The painful truth is that the United States really cannot do much about Hong Kong. There is no will in Washington to provide physical assistant to Hong Kong. The Chinese would see any sort of such provisioning as a military act against China. There are no easy answers there.
Likewise, if the President speaks up to encourage the protestors, it provides China an incentive to show this is theirs. They would provide that incentive by ruthlessly cracking down on the dissenters and killing many.
At the same time, we also have history too look back at. We know historically that, with the rise of the United States as a global power, people have looked to the United States as a beacon of freedom. Likewise, we know that when the United States has failed to stand up for freedom, things tend to end in world wars or major growths of anti-American authoritarianism.
How differently might Iran be now if Barack Obama had stood up for the protests in Iran. Critics might argue that Obama’s encouragement of the Arab Spring set off a wave of radical Islamism, and they’d be right. But I think it is also fair to say Obama handled its execution poorly.
If the United States does not speak up against China, it will be signaling to a whole lot of nations that we will turn a blind eye to unchecked authoritarian aggression. Short term, that may be fine with many. But long term, that puts the United States in a difficult position as authoritarian regimes rise up. They overwhelmingly align against our interests and China is now playing in territories, including in the Western Hemisphere, where that will go badly for us.
What the United States needs to do, led by Donald Trump, is strategically speak up for the protestors in Hong Kong. This is not about “we stand with the protestors” or “the people of Hong Kong should be free.” It is about “We expect China to honor its obligations to Hong Kong under its agreement with Great Britain.” It is about “The Chinese government needs to respect the civil liberties of Hong Kong.” The premise is not about backing protestors, some of whom have increasingly behaved lawlessly. The premise is about insisting China continue respecting their existing arrangement with Hong Kong.
The President should be vocal about this. If he is not and if our nation as a whole is not, it will only embolden a host of malevolent actors who do not have our interests at heart. This will become a national security problem for us if the President does not act. Other nations, not just Russia and China, suspect we are weak and are testing our resolve.
Frankly, we need more than the President to stand up on this. The congressional leaders should stand up too. We need to speak on a unified voice here. The Chinese have been making incursions into the United States with increased frequency not just digitally, but dropping huge amounts of money to shape American public opinion in favor of a communist regime or to silence critics against it.
We need to speak up and there is a path to do so that signals support for what the protestors want, without signaling an encouragement for increasingly bold protests.