US ends arms exports as China restricts visas in HK row

WASHINGTON • The US on Monday ended sensitive defence exports to Hong Kong (HK), further ramping up pressure in a row over the financial capital’s autonomy from China.

The US announced the decision hours after China said it would curb visas to some Americans heading to HK, itself a response to a US move.

The US has been leading a global uproar over a national security law which HK activists say will destroy the city’s freedoms.

“We can no longer distinguish between the export of controlled items to HK or to mainland China,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

“We cannot risk these items falling into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army, whose primary purpose is to uphold the dictatorship of the CCP by any means necessary,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

The direct impact will be modest. The State Department last year approved US$2.4 million (RM10.27 million) in defence sales to HK, of which US$1.4 million worth were actually sent, including firearms and ammunition for law enforcement, according to official figures.

The Commerce Department simultaneously said it was revoking its special status for HK.

It will now treat the financial hub the same as China for the so-called dual-use exports that have both military and civilian applications — and which are highly restricted when sought by Beijing.

China promised autonomy for HK before Britain returned the territory in 1997, but wants no repeat of massive and sometimes destructive protests that rocked the territory last year.

“It gives us no pleasure to take this action, which is a direct consequence of Beijing’s decision to violate its own commitments under the United Nations (UN)-registered China-British Joint Declaration,” Pompeo said.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has already declared that HK is no longer autonomous in the US’ eyes and has been rolling out a series of measures in response.

Last Friday, the State Department said it was restricting visas for an unspecified number of Chinese officials seen as responsible for infringing on the autonomy of the Asian financial hub.

In response, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that the US “scheme…to obstruct the passage of the HK national security law will never prevail”.

“To target the US’ above wrongful actions, China has decided to impose visa restrictions against American individuals who have behaved egregiously on matters concerning HK,” Zhao said.

China’s top lawmaking committee passed the law yesterday.

While outlawing acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces, the legislation will allow China’s security agencies to set up shop publicly in the city for the first time.

Pompeo condemned the move on Monday evening.

“If China wants to regain the trust of Hong Kongers and the international community, it should honour the promises it made to the HK people,” he said in a statement.

Britain, the European Union and the UN rights watchdog have all voiced fears the law could be used to stifle criticism of Beijing, which uses similar laws on the authoritarian mainland to crush dissent.

In Washington, some US lawmakers fear that Trump will take primarily symbolic action on HK, preferring to prioritise trade concerns that could affect his re-election campaign.

Last week, the US Senate unanimously approved a bill that would impose mandatory economic sanctions against Chinese officials, HK police and banks that work with them if they are identified as hurt- ing the city’s autonomous status.

Zhao warned that the US “should not review, advance or implement relevant negative bills concerning HK, even less impose so-called sanctions on China, otherwise China will firmly take strong countermeasures”.

HK was upended by seven straight months of protests last year, initially sparked by an eventually abandoned plan to allow extraditions to the mainland.

But they soon morphed into a popular revolt against Beijing’s rule and widespread calls for democracy. — AFP