WASHINGTON -- "One ounce of prevention is worth one pound of cure." That was the analogy former senior U.S. official Daniel Russel gave when talking to Nikkei about the American response to China's new national security law for Hong Kong.
Now that Beijing has pulled the trigger, it is much harder to roll back the measures, which are widely seen as infringing on the freedoms promised to Hong Kong under the "one country, two systems" formula that was to stay in effect until 2047.
Russel served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration and now works out of New York as vice president for international security and diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
He blamed the failure to nip China's move in the bud on the lack of a united international front stemming from the current White House's inclination to put America first. The lack of bite in the international response, and President Donald Trump's concerns that a collapse of the trade deal with China would hurt U.S. farmers and ultimately his reelection campaign, gave Beijing the confidence to move ahead, Russel said.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: Why did China impose a national security law on Hong Kong?
A: The Chinese system is a Leninist system which uses laws to further its goals. It's not a rule-of-law society; it's a rule-by-law society. China's not seeking to rule through the adoption of clear laws, but rather to use laws as an instrument to control and shape behavior. And they build a lot of flexibility for themselves in developing these laws.
Chinese leaders have had, and still have, only one absolute, overriding, goal, and that is to preserve and to strengthen the Chinese Communist Party's grip on power. All of their policies are formulated and are implemented with that goal in mind.
Bear in mind, also, that there is very little sympathy for the Hong Kong protesters in mainland China, so that this measure is acceptable and actually popular with much of the public.
There is a split in views in Hong Kong as well, and there are many elements in Hong Kong that, when it comes to a binary choice, "Are you going to get along, do what's necessary to get along with Beijing, or are you going to get crushed?" will opt to go along.
And, by making the choice very stark, Beijing feels that it will compel the majority in Hong Kong, however grudgingly, to accede and to police themselves. That's clearly the goal.
Q: Why now?
A: Xi Jinping just was not prepared to experience another summer of embarrassing protests in Hong Kong, like in 2019.
It also suggests that Xi was not willing to risk an embarrassing setback in the [Legislative Council] elections that are coming up in September.
There are other factors as well. One is that the Chinese effort to bolster the KMT [Kuomintang opposition party] in Taiwan or, more to the point, the Chinese effort to defeat the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] and Tsai Ing-wen, was a failure. Tsai has been reelected.
It may be that that meant that Chinese leaders felt they didn't have to worry any longer about what the political impact in Taiwan would be from a crackdown in Hong Kong. If they have been exercising a certain amount of restraint, in the hopes that that would enable a more supportive candidate to prevail in Taiwan, they no longer have an interest in that kind of [effort].
What's very striking and very disturbing is that clearly Chinese senior officials understood that the international reaction, and particularly the American reaction, to this law would be extremely negative. Yet, they went ahead and took this step anyway.
It clearly demonstrates that China is prepared to absorb any punishment that the U.S. might administer. Maybe they calculated that the U.S. was so intent on punishing China in general, across the board, that this wasn't going to make a meaningful difference.
Q: How has been the U.S. response and that of the world?
A: So far the Western response to China's action has been divided and very inadequate. Some countries have taken a hedging approach, so a little bit of criticism but not too much. Some have been accommodating and turned a blind eye to this action. And others, like the U.S., have been very strident in denouncing China, but that is lost, frankly, against the noise of all of the constant denunciations of China by the Trump administration and by the U.S. Congress.
The only strategy that is going to have a real effect on China's behavior would be one in which there is a unified front presented to China by all of the Western countries and only if China looked around the world and saw a consistent, unified, negative reaction, would it contemplate making some adjustments.
For that to happen, the essential ingredient is U.S. leadership. But that is precisely the ingredient that it is missing. "America first" is not a strategy that will unify the international community.
What the U.S. administration is doing is too little, too late.
There is an expression, "One ounce of prevention is worth one pound of cure." It is always much harder to try to roll back a bad action that has already been taken than it is to prevent the action from being taken in the first place.
The Chinese have already "pulled the trigger" on the national security law. Now there are no good options. Not only did the U.S. government not really focus on Hong Kong, but you'll recall that President Trump repeatedly gave Xi Jinping a pass.
That signaled to Beijing that there was not a serious cost that they would have to pay, if they moved. That's the cost of a bad China policy.
Q: The U.S. is moving to remove the preferential treatment it has long granted Hong Kong.
A: The Trump administration has a history of making threats, without following through on them necessarily.
Destroying Hong Kong's ability to work -- to operate as a financial center -- is a kind of nuclear option. And the thing about nuclear weapons, we have all learned, is that they're better when they're not used. If China can find adequate workarounds for listing its companies and raising money, for transferring wealth from China, etc., if it can find alternatives, then we will have incurred great damage on Hong Kong, without having made China, in the long run, actually pay the price that we intended.
We need to think through our strategy before we take action. We need to know what the consequences are going to be, what the results are going to be.
Q: What will this do to the U.S.-China relationship?
A: Neither the U.S. or the Chinese -- the leaders, or the militaries -- want a [military] confrontation. A U.S.-China conflict is hugely damaging in every respect, including, importantly, the economic sphere. But both sides are taking more confrontational actions, and the risks, clearly, of a crisis are increasing.
There is virtually no strategic dialogue between Washington and Beijing. A couple of hours of talking points in Hawaii between [top diplomats] Yang Jiechi and Mike Pompeo is not a substitute for an ongoing, serious, strategic dialogue.
The insulation that has helped to soften collisions or tensions between the U.S. and China, insulation that's kind of kept things from heating up too much, has gradually been stripped away from the bilateral relationship. Today, it is very difficult for either side to back down. De-escalation is extremely difficult when the bilateral mechanisms of communication and of cooperation have stopped working.
Even though neither side intends to create a confrontation, there could easily be an incident in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, in the Taiwan Strait or elsewhere, and an incident, if it can't be de-escalated, can easily become a crisis. And, because we don't seem to have a real crisis management mechanism in place anymore, between Washington and Beijing, a crisis could become an unintended and an undesired confrontation. And that's very dangerous.
Q: What can the world do?
A: There is a lot that the international community can do to support the voices within Hong Kong that are pushing for the preservation of a high degree of autonomy, that are pushing for preservation of the Hong Kong system, that are seeking to hold on to space for open political expression and for the exercise of enfranchisement through elections.
There is an important opportunity for governments to work with international businesses and international financial institutions to think about what they can do to safeguard Hong Kong autonomy and to try to deter China from using these enhanced authorities and enhanced power to intrude in Hong Kong in ways that are particularly damaging to universal rights and to civic rights.