Although even the most hawkish elements in Congress and the administration accepted the foreign policy community’s consensus that it was impossible for the United States to confront Beijing in a decisive fashion over Hong Kong without incurring excessive risks, they wanted to cause some discomfort and international embarrassment for the communist regime. The centerpiece of Washington’s strategy was to enlist its allies in both Europe and East Asia to forge a common front in condemning the PRC’s erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy, and to impose at least modest economic sanctions.
There is little question that the Trump administration was deeply disappointed by the response. Only Britain, Canada, and Australia signed on to Washington’s proposal; most allies balked at the administration’s request for a joint statement condemning the PRC’s action. The German government’s reaction was typical of the response from other governments. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas contended that the best way for the European Union nations to influence China on the Hong Kong dispute was to maintain a dialogue with Beijing. France was even less willing to join Washington in pressuring Beijing. The South China Morning Post reported that in a telephone call to China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Emmanuel Bonne, diplomatic counsellor to French President Emmanuel Macron, stressed that France respected China’s national sovereignty and had no intention of interfering in its internal affairs regarding Hong Kong.
The EU itself adopted a tepid response to the PRC’s imposition of the national security law. EU foreign ministers on May 29 adopted Germany’s stance and emphasized the need for dialogue about Hong Kong. After a videoconference with the bloc’s 27 foreign ministers, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell emphasized that only one country had even raised the subject of sanctions, and that he didn’t believe China’s actions would adversely affect the EU’s diplomatic and economic engagement with the PRC.
The reaction of key Asian allies to Beijing’s new restrictions on Hong Kong was not measurably better from Washington’s standpoint. Japan’s response was especially disappointing. After more than a week of internal debate, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government declined to join the United States, Britain, Australia, and Canada in issuing a statement condemning the PRC’s actions. Press reports indicated that the decision “dismayed” U.S. leaders. South Korea seemed even more determined than Japan to avoid taking sides in the dispute between the United States and China.
In short, the Trump administration’s effort failed badly, causing the United States to suffer a major diplomatic humiliation. That outcome will impact Washington’s overall policy in East Asia. One likely manifestation is to reinforce a trend that has been underway throughout the Trump years—growing support for Taiwan’s de facto independence. U.S. leaders have every incentive to resist suffering another display of policy impotence on the heels of the Hong Kong episode. Moreover, Taiwan has much greater geostrategic significance, and Washington may feel that it cannot afford to concede another (even larger) victory to the PRC.
Already, evidence is emerging that U.S. support for Taiwan will intensify following the disappointing outcome of Washington’s diplomatic effort regarding Hong Kong. The latest measures primarily entail symbolic gestures, but at least some of them also have military significance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that he will address a multilateral forum, the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, later in June. Also in attendance at that gathering will be Taiwan’s leader, Tsai Ing‐wen. Pompeo’s decision irritates the PRC government as readily as did President‐elect Trump’s infamous telephone conversation with Tsai in December 2016. In both episodes, the U.S. government was implicitly treating the Taiwanese leader as the president of an independent country
Other U.S. moves in the wake of its failures over Hong Kong may be even more provocative. On June 11, a U.S. military aircraft used Taiwan’s airspace, with Taipei’s explicit authorization, to fly from Okinawa to a destination in Southeast Asia. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office charged that the U.S. plane had “harmed our sovereignty, security and development rights, and contravened international law and the basic norms of international relations,” terming it “a seriously provocative incident.” A week earlier, a guided‐missile destroyer, the USS Russell, ostentatiously sailed through the Taiwan Strait despite Beijing’s objections. It was the second American warship to transit the Strait in less than three weeks.
Such actions taken after China’s imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong came on the heels of other measures confirming that Washington is more firmly in Taiwan’s camp than at any time since the United States shifted its diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1979. Just weeks before the Hong Kong crackdown, President Trump signed into law the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act, requiring the U.S. State Department to report to Congress on steps taken to strengthen Taiwan’s diplomatic relations. It also requires the executive branch to “alter” engagement with nations that undermine Taiwan’s security or prosperity. On May 21, the Trump administration informed Congress that it planned to approve a new arms deal for Taiwan, agreeing to sell Taipei 18 advanced technology torpedoes.