President Donald Trump addressed the escalating situation in Hong Kong Tuesday, saying US intelligence indicates “the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border,” but security officials tell CNN that Beijing regularly maintains a force presence there.
“Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!” Trump tweeted after landing in Pittsburgh for an event on manufacturing.
Trump has come under criticism for saying very little about Hong Kong’s protests and appearing, instead, to focus more intently on his hopes for a trade deal with Beijing.
The demonstrations on Tuesday turned violent after protestors shut down the airport and clashed with riot police, raising fears that Beijing may be moving closer to considering force.
China regularly maintains a troop presence near the Hong Kong border. Trump’s tweet about military movements was likely referring to the current US assessment that China has positioned some mobile forces along the border at what appear to be potential staging locations, according to multiple officials.
Several officials noted that the troop presence has been widely observed and publicly reported on in recent days.
Tuesday marked the second day that protesters gathering at Hong Kong’s airport prompted flight cancellations. But the demonstrations have a much longer history: Protests kicked off in earnest in June to oppose to a now-shelved bill that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite individuals to mainland China.
This week Amnesty International said Hong Kong police have violated human rights by using gas, rubber bullets and pepper ball projectiles on the protestors in confined spaces.
Chinese officials have accused the US and other foreign governments of being behind the pro-democracy protests. The US has denied any role and Trump also appeared to reject the suggestion Tuesday when he tweeted that “many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine why?”
‘Hope nobody gets killed’
The President’s tweet about Chinese troops came shortly after he characterized the unrest in Hong Kong as a “tough situation,” and told reporters that he hopes the situation will work out “for everybody, including China.”
As scenes of chaos played out on television of protesters and riot police scuffling at Hong Kong International Airport, Trump also told reporters in New Jersey that his wish is for the situation to work out “for liberty,” adding, “I hope nobody gets hurt, I hope nobody gets killed.”
A senior administration official says the “United States continues to monitor the situation in Hong Kong, and we urge all sides to remain calm, safe, and peaceful.”
“As the President has said: ‘they’re looking for democracy and I think most people want democracy.’ Freedoms of expression and assembly are core values that we share with the people of Hong Kong and these freedoms should be protected,” the official added.
“The United States firmly rejects the notion that we are sponsoring or inciting the demonstrations,” the official said, echoing Trump’s earlier tweet.
Another senior administration official told CNN Tuesday that the US believes if China were to intervene militarily in the protests it would likely be because the Beijing had assessed that the Hong Kong’s authorities have lost control.
The official said losing control could be defined as the interference of commercial activity in Hong Kong.
In the US, surveys taken after the violent suppression of protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 showed public approval for China dropped dramatically, particularly among people under 30 and has never recovered, the official said, suggesting that Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong is not a good idea.
If China does intervene militarily, Congress will explode and there will be negative consequences, the official added.
However, multiple US officials also told CNN that troop movement near the Hong Kong border is a tactic they expected from Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is laying the groundwork, they say, in case intervention is needed.
Xi is also preparing for that possibility by tailoring his message to the Chinese public with news reports focused on unrest and violence so that if Beijing does intervene, the move will not come as a shock to the mainland audience.
Pushing a narrative of US and foreign support for the protesters could also allow Xi to justify intervention to the Chinese people.
Yet for the moment, it appears Xi is still weighing the potential costs and benefits of intervening. US officials told CNN they are waiting to see if he will take the next step and order the Chinese military to begin breaking up protests before reacting.
Several US officials told CNN that the hope is that China ultimately refrains from stepping in, noting the potential economic impact is a major concern, in addition to obvious security implications.
he thinking among some US officials is that there is still a window for China to avoid intervention, but that would require authorities in Hong Kong to act or for locals who are not participating in the protests to begin applying social pressure on demonstrators to dial down tensions.
In the meantime, it seems that US and Chinese officials are maintaining an open dialogue.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with a top Chinese diplomat in New York on Tuesday and the two had an “extended exchange of views on U.S.-China relations,” according to State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus.