Strongly admonishing the Chinese government, President Trump announced Friday that the United States was "terminating" its relationship with the World Health Organization and threatened to revoke some of Hong Kong's longtime financial benefits to sanction China for its crackdown on the semiautonomous territory.
Reading from teleprompters in the Rose Garden, Trump blasted China broadly for a "pattern of misconduct." He reiterated his longstanding accusations that it has fleeced the United States economically, ignored global maritime treaties and caused the coronavirus pandemic — complaints that have become central to his reelection campaign.
"The world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government," Trump declared.
Though the White House had called his appearance a news conference, the president left after delivering the prepared statement without taking questions, which probably would have focused on the national outrage and urban unrest over the killing of African American George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis earlier this week.
Trump sought to build anticipation for his threat to punish Beijing's increasingly heavy-handed approach to Hong Kong by teasing it earlier in the day with a tweet simply saying "CHINA!" However, his rhetoric against Beijing was stronger than the steps he took or threatened, experts on U.S.-China relations said.
The president suggested that the United States would alter or terminate preferences for Hong Kong on trade, visas, taxes and tariffs — all of which have been contingent on Beijing respecting Hong Kong's autonomy in the years since it reclaimed the island territory from Britain in 1997. Those preferences are of great value to the government, businesses and investors on mainland China, which otherwise would not benefit from them.
"Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant the special treatment we have afforded the territory since the handoff," Trump said. His administration would "begin the process of eliminating policy exceptions," he said, without offering any details.
He also threatened to sanction officials deemed to be "smothering" the rights of people in Hong Kong. "China claims it is protecting national security, but the truth is Hong Kong was secure and prosperous as a free society," Trump said.
Caught between hawkish advisors who wanted tough restrictions on China and moderates more concerned about maintaining trade relations, Trump appeared to stake out a path down the middle.
His open-ended language, while leaving him plenty of room to maneuver, went further than some analysts expected in threatening to curtail Hong Kong's economic privileges given Trump's record in foreign policy of giving priority to business transactions and all but ignoring democratic values and human rights.
Yet in stopping short of taking immediate harsh actions, he seemed to accept that those could devastate the enclave and damage hundreds of American-owned businesses there, and also ratchet up tensions with Beijing that could jeopardize the so-called Phase 1 trade deal the U.S. and China recently signed, as well as future trade talks.
Derek Scissors, a China scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said that Trump's vagueness and absence of any time frame amounted to "nothing" in terms of concrete actions.
"They had steps discussed and didn't offer a single one, even just as an illustration," said Scissors, who speaks often with administration officials. "The Hong Kong-related statements just now could have been made in written form a week ago. What have they been doing since?"
David Loevinger, an analyst for TCW Emerging Markets Group in Los Angeles and a former senior Treasury Department official for China affairs, predicted that Beijing's response would follow suit: "I'm sure they'll match rhetoric for rhetoric. What are they going to retaliate against? The U.S. didn't do anything."
The president did take concrete action in withdrawing the United States from the WHO, an issue that also is enmeshed in anti-China politics. Claiming the WHO did not initiate the reforms he demanded last month, he said U.S. aid currently sent to the organization would be redirected to other "deserving" public health groups.
"China has total control over the World Health Organization despite only paying $40 million per year compared to what the United States has been paying, which is approximately $450 million a year," Trump said. "We have detailed the reforms that it must make and engaged with them directly, but they have refused to act."
Not only does the move deprive the main international public-health agency of its biggest funding source in the middle of a global pandemic, it effectively bolsters the Chinese influence to which Trump had objected. When he first put the WHO on notice in mid-April, Trump ordered a review of "60 to 90 days." It was not clear why he acted ahead of the deadline he'd given the organization.
The president's move got rare criticism from a Senate Republican, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
"Certainly there needs to be a good, hard look at mistakes the World Health Organization might have made in connection with coronavirus, but the time to do that is after the crisis has been dealt with, not in the middle of it," Alexander said in a statement. He added that the U.S. absence could interfere with global efforts to develop a vaccine and to prevent future viral outbreaks.
Trump's action aligns with a campaign strategy of presenting himself as tougher on China than the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. He has deflected criticism of his response to the coronavirus, which has now claimed more than 100,000 American lives, by blaming China, where the outbreak began late last year.
Trump again claimed that the WHO was complicit with China in misleading the world about the spread of the coronavirus, though he, too, repeatedly played down the threat early on by citing the reassurances he'd gotten from China's President Xi Jinping.
With the pandemic and various self-inflicted crises complicating his reelection prospects, Trump is intent on using China as a primary foil to galvanize the nationalist fervor of his supporters that propelled his 2016 campaign.
"He can try and blame China for all of his economic and financial problems with some degree of credibility and say 'I am the man who sees the problem and can take Beijing on'," said Harry J. Kazianis, a senior director at the conservative think tank the Center for the National Interest.
"Trump's goal is to make China his new Hillary Clinton — a foe he can attack day after day to try and make the case of why he should be president. And, so far, China has made the mistake of giving him the talking points and actions to do it."
U.S. markets dipped Thursday afternoon on the news that Trump was planning a Friday news conference to announce some sort of action against China. After his remarks, Wall Street rallied somewhat.
"Investors are relieved the measures are not as bad as some were expecting," said Bill Bishop, author of a daily newsletter for China watchers. "The language the president used appears to leave some wiggle room for timing and implementation."
At the United Nations, the United States tried for two days — so far unsuccessfully — to push a declaration in the Security Council condemning China's actions in Hong Kong. As a member of the council, China can veto any such action.
Trump's ambassador to the U.N., Kelly Craft, said Friday, "Today I asked the council one simple question: Are we going to take the honorable stand to defend the human rights and the dignified way of life that millions of Hong Kong citizens have enjoyed and deserve like all freedom-loving people, or are we going to allow the Chinese Communist Party to violate international law and force its will on the people of Hong Kong, who look to us to preserve their way of life and their freedoms?"
Times staff writer Don Lee contributed to this report.
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