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The topics of Taiwan and Hong Kong have proven to be two particular flashpoints for US-China tensions. With increasing discussion of a “new Cold War” between America and China, such tensions only seem to be escalating, particularly as the Trump administration continues to direct blame for its mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic on China. Whether during the Trump administration or before it, American support for Taiwan or Hong Kong is often used as an offense on China without resorting to an outbreak of outright hostilities.
But many in Taiwan and Hong Kong are blind to the perils of imperial alignment and see the Trump administration in a rosy light. Such individuals have turned a blind eye to America’s use of both these locations as chess pieces in its conflict with China. In some cases, they’ve even advocated for American actions that are highly damaging to regular people.
This approach plays directly into Washington’s playbook and positions Hong Kong and Taiwan as pawns between competing empires. However, instead of leaping into the arms of American empire in order to counter the Chinese Communist Party, the fight for self-determination should build alternative power structures that are independent of states.
Hong Kong’s economic leverage
The Trump administration has thus far responded to the developing political situation in Hong Kong with travel restrictions and economic sanctions. In particular, under the provisions of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) passed last year, the US has stripped Hong Kong of its preferred trade status with the US under the 1992 US Hong Kong Policy Act.
In late November last year, pro-democracy Hongkongers held a pro-US rally celebrating the HKHRDA’s passage knowing that it could result in stripping Hong Kong of its economic value. Under the 1992 US Hong Kong Policy Act, Hong Kong could be revoked of its preferential treatment if it is not deemed sufficiently autonomous from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). While Hong Kong’s preferential treatment may seem irrelevant to Beijing, removing Hong Kong as China’s access to Western capital is actually extremely damaging to the Chinese economy since Beijing continues to use Hong Kong as a critical bridge between China and global finance. Yet the Chinese government seems to have bitten the bullet, forcing through new national security laws that resulted in the Trump administration promptly declaring Hong Kong no longer sufficiently autonomous and removing its preferred trade status.
Despite potentially losing billions of dollars in trade with the US, Trump’s order was still welcomed by Hong Kong localists who believed that stripping Hong Kong of its preferred trade status would deal an economic blow to China, and disincentivize China from further eroding Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms. In particular, Hong Kong losing its preferred trade status will have a significant effect on economic elites who own properties or hold substantial investments in Hong Kong, and it is claimed that this will serve as a deterrent to the deterioration of democratic freedoms.
The mentality of Hong Kong being ‘abandoned’ by the US to China is reflective of how many were banking on the US to act as a deus ex machina to save Hong Kong.
But such financial and economic elites can always relocate elsewhere to greener pastures, since the barriers to mobility are lower for them than for members of the working class. As such, it is more likely that members of the working class will be the ones that bear the brunt of the economic blow.
The move to strip Hong Kong of preferential treatment and legally treat it as just another Chinese city can even be seen as a means of cutting ties between the US and Hong Kong, seeing as Hong Kong would subsequently be treated as legally no different from China through the invocation of the HKHRDA. The mentality of Hong Kong being “abandoned” by the US to China is reflective of how many were banking on the US to act as a deus ex machina to save Hong Kong.
However, broadly speaking, there is a recurring pattern of pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong who turn a blind eye to American actions, treating Hong Kong as a geopolitical chess piece for America that faces the prospect of being abandoned when no longer useful.
Taiwan’s geo-strategic importance
For Taiwan, the American political playbook is slightly different. The reasons for this stem from the differences between Hong Kong and Taiwan’s respective geopolitical importance for America. For example, Hong Kong may be economically and politically important to the US and its interests in the Asia-Pacific region as a financial hub. But Taiwan is geo-strategically important because key Asia-North America maritime shipping routes pass through waters near Taiwan. Additionally, Taiwan’s semiconductor industry plays a crucial role in the global electronics supply chain on which American technology is heavily reliant.
Further, high-profile public meetings between Hong Kong and American politicians are easier to arrange than meetings between Taiwanese and American politicians. This is because dialogue with Taiwanese politicians would mean recognizing their sovereignty, which could lead to military threats from China, such as dispatching warplanes or navy vessels to airspace or waters near Taiwan. This escalation could in turn result in a heightened American military presence in the Asia-Pacific.
Unlike Hong Kong, America generally does not threaten sanctions against Chinese politicians to indicate displeasures with China where Taiwan is concerned. Instead, the American government carries out arms sales to Taiwan, conducts diplomatic visits to Taiwan, or sends its warplanes and navy vessels into the airspace and waters near Taiwan. Nevertheless, despite this kind of American military posturing, America fundamentally has no commitment to defend Taiwan. Instead, America maintains “strategic ambiguity” about whether it would come to Taiwan’s military aid in the event of a Chinese invasion.
Indeed, it was America’s actions that had led to Taiwan’s current marginalization from the international community—a move that came from Nixon’s famous visit to Beijing, after which the US unexpectedly and unilaterally ceased to recognize the Republic of China (now Taiwan) in favor of the PRC in 1979.
America’s campaigning to secure admittance to the WHO was only ever pursued with the goal of attacking China, rather than with any genuine interest in benefiting Taiwan.
