Monday, January 20, 2014, 07:54
HK does have a ‘foreign policy’
By Nicholas Gordon

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of articles exploring the various aspects of the “One Country, Two Systems” concept governing Hong Kong since the handover.

In previous columns, I have used the Snowden case to illustrate specific elements of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” principle.  Snowden’s case implies one large element of Hong Kong’s autonomy that is more subtle, yet widespread: the city’s surprisingly large capability for “foreign policy”.

American officials were asking the Hong Kong government to honor the extradition treaty it had signed with Washington; a treaty that involved only the United States and Hong Kong as signatories, not Beijing. Snowden was able to escape to Hong Kong because the city does not require a visa for American citizens: once again, the result of an agreement signed between Hong Kong and Washington. And, at an even more fundamental level, Hong Kong officials were engaged in direct talks with US officials over Snowden’s fate; central government officials were not involved visibly or directly. Throughout the entire saga, Hong Kong officials were, at the very least, involved in this global issue and seen to be calling the shots.

Unlike other elements of Hong Kong’s autonomy, its foreign policy is not explicitly granted to it under the Basic Law. In fact, Articles 13 and 14 specifically place foreign affairs and defense under the jurisdiction of the central government. And it is true that Hong Kong does not engage in the most obvious forms of diplomacy: There is no Hong Kong foreign ministry or state department, nor is there a Hong Kong foreign minister or secretary of state jetting off on world trips.

However, while these are the most visible forms of diplomacy, Hong Kong’s powers overlap with what would be considered ‘’foreign policy’’ if they were conducted by a state. Hong Kong’s “foreign policy” is not as significant as Beijing’s or Washington’s, but it does exist.  A state’s foreign policy is much more than just a foreign ministry; from signing agreements with other countries to membership in international organizations, Hong Kong does actually have a foreign policy.

Hong Kong is empowered to sign economic and social agreements with other countries, as if it were its own legal entity. Past columns have discussed Hong Kong’s immigration and extradition agreements with other countries; Hong Kong’s autonomy in these areas is bolstered, if not entirely founded upon, this aspect of foreign policy. Hong Kong is also allowed to be a member of international organizations as a full member. Hong Kong is a member of the WHO, the WTO, APEC and the International Olympic Committee as an equal member or, in other words, as if it were a state. Membership in these organizations can be significant, as it provides an independent voice that may have significant differences with the larger national unit. Hong Kong (and its counterpart, Macao) are some of the only sub-national units with a presence in international organizations. Most other countries have decided against giving their territories similar powers; Guam, the American territory, has often asked to join APEC, specifically citing Hong Kong as an example, only to be rejected by the United States.

Admittedly, the idea that Hong Kong can engage in its own foreign policy has been tested. In the aftermath of the Manila hostage crisis, President Benigno Aquino III refused to answer a telephone call from then chief executive Donald Tsang. Aquino argued that, as Tsang was not a state leader, he did not have the authority to speak directly to a state leader. Instead, Aquino decided to talk with the Chinese Ambassador, as the official representative of Hong Kong.

Official diplomatic protocol may have led Aquino to make that judgment, but it ignored the reality that, for many of the tourists on that bus, the Chief Executive was their most important and most significant politician. Hong Kong’s response to the crisis has also ventured into the realm of foreign policy; see the implementation of (in my opinion, unfortunate after Typhoon Haiyan) sanctions against the Philippines. Nor was diplomatic protocol so strong that it prevented any meeting between Tsang and Aquino; both leaders met on the sidelines of APEC, where the Philippines and Hong Kong are equal members.

Despite not having diplomats, Hong Kong still engages in what would be considered diplomacy if it was carried out by a country. Hong Kong’s ability to engage in foreign policy is certainly smaller than any state, but it is much larger than any comparable city or province, which rarely have any foreign policy capability.

This is why Hong Kong and the “One Country, Two Systems” political structure is so interesting. It truly makes the Special Administrative Region something that is exceedingly rare in world politics; something that is not quite a state, but something much more than a province. It is why the city is deserving of further study.

The author recently graduated with high honors from Harvard University and is doing an MPhil in International Relations as a Clarendon Scholar. His writings have appeared in some leading regional and local publications.