U.S. Preparing to Suspend Extradition Treaty With Hong Kong

The looming decision, following China’s imposition of a new security law for the former colony, could be a prelude to even tougher U.S. actions against Beijing.

Hong Kongers Protest Chinese National Security Law
Pro-democracy protesters hold up their mobile phone torches and sing during a rally in Hong Kong on June 12. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is readying plans to suspend the U.S. extradition treaty with Hong Kong following China’s imposition of a sweeping new national security law that hamstrings the judicial independence of the onetime British colony.

The pending decision—which former officials and congressional aides told Foreign Policy could be made in a matter of weeks—is just the latest escalation in tensions between the United States and China. U.S. President Donald Trump said in May that the administration would begin altering the United States’ relationship with Hong Kong—including the extradition treaty, export controls, and trade relations—as it fell under tighter control from Beijing. The abrogation of extradition would come as the United States and China trade diplomatic blows over the coronavirus pandemic and the mass internment of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang and amid still simmering trade tensions and tariffs. 

The administration is already escalating its showdown with Beijing in another novel way. On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States would reject some of Beijing’s specific territorial claims over the strategically important South China Sea, a departure from past practice. China “has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region. Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its ‘Nine-Dashed Line’ claim in the South China Sea,” he said in a statement.

The White House and State Department declined to comment for this story. But leading U.S. lawmakers have supported the idea of rolling back the U.S. extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Congress has already passed legislation that would sanction Chinese officials who enforced Beijing’s new security law in Hong Kong, including police units that punished protesters and banks whose financial activities were involved in actions that may subvert Hong Kong’s independence.

“The CCP [Chinese Communist Party] has destroyed the legal firewall between its legal system and that of Hong Kong,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy. “It is no longer safe to extradite Americans there, where they would be subject to sham prosecutions and trials inside China for anything the CCP finds objectionable under the new Orwellian national security law.”

Republican Sen. Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said such a decision would fit in with the administration’s wider reassessment of U.S. ties with Hong Kong. “The new national security law imposed by the Chinese Communist Party eviscerates the rule of law that Hong Kong was once known for, and that has clear implications for cooperation on extradition and safety of American citizens,” he said. 

Australia and Canada have already suspended their extradition treaties to the territory in recent weeks in response to the new law, a sign that, for many in the West, Hong Kong’s historically trusted legal system is already a thing of the past. Before the national security law was passed, Hong Kong had extradition agreements with some 20 countries. Among those countries that do not also have extradition agreements with China are: Australia, Germany, Britain, the United States, India, Singapore, and Malaysia.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this month again offered 3 million Hong Kong residents paths to British work visas and citizenship in response to the national security law. The Australian government has followed suit and encouraged businesses based in Hong Kong to move their operations to Australia.

The new national security law, passed on June 30, effectively casts aside Hong Kong’s judicial autonomy by giving jurisdiction over political crimes that take place in Hong Kong to mainland Chinese authorities. The law also grants the Chinese government authority to prosecute nonresidents who criticize Beijing even when in another country—opening the door to foreign nationals being arbitrarily detained in Hong Kong. 

And ending the U.S. extradition treaty could be just the opening salvo of a much tougher relationship with what is now a de facto extension of China. Hong Kong, a trade and financial hub, has long played a special role for China in facilitating access to the global financial system—presenting a vulnerability the Trump administration could exploit. Preliminary discussions inside the Trump administration have looked at the possibility of limiting Hong Kong’s access to dollars, which could undermine the territory’s currency peg to the dollar—but which could also roil global financial markets.

“The big discussion in the administration appears to be whether or not they want to take steps to affect Hong Kong’s banks and how easy it is for them to get access to dollars,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

“And if we do take that kind of measure again, the existence of Hong Kong as a financial hub would probably erode over a shorter period of time than it might otherwise. The goal would be to deny China the ability to use Hong Kong to do business,” she said. 

But Glaser warned that such a step would be painful for Hong Kong’s banks and citizens. “I think that’s part of the debate, at least I hope it is, taking place in the administration. Do you want to use the nuclear option?”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Darcy Palder is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @DPalder

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