- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2014

Massive pro-Democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong teetered on the brink of violence Friday, putting the Obama administration in an increasingly precarious position over whether or not to take an aggressive public stand behind the protesters by warning Chinese authorities against violently crushing the movement.

Protest leaders have reportedly welcomed an offer by Hong Kong’s current leader to hold talks. But police appeared in riot gear Friday and some clashes broke out, as the demonstrators continued to hold up barricades surrounding the government headquarters in the Chinese territory.

The protesters want China’s communist government to reverse its recent decision requiring a mostly pro-Beijing committee to approve all candidates for Hong Kong’s first major elections in 2017. In what The Associated Press has described as the biggest challenge to Beijing’s authority since China took control of the former British colony in 1997, the protesters are demanding open nominations for the election.

As tens of thousands flooded the streets of Hong Kong this week, some in Washington accused the Obama administration of being “timid” in the face of yet another difficult foreign policy challenge — by failing to aggressively stand behind the protesters.

Foreign policy insiders, however, say there are deep geopolitical calculations at play behind President Obama’s avoidance of the issue.

“There’s a lot of strategic thinking going on about this issue right now,” says Patrick Cronin, the senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

“The administration is muted on Hong Kong for sound strategic reasons as well as short-term political reasons because the White House is weighing what is at risk in Hong Kong against the limitations the U.S. has in influencing the situation at this very moment,” he said. “We can play a negative role a lot more easily than we can a positive role as a government at this point.”

More specifically, Mr. Cronin said Mr. Obama’s senior Asia advisers are wary about speaking out too prominently in support of the protesters because they don’t want to give Chinese leaders fodder that can be used to delegitimize the demonstrations through propaganda that claims Washington is guilty of fomenting unrest in Hong Kong.

Additionally, the White House is being “very careful right now” not to destabilize U.S.-China political relations ahead of high-level talks between the two nations expected to occur in November at both the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing and the Group of 20 summit of world leaders in Australia.

Mr. Cronin’s comments to The Washington Times came during a week in which the Obama administration has faced criticism for not taking a more aggressive public posture in favor of the pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong — most notably from liberal circles in Washington.

The Washington Post editorial board, for instance, argued Tuesday that “the Obama administration’s response so far has been gallingly timid. White House and State Department spokesmen have carefully avoided offering explicit support for the demonstrators’ demands for free elections for the city’s leader. …”

A day after that the editorial appeared on the newspaper’s website, Secretary of State John F. Kerry suddenly appeared eager to ramp up the administration’s rhetoric toward the situation.

Heading into a meeting in Washington Wednesday with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Mr. Kerry announced to reporters that he and other senior Obama administration officials “have high hopes that the Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint, and respect the protesters’ right to express their views peacefully.”

The secretary of state also said outright that: “As China knows, we support universal suffrage in Hong Kong, accordant with the basic law, and we believe in open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.”

The comments prompted a swift rebuttal from Mr. Wang, who later told reporters in Washington that “Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs,” and that “all countries should respect China’s sovereignty.”

Mr. Cronin said the terse back-and-fourth over the issue underscores just how sensitive the protests are within the context of wider U.S.-China relations and that Mr. Wang’s response, particularly, might help to explain why the Obama administration is being so careful on the matter.

“Kerry basically poked his Chinese counterpart in the eye,” Mr. Cronin said. “I think he stepped over the line.”

“Kerry should have turned the phrase into something like, ‘You know China is rising and the world is watching closely how China is handling this issue,’ ” he said. “This about the world learning how China plans to deal with conventional issues in the future.”

Instead, Mr. Kerry’s remarks gave the appearance that the administration is fumbling over how to deliver such a message to Beijing. At a minimum, Mr. Cronin said, if the White House is not going to say the right things, it should remain quiet on the issue.

“We have to be careful about both giving false hope to the protesters, as if we’re going to help them with anything other than more support,” he said. “We don’t want to mislead them. We’ve misled lots of people around the world.”

His assessment dovetailed with analysis published this week by other long-time China watchers. For instance, James Fallows, a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the recent book “China Airborne,” argued in a blog post Wednesday that Mr. Obama should say very little about Hong Kong right now.

“What is happening in Hong Kong is not about foreign ‘interference’ or meddling in China. But that is exactly how the government in Beijing would love to be able to portray it, and for them comments from an American president would be an absolute godsend,” Mr. Fallows wrote. “Why does this matter? Because I am already anticipating the wave of op-ed columns and grumblings on the weekend talk shows about this latest case of Obama’s ‘weakness’ or ‘passivity’ or reliance on ‘leading from behind.’

“Anyone who encourages him to get in the middle of this reveals both ignorance of China and indifference to the consequences there,” he wrote.

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