Editor’s note: This analysis was excerpted from the May 25 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
(CNN) — The last time the US and China reached a point of confrontation over Hong Kong, President Donald Trump had a strong incentive to play it cool. Now, as China tries to impose a new security law on the territory, the opposite may be the case.
Last summer, Trump promised Chinese President Xi Jinping that he’d keep quiet on anti-democratic moves in the territory while they were negotiating a trade deal, though he did sign a new sanctions law potentially targeting Chinese and Hong Kong officials. In November, Trump said he stood with democracy protesters in Hong Kong — but “I’m also standing with President Xi, he’s a friend of mine.”
Things are different now that Trump has identified China as a scapegoat for a pandemic that has killed nearly 100,000 Americans. “It all comes from the top. They could have easily stopped the plague, but they didn’t,” he tweeted last week. Leaning into the anti-China sentiment, his administration has called the new controversial security law “disastrous,” and as Hong Kongers hit the streets in protest, Trump may be tiptoeing toward a break with Xi.
Two questions hover as the fears of a new Cold War grow: First, how long is Trump’s buddy act with Xi compatible with his all-out assault on China? Second, does the President still see saving the trade deal as critical to his reelection hopes? The answers will shape how the US moves on Hong Kong, amid calls in Congress for firm action. One ultimate sanction remains in Trump’s arsenal: revoking Hong Kong’s special US trading status, which could gut its role as an international financial hub.