has recently decided to halt), arms sales represented a fraction of already-low American sales to the city. If anything, China’s aggressive measures in Hong Kong may only serve to further alienate the Taiwanese public from China. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, for instance, took to Twitter to condemn the national security law and support the protestors on June 30.

The View from China

While American concerns regarding Hong Kong fall mostly within the realm of an economic and moral calculus, Beijing’s actions are driven by more intensely realist motivations. According to Professor Hui, Hong Kong’s separate trade and customs status has allowed “state-owned enterprises to set up shops in HK to import dual use technologies through HK [that are] otherwise banned for China.” 

More importantly, as Odell cautions, Hong Kong’s status is “a matter of national security” for Beijing. As Hui puts it, “Beijing is willing to kill Hong Kong’s economy” if it is necessary to bring the city under control. The Global Times, a Communist Party mouthpiece, made clear in a recent editorial that “China has sovereignty over Hong Kong” and that Beijing “is well prepared for any external intervention.”  According to Hui, the global attention the Hong Kong protests received were a major driver behind recent crackdowns. “Beijing cares a lot about international attention and action. It hates international action so much that that is a key motive behind the national security law.” The US should remain aware of these anti-intervention attitudes, which even led suspicious party officials to claim CIA involvement in the Hong Kong protests in 2019.

Considering this perspective, any American strategy must accept that no cost imposed on China could be painful enough to dissuade it from what it views as a legitimate act on domestic soil to preserve national unity. After all, how would Washington react if the Chinese began advocating on behalf of American protestors who declared autonomy from the U.S.? As a result, any sort of strategy that risks armed confrontation between the two nuclear powers must be categorically ruled out.

What Can We Do?

The advice of Sun Tzu, a strategic favorite of Chinese planners, rings just as true for American policymakers: “Ponder and deliberate before you make a move.” Washington must ponder the key interests that guide its strategy. These are: 1) protection of commerce, 2) promotion of values in a realistic way, and 3) tangible gains in areas of necessary cooperation with Beijing.

China wants to “keep Hong Kong’s capitalism without its freedoms,” as Hui points out. It is a waste of time to lobby for a Hong Kong with the same freedoms as Los Angeles. However, American business and technological exports should provide Washington a means to appeal to Beijing on common ground: refraining from violence that would disrupt growth for both economies. However, yanking capital and applying sanctions all at once could give up future options and encourage Beijing to commit to crushing the Hong Kong economy quickly in favor of control. Gradually increasing pressure, for limited concessions, would make this destructive tactic less attractive to China.

America’s desire to ensure global respect for individual rights is a sincere one, even if imperfect in practice. In other words, America cannot simply turn a blind eye to the fate of protestors. The US cannot directly intervene on the ground on behalf of the protestors—America’s desire to avoid conflict with Beijing while maintaining protestors’ domestic legitimacy precludes this as an option. But that does not mean that the United States is powerless in this situation. Rather, intelligent reform at home can shape political outcomes in Hong Kong. The US has the option to expand refugee programs for Hong Kongers fleeing political persecution (similar to the generous policy that Soviet dissidents and post-Tiananmen Hong Kong immigrants received), and encourage allies like Australia and the U.K. to do the same. 

In fact, American allies have already begun to take action. The UK has offered to repatriate up to three million Hong Kong residents now that the national security law has taken effect. (Beijing has countered this proposition, stating that Britain’s offer violates past Sino-British agreements.) Australia, too, has taken steps towards offering citizenship to Hong Kongers. A commensurate spike in Hong Kong’s immigration-related Google searches indicates that many are ready to take London and Canberra up on their offers. Moreover, a Chinese University of Hong Kong poll in May reported that 37% of Hong Kongers are seriously considering emigration. 

The US should support partner nations’ commitment to this effort to repatriate Hong Kongers, acting as a mediator and partner whenever possible. Meanwhile, true to a commitment to freedom of expression, the United States should do nothing to hinder the travel and speech of Hong Kong dissenters within the US, the UN and in other global forums. U.S. strategy can still protect Hong Kong’s democrats even if it cannot preserve Hong Kong’s democracy. In fact, several US senators have proposed legislation intended to grant Hong Kongers refugee status, and the Senate has passed a bill calling for sanctions on China over the national security law.

At the end of the day, the U.S. cannot afford to needlessly antagonize China over Hong Kong when so many other issues already plague the Sino-American relationship. As Odell notes, the currently “dysfunctional” US-China relationship must improve if the world’s two greatest economies are to achieve any mutual goals pertaining to arms control, climate change, maritime law, or pandemic response. Conversations with Beijing about Hong Kong, which should continue to happen, must remain focused on the city alone. Using the city as “leverage” on other issues with China, as former national security adviser John Bolton urged President Trump, will only serve to make the “most important bilateral relationship in the world” more confrontational and less productive on every other matter. 

“Hence the enlightened ruler is heedful,” wrote Sun Tzu, “and the good general full of caution. This is the way to keep a country at peace.” The United States should heed the call to support democracy wherever it can, but must exercise caution and remain committed to a clear-eyed strategy for Hong Kong.

Alison O’Neil is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame. She majored in history and political science, with a minor in energy studies, and was a member of Women in International Security. Her areas of focus include insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, geopolitics, and great-power competition, especially with regard to Asian and Middle Eastern security issues.

Andrew Jarocki is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Political Science. He has worked in both Congressional offices and campaigns. He hails from beautiful Duluth, Minnesota. Andrew is passionate about writing on the relationship between domestic and foreign policies.

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