What Are America’s Interests in Hong Kong?

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Writer: Jin Kai, Associate Professor at Guangdong Academy of Social Science, China, and a Non-Resident Scholar at Sigur Center for Asian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.

Source: The Diplomat 

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Unfortunately, the COVID-19 epidemic has failed to bring the world together like a common threat should have. Despite the evolving and possibly enduring pandemic, a new rift between China and the United States over this public health crisis, which has infected over 3.6 million worldwide as of May 6, may have proved just how ossified contemporary world politics has become. No one should be comfortable with this agonizing and perplexing situation.

Washington’s dissatisfaction with and accusations against Beijing are not limited to the virus issue. A few days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “slammed” China over the arrest of Hong Kong protesters (who were soon released, pending court hearings). He told the press on April 29 that “any effort to impose draconian national security legislation on Hong Kong would be inconsistent with Beijing’s promises and would impact American interests there.”

It’s true that the United States holds tremendous interests in Hong Kong and has for many decades, albeit with different purposes.

From the first Opium War (1839-1842), after which the Qing court was forced to cede Hong Kong to the British, to the outbreak of World War II, the United States never challenged the legitimacy of Britain’s colonial occupation of Hong Kong. It was not until the Cairo Conference of November 22-26, 1943, when World War II was coming to an end, that then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt supported returning Hong Kong, which was then under Japanese occupation, to China. The Americans had two rationales: first, an ideological consideration of worldwide decolonization; second, a pragmatic consideration of what the post-war world order would look like. However, the Communists’ victory in mainland China caused such a subtle but profound change in the U.S. attitude toward Hong Kong, and this city became an indispensable political and ideological outpost in the Far East during most of the Cold War era. Hong Kong even once was an important military equipment transfer hub for U.S. forces in the Vietnam War. Until today, the U.S. Navy still requests to visit Hong Kong port for various supplies.

At the same time, economic growth in Hong Kong since the 1960s also made the United States aware of Hong Kong’s economic and also “psychological” value, particularly when mainland China was still mired in a lagging economy and gripped by nationwide political chaos. By the time the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong was set up in 1969, hundreds of U.S. businesses had already flooded into Hong Kong. By the end of the 1970s, when Hong Kong became the world’s third-largest financial center after London and New York, the United States had been Hong Kong’s largest trading partner for nearly two decades.

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