Donald Trump likely to sign US’ Hong Kong democracy bill, sponsor Marco Rubio says

Robert Delaney

The sponsor of US legislation that could pave the way for diplomatic action and economic sanctions against Hong Kong said on Thursday that he believed US President Donald Trump would sign the bill into law, owing to overwhelming congressional support.

Senator Marco Rubio’s confidence over his bill’s prospects aligns with growing predictions from pundits, who say the president is in no position to push back, even if his signing of the bill that has angered Beijing complicates his efforts to bring a 17-month old trade war to an end.

“My understanding is that they will sign” the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Rubio said in a CNBC interview, after being asked about recent hawkish comments about China by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

While Trump has not commented on the legislation recently, he discussed his trade war with China with reporters on Wednesday, saying: “I don’t think they’re stepping up to the level that I want.”

“President Trump will likely sign the bill shortly, albeit without much fanfare,” said Andrew Coflan, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a New York-based consultancy.

“Vetoing the bill would likely result in a congressional override of the president’s veto, adding unnecessary political attention and acrimony at a time when Trump is focused on managing trade and the impeachment process,” Coflan said.

Coflan was referring to ongoing hearings in the House of Representatives on allegations that Trump withheld military aid from the Ukrainian government to push lawmakers there to investigate Joe Biden, a Democratic presidential hopeful.

In a research note, Henrietta Treyz, director of economic policy at Veda Partners, an investment advisory group, said that throughout the last week, “there was a notable lack of opposition from the White House congressional affairs team to the legislation being taken up for a vote in the Senate”.

“We consider this either tacit acceptance of the underlying bill or quiet encouragement for its advancement,” Treyz said.

“Either way, the White House, in our understanding, was not caught off guard or surprised by the swift progress the bill saw on Capitol Hill and should be considered more likely to sign it than veto it,” she said.

Pompeo has been more vocal about China. In a speech last week, Washington’s top diplomat accused Beijing of repeatedly failing to keep its promises.

“What we are confronted with is a challenge from the Chinese Communist Party” that is “inconsistent with what they have promised”, Pompeo told a packed hall at Rice University in Houston.

China summons US diplomat, vows to retaliate over Congress’ Hong Kong act

Asked whether Washington would respond with military force if China deployed troops in Hong Kong, Pompeo was non-committal, saying: “These situations are all highly factually dependent”.

Rubio, a Republican representing Florida, also warned Beijing that its opposition to the legislation constituted interference in the affairs of the US government, turning the Chinese government’s position on the matter on its head.

“Our treatment of Hong Kong is an internal matter, it’s a matter of our own public policy,” Rubio said. “We treat commerce and trade with Hong Kong, and anything that comes out of there, differently than we do the mainland. That’s our law.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused Beijing of repeatedly failing to keep its promises. Photo: DPA

“Their comments are interference with our internal affairs, which is something that they’re always complaining about,” he added.

Soon before Rubio spoke to CNBC, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the US of repeatedly enacting legislation that interferes in China’s internal affairs, “violating the basic norms of international relations”.

Low-key protests mark second day of relative calm in Hong Kong

Wang made the comments in a meeting with former US defence secretary William Cohen in Beijing.

The House of Representatives voted 417-1 on Wednesday to approve the Senate’s version of the legislation, which the upper chamber passed unanimously on Tuesday. The House passed its version, also without objections, last month, but only a unified bill can be sent to the president.

Displaying American flags, anti-government protesters in Hong Kong rally at Chater Garden in Central on October 9. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

Trump has until December 2 to sign the bill or veto it.

The legislation includes a requirement that the US government produce an annual report, certified by the secretary of state, on whether Hong Kong has retained enough autonomy from China to continue the city’s distinct trading status.

That distinction protects Hong Kong from the punitive tariffs Washington placed on goods from China last year.

Pompeo signals Trump to take harder line over Beijing’s broken promises

The legislation also calls for sanctions against any individuals or entities deemed to have violated freedoms guaranteed under Hong Kong's Basic Law and directs the State Department not to deny visas to those subjected to “politically motivated” arrests or detention in the city.

In Beijing, Wang described Congress’ passage of the measure as “madness” that will damage the China-US relationship, adding that such legislation had shaken the nations’ mutual trust.

“Right now, the China-US relationship has reached a critical crossroads,” Wang said. “But we regret to see that some politicians in the United States are now smearing, attacking, slandering China to a level close to madness.”

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