Donald Trump said China would have “obliterated” Hong Kong had he not told President Xi Jinping that sending troops into the semi-autonomous Chinese territory would have a “tremendous negative impact” on negotiations to end the two countries’ trade war.
Speaking to Fox television on Friday, Mr Trump said China had “a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong” that had not entered the former British colony because of his warning to Mr Xi.
“If it weren’t for me, Hong Kong would’ve been obliterated in 14 minutes,” Mr Trump told Fox & Friends, a Fox television programme that is generally very sympathetic to the US president.
Mr Trump also made confusing comments about his stance on Hong Kong, where protesters have for months demonstrated against the growing Chinese influence on the former British colony, which has been governed under a “one country, two systems” model since 1997.
“We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi,” he said. “I stand with freedom . . . but we’re also in the process of making one of the largest trade deals.”
The comments came at the end of a week during which Congress passed a bill requiring the administration to sanction Chinese and Hong Kong officials who commit human rights abuses, in a move aimed at helping the pro-democracy movement. It would also require an annual review to determine if Hong Kong can maintain a special trade status.
Mr Trump has not made clear whether he will sign the bill. The measure passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the House and Senate, suggesting that lawmakers could easily muster the two-thirds majority required to override any veto from the president.
Earlier this year, Mr Trump suggested he would not side with Hong Kong since it would hurt his odds of reaching a trade deal, which he wants to tout in his re-election campaign. The Financial Times previously reported that he told Mr Xi at the Osaka G20 in June that he would tone down criticism of China’s approach to Hong Kong to help the trade talks.
“It’s untenable to both stand with Hong Kong and to stand with Xi, and the Hong Kong bill will force Trump’s hand as he attempts to thread the needle on these issues,” said Jude Blanchette, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The lack of coherence from the president on the issue of Hong Kong . . . [is] indicative of a larger problem with the White House’s actions on China more broadly.”
The Hong Kong bill has further clouded trade negotiations between the US and China, which had already hit a rough patch. Both sides have blown past their self-imposed deadline of mid-November to strike a deal pausing the nearly two-year-long trade war.
The biggest obstacles to even a limited deal include the scale of Chinese concessions on intellectual property protection, the firmness of Beijing’s commitments to buy US farm products and the extent to which Washington is willing to remove existing levies.
If no deal is reached by mid-December, the US has scheduled a new round of tariffs of 15 per cent to hit an additional $156bn of Chinese goods. The planned tariffs would cover a wide range of goods that could raise prices for American consumers in the busy shopping weeks before Christmas.
This week, the US took one conciliatory step when it began to approve licences allowing several US companies, including Microsoft, to sell its products to Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant.
Although US business welcomed the move, it was met with a bipartisan backlash from hawks on Capitol Hill, including Chuck Schumer, a Democratic senator from New York, and Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida.
Hong Kong was calm on Friday despite a continuing siege at the city’s Polytechnic University, the last in a series of violent stand-offs at the territory’s institutions of higher education that began after police shot a protester.
The city will hold local elections on Sunday that are being seen as a referendum on the anti-government movement, which is demanding universal suffrage in the election of Hong Kong’s leader and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality during the protests.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi