Desperate Trump sidelines Hong Kong

Foreign Affairs

On Thursday, we noted that the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, sending the bill closer to President Trump’s desk.

We have also noted all week that despite another 90-day reprieve for Huawei, and vaguely positive noises from Washington and Beijing, we should all be expecting new tariffs on December 15, as a deal is still unlikely as long as Tariff Man is in charge. In fact, with the prospects for a phase one trade deal appearing no more ambitious than marginally cleaning up the damage from Trump’s tariffs, and not fundamentally improving the status quo from before the trade war, it is apt to call the U.S.-China trade talks a clown show.

Yesterday, these stories converged, as Donald Trump rambled for nearly an hour in a phone interview with his favorite morning TV show, Fox & Friends. Here’s what he said about China and Hong Kong, per Politico:

  • “Well I’ll tell you, we have to stand with Hong Kong but I’m also standing with President Xi,” Trump said, waffling in response to a question about the Hong Kong bill. Trump elaborated on his admiration of and deference for Xi: “He is a friend of mine. He is an incredible guy, we have to stand. I would like to see them work it out. We have to see them work it out. I stand with Hong Kong, I stand with freedom, I stand with all the things we want to do.”
  • “[China] has got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren’t going in only because I asked him…‘Please don’t do that. You will be making a big mistake. It’s going to have a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal,’ and he wants to make a trade deal.”

This isn’t the first time that Trump has signaled he values a trade deal over taking a stand on Hong Kong. Both CNN and the Financial Times have reported that Trump promised Xi in a phone call in June that he would be quiet on Hong Kong as long as trade talks continued.

Trump also reiterated his evergreen line that he is “potentially very close” to a trade deal with China, CNBC notes, though he took issue with Xi Jinping’s expressed hope that the upcoming deal will be “on the basis of mutual respect and equality.” Instead, Trump said, “this can’t be like an even deal.”

Sources told Reuters a different story:

Completion of a “phase one” U.S.-China trade deal could slide into next year, trade experts and people close to the White House said, as Beijing presses for more extensive tariff rollbacks, and the Trump administration counters with heightened demands of its own.

An initial trade deal could take as long as five weeks to sign, U.S. President Donald Trump and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said here month.

Just over five weeks later, a deal is still elusive, and negotiations may be getting more complicated, trade experts and people briefed on the talks told Reuters this week.