WASHINGTON – The United States is carefully calibrating its response to pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, showing support for peaceful protests while signaling it has little interest in seeing the situation escalate and risk a harsher crackdown by Chinese authorities.
Saying it was closely monitoring the political unrest unfolding on the streets of Hong Kong, the White House on Monday urged security forces there to “exercise restraint” and also called on protesters to “express their views peacefully.”
But it could be a tricky balancing act for Washington, especially given Beijing’s transformation into a global economic powerhouse and given how inter-dependent the U.S. and Chinese economies have become since the Tiananmen Square crackdown 25 years ago.
While denying China’s accusations of foreign meddling in its internal affairs, administration representatives in Washington appeared to take sides as they publicly voiced support for the “aspirations of the Hong Kong people.”
At the same time, senior U.S. officials were quietly contacting their Chinese counterparts at “various levels” and reminding them that Hong Kong’s stability as a world financial center — a vital part of the Chinese economy — was at stake in their handling of the unrest, a U.S. official told Reuters.
Within the Obama administration, there is little desire to see the crisis worsen at a time when Washington is already preoccupied elsewhere in the world, facing a Cold War-style standoff with Russia over Ukraine and in the midst of an air assault against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
The protesters, mostly students, are demanding full democracy after Beijing last month announced a plan to limit 2017 elections for Hong Kong’s leader to a handful of candidates loyal to Beijing. China rules Hong Kong under a formula that accords the former British colony a degree of autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China.
Weighing in cautiously, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters “the United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the basic law” but avoided public condemnation of the Chinese government.
He did, however, express concern about reports that websites were being blocked or censored over accounts of the protests.
Privately, one U.S. official said there had been “some excess” by Chinese security forces who used teargas and batons over the weekend against protesters who had been demonstrating peacefully.
Washington remains largely in the dark over how far Beijing might be prepared to go in quelling the protests.
But the administration is clearly counting on Beijing heeding the potential economic cost that a harsher response might bring. In 1989, Beijing’s bloody Tiananmen crackdown had heavy international fallout, showing the world how far China’s communist rulers would go to keep their grip on power.
“The Chinese place a premium on stability and calmness (in Hong Kong),” the official said. “It’s a point we’re making to Hong Kong authorities.”
It is unclear, however, how much influence Washington has. The United States is economically linked with China, the largest holder of U.S. Treasury debt, and Beijing relies on the United States for foreign investment and overseas markets.
The two countries are already at odds over a number of other issues, including China’s maritime disputes with U.S. allies and partners in the region.
“The administration has to consider how important this is in the larger context of U.S.-China relations,” said Mike Green, a top Asia adviser for former President George W. Bush. “The U.S. has limited leverage and certainly also seeks to prevent damage to Hong Kong’s economy.”
Green, now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said if China ignores U.S. warnings and goes ahead with a crackdown, “the world will be watching” how the Obama administration responds and may also reassess whether Beijing can still be considered a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs.
Earlier on Monday, China warned against other countries interfering or “sending the wrong message” to protesters.
The U.S. official insisted that Washington “rejects that narrative,” calling the protests “indigenous to Hong Kong.”
President Barack Obama is expected to travel to Beijing in November for an Asia-Pacific summit and talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the White House said the U.S. leader was likely to raise human rights issues with his counterpart.