Britain and Europe need to step up their support for Hong Kong

Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s last vestiges of democracy has prompted two very different reactions from America and Europe. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has threatened that if China implements its new national security law to suffocate most of the autonomy and freedoms that Hong Kong was promised in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, the United States will rescind the special privileges it granted to the former British colony. On the other hand, the European Union (EU) and London have resorted to nothing more than multiple expressions of concern about Beijing’s high-handed violation of the 1984 agreement.

The State Department has certified to Congress that Hong Kong no longer enjoys a high degree of autonomy from China. In effect, Hong Kong has ceased to benefit from the guaranteed protections of the “one country, two systems” regime that China promised to uphold. Based on that certification, Hong Kong could lose the special status that has enabled it to be Beijing’s most important window to the financial and commercial world.

For their part, neither the EU and its constituent members nor Britain have indicated any inclination to impose any kind of limitations on commerce with the Asian giant. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, has gone no further than to call for Europe to have a “more robust strategy” and “collective discipline” vis-à-vis Beijing. What that means is anyone’s guess.  

On the other hand, there is speculation that, given the growing prospect of an even further deterioration of trade relations between Beijing and Washington, European firms could step in to grab market share from their American competitors. With the economies of its member states in disarray, and with one of its key members, Italy, well-disposed to Beijing under almost all circumstances, the temptation to prioritize commerce over democracy and human rights may be simply too hard for Europe to resist.

It is true that the United States, Britain, Australia and Canada have issued a joint statement condemning China’s new national security law for the former British colony. But, like so many of the utterances from senior British and European officials, it is laced with pious hopes for “accommodation,” platitudes, and expressions of “deep concern.” There is nary a word about any sorts of penalties to be imposed on the Beijing regime, presumably because, apart from the United States, the other three countries otherwise would not have signed on to the statement. 

Some European leaders — notably Carl Bildt, former prime minister of Sweden — are looking to the U.K. to take the lead in response to China’s outrageous behavior. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has hardly been a profile in courage, however. Other than the Foreign Office’s echoing the four-nation statement on Hong Kong by announcing that it is “deeply concerned” about the new Chinese law, the British government has not guaranteed that it will accede to demands by Conservative members of Parliament to award Hong Kongers the right of abode in Britain without immigration control. Moreover, it has yet to reach a final decision regarding the nature of Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s support for Britain’s 5G network, a subject of intense controversy in both the U.K. and the U.S.

Like the EU, and perhaps even more so, London is hesitating to abandon the prospect of increased business with China. As a leading Chinese analyst affiliated with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, an influential think tank with close ties to the Chinese government, put it: “After all, China is a large market which is of great importance to the U.K. in the post-Brexit.”

Given the frosty relations between the Trump administration and the EU, it is understandable that Britain and the Europeans are reluctant to align themselves fully with Washington in responding to Beijing’s high-handed treatment of Hong Kong. Yet, some degree of coordination that goes beyond statements of concern surely is possible. Brussels should work with both Washington and London to develop a strategy for dealing with China’s high-handed disregard for its international commitments. Such an approach may not go as far as Mike Pompeo would like, but it still would convey a degree of seriousness that goes beyond mere statements of concern.

Should the EU decide to proceed with its planned September summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Leipzig, Europe then could make clear to the Chinese president in no uncertain terms that there are limits beyond which democratic Europe is unwilling to allow its economic relations with Beijing to go untouched while China crushes the last vestiges of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags China aggression European Union Hong Kong democracy protests Mike Pompeo One country, two systems United Kingdom Xi Jinping

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