Kerry Brown welcomes the positive meeting between presidents of two leading nations, noting each recognizes fully the importance of stable ties.
Unsurprisingly for a visit described as “state-level plus”, Hong Kong did not figure directly when United States President Donald Trump visited China for the first time early this month. There were other matters on the minds of Trump and his chief interlocutor, President Xi Jinping. But many of these other issues do have either a direct or indirect impact on Hong Kong’s economic and physical security.
On the most crucial issue of all — the state of the all-important US-China relationship — the news was on the whole good. Xi invested a substantial amount of time with Trump, just as he did when he went to Mar-a-Lago in Florida to see Trump earlier this year, and when he went to Sunnylands in the US in 2013 to spend a substantial amount of time with Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. All of this testifies to the fact that, no matter what controversies beset Trump elsewhere, Beijing absolutely recognized the importance of his office and the critical need to keep US-China relations on track. The good news therefore for Hong Kong, and the wider world, is that on the evidence of the efforts spent on this visit China will not take risks with this relationship. All the talk about a China trying to usurp US position as a global power, and start setting its own parallel competing agenda, is too hasty and simplistic. This visit shows China remains committed to investing time and effort in the US-China relationship, no matter who is in the White House.
For more specific issues, Hong Kong people can also be a little more relieved this week than they were last month by the overall security situation in the region. Particularly, they should be glad that the issue of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, while still deeply problematic, looks to be under immediate control. In South Korea, Trump’s words to the parliament were balanced and careful. In China, he did not try to pressurize or embarrass his hosts on a matter that he has previously said he demands strong action from them. With the new leadership now ensconced in Beijing after the 19th Party congress last month, there has been at least a breathing space. Now a framework which is at least more enduring can be considered. The management of DPRK of course affects Hong Kong, since it is directly in the region Hong Kong is part of and does most of its business with. So some stability here is good news, for the moment at least.
On trade imbalances between the US and China, a core theme of Trump in the past few years and something this visit was expected to directly address, the news is inevitably — at least on the surface — good. Hong Kong will not be swept up in an all-out trade war between the US and China, at least for the moment. The issues of surpluses and market access seem to have stabilized. Trump did speak about the need to continue putting pressure on this area but neither he nor his advisers have come up with any core specific ideas of how to do this.
In addition, the $253 billion of deals will, directly and indirectly, as and when (and if) they are implemented, bring something to Hong Kong. US companies will want more access to the Chinese mainland market. Some of these will want to leverage off the expertise in Hong Kong, or use the well-established networks the city offers. Any business to this extent on the mainland will have knock-on benefits. That at least is a tangible positive result of the visit.
Overall, though, the symbolism of the Trump-Xi summit in Beijing, and the ways in which the 45th US president has devoted so much time to the region, should be reassuring to a place like Hong Kong which both has its own strong identity and interests, and yet is also intrinsically a regional and global hub.
Many feared precisely a year ago when Trump was elected in the US that it ushered in a new era of US isolationism. They also feared Trump was going to prosecute harsh, antagonistic policies toward China. Neither of these more dystopian scenarios came to pass. Instead, a lot has stayed in place — a US which is committed to the region, and a China which understands the importance of that commitment, even while it seeks its own greater, legitimate role. So the best thing about Trump’s China visit for Hong Kong was that it contained no nasty surprises. With so much uncertainty in the world, however unglamorous that is, it is a good thing.
The author is the professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London; and associate fellow, Chatham House, London.