• With the world bracing for a drawn-out fight against Covid-19, the last thing Hong Kong needs is to be caught again in the crossfire of US-China tensions
  • Trump’s signing of a legislation supporting Taiwan’s international standing comes at an odd time, and may further stir the city’s volatile politics
Cut-outs of US leader Donald Trump, and Chinese president Xi Jinping in masks outside a gift shop in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Reuters

"We are at war" is perhaps the most widely used phrase by world leaders these days in the global fight against Covid-19, with no end in sight to the pandemic.

In mainland China, where the coronavirus first emerged, President Xi Jinping had declared a "people's war" since early February. Now, just as the country is slowly recovering, the pandemic has exploded in Europe and the United States, where Donald Trump has declared himself a "wartime president".

Whatever that means, Trump has realised this is a fight he cannot afford to lose, for himself if he is to win November's presidential election, and for the country as it faces a massive public health emergency.

To win a war of such magnitude, world leadership and solidarity are essential, and political bickering is not helpful.

Cut-outs of US leader Donald Trump, and Chinese president Xi Jinping in masks outside a gift shop in Moscow, Russia. Photo: Reuters

Providing a glimmer of hope, leaders of the Group of 20 major economies have pledged to do whatever it takes to rid the world of the pandemic, followed by a phone call between Xi and Trump during which the two vowed to cooperate in the war against the coronavirus.

However, with mutual trust between China and the US eroded, first by the trade war and then by their row over where the coronavirus originated, it's hard to expect or hope for any substantial improvement of bilateral relations after a phone call.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the G20 summit. Photo: Xinhua

Adding to the confusion and further complicating matters was Trump's timing in signing legislation in support of Taiwan maintaining its international status " on the same day as the G20 emergency summit.

The Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative Act, aimed at boosting Taiwan's standing on the international stage which would include helping the self-ruled island to maintain diplomatic relations with its remaining 15 allies, became law with Trump's final endorsement. Beijing was bound to be provoked.

Coronavirus puts China's 'year of Europe' on hold amid growing unease

But interestingly, the signing of the act did not prevent the Xi-Trump phone call, and was apparently not discussed in their conversation " or at least not mentioned in either Xinhua's press release or Trump's subsequent Twitter messages.

Trump and Xi shaking hands in 2017. Photo: AFP

Whatever it may imply, it's telling enough that both leaders wanted to focus more on the global public health crisis, at least during this particular call. After all, rebuilding mutual trust between the two powers is a much harder mission that may not be possible any time soon.

And that can be bad for Hong Kong " whenever the China-US relationship is at low tide, the city becomes a victim of collateral damage, politically and economically, as was the case in the trade war.

Donald Trump signs Taipei Act to support Taiwan's international relations

Trump's signing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last November could have been just the beginning; now, the more the US tries to use Taiwan as a bargaining chip in its dealings with Beijing, the more suspicious Beijing is about political developments in Hong Kong.

China's top diplomatic arm in Hong Kong, the Office of the Commissioner of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has been more proactive recently in issuing frequent statements rebutting what it calls "interference" from foreign politicians or governments.

Xi gestures near a heart sign with a slogan saying 'Race against time, fight the virus' in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

With China-US relations unstable at this time of "war", the only certainty is the uncertainty ahead.

It's the same for Hong Kong, which is heading for a major political showdown in September's Legislative Council elections. The city's opposition camp is gearing up for a substantial victory that would effectively give it a bigger say in picking Hong Kong's next leader when it's time for the even more critical chief executive election in two years.

At a time when Beijing is becoming increasingly intolerant about local politicians seeking foreign support, in particular from the US, or even asking for sanctions