Regardless of what many in Taiwan think, American bluster in support of Taiwan is neither likely to be backed by action nor founded on genuine support for the wellbeing of Taiwan’s people. Like Hong Kong, Taiwan might find itself abandoned by America if it loses its geo-strategic importance. A telling example is how the Trump administration called for the inclusion of Taiwan into the World Health Organization (WHO). US State Department accounts started a “#TweetforTaiwan” campaign from official diplomatic accounts earlier this year, before unexpectedly leaving Taiwan in the lurch by unilaterally withdrawing from the WHO. Efforts by Taiwan to seek admittance to the WHO—with the hopes of obtaining medical information and resources from the WHO during the COVID-19 pandemic, which other member states have access to—have now experienced a large setback. This sudden reversal of course by the Trump administration is illustrative of how America’s campaigning to secure admittance to the WHO was only ever pursued with the goal of attacking China, rather than with any genuine interest in benefiting Taiwan.
In a provision of the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act that was enacted earlier this year, the Trump administration has also begun threatening to sanction countries that break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan. But the US government has not historically suggested that they will resume formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. This proves to be a further example of how, when push comes to shove, American actions with Taiwan are only aimed at taking China down a peg, instead of signaling any political commitment to Taiwan. Though American ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft recently called for Taiwan’s membership in the UN on Twitter, and US Congressman Tom Tiffany introduced a bill to support Taiwan’s inclusion in the UN earlier this month, these moves gesture towards worsening US-China tensions more than anything else; the US could have made such moves decades ago, rather than suspending Taiwan in the limbo of “strategic ambiguity” this whole time.
More generally, America’s security relationship with many of its supposed allies in the Asia-Pacific is extractive in nature. This has become particularly evident under the Trump administration, which has already demanded that the Abe administration in Japan quadruple its payments to the US for maintaining its military bases. Trump has also demanded the Moon administration to shell out five billion USD for keeping American bases in South Korea. While Japan and South Korea’s governments want US bases on their soil as a bulwark against a potential Chinese military threat, the US is using their military leverage for economic coercion.
The enemy of your enemy is not your friend
Despite Trump’s unrestrained willingness to blatantly use Taiwan and Hong Kong as nothing more than pawns in the conflict with China, the Trump administration continues to win supporters in both locations.
America’s idealization in Taiwan and Hong Kong has been a peculiar phenomenon at times. Many of Taiwan’s pro-independence activists who sought to overturn the Kuomintang’s (KMT) one-party rule during Taiwan’s White Terror idealized America even though the KMT was directly supported by America.
Although America has a long and well-documented history of backing proxy governments and then discarding them once they are no longer politically useful, many Taiwanese who appeal to the American state believe that Taiwan, through good behavior, would be an exception to this broader pattern of behavior by the US—perhaps akin to a model minority view of international relations.
Indeed, the Trump administration’s actions should make clear that Taiwan and Hong Kong are no more than geopolitical chess pieces for America. Yet, continuing this larger historical phenomenon, there are still many who studiously deny this fact, particularly among overseas groups. Interactions between overseas Taiwanese and Hongkonger groups in the US have been substantial in the years since the 2014 Sunflower and Umbrella Movements, with both groups developing in parallel. In particular, Taiwanese diaspora in America who have formed overseas pro-democracy groups, have in many cases attained a privileged socioeconomic status, leaving them with a rosy picture of the American government and credence in the American dream.
Once support for Taiwan or Hong Kong crosses beyond what is considered acceptable losses, one can expect US support to evaporate.
In fact, the precedent set by Taiwanese organizations that lobby in the US such as the pro-Taiwan independence Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), or think tanks such as the Global Taiwan Institute, will probably influence subsequent efforts by Hongkongers to form similar groups in the US. It is not unthinkable that Taiwanese groups would even assist Hongkongers in setting up similar organizations that advocate for US policies to punish China.
Indeed, Taiwanese overseas groups have historically fallen into the pattern of directing appeals solely to right-wing American politicians because of their hawkish position against China. Democrats, on the other hand, are viewed as pro-China because of past calls for engagement with China by Democratic politicians. These overseas groups have hardly imagined alternatives beyond appealing to state power, and in some cases have even been dismissive of social movements and local grassroots activism.
Increasingly, this may also be the case with US-based Hong Kong groups. Already, Joshua Wong and other Hong Kong youth activists have developed substantive ties with American Republican politicians such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton.
A specter looming over the Trump presidency’s relation to Taiwan and Hong Kong has been the possibility of the American government abandoning either to make a trade deal with China. In his recently published tell-all about his time within the Trump administration, former National Security Advisor John Bolton, himself a noted China hawk, pointed out that Trump continually suggested abandoning Taiwan or Hong Kong because the Chinese economy was so much larger.1
Of course, whether the country has been under the Trump administration or other presidential administrations, America has only backed Taiwan or Hong Kong because they serve as useful proxies in its geopolitical contest with China. Support for Taiwan and Hong Kong will only go as far as both are useful for the US. Once support for Taiwan or Hong Kong crosses beyond what is considered acceptable losses, one can expect US support to evaporate. This has always been true of Taiwan and Hong Kong’s relations to the US and, despite wishful thinking, continues to be true of the present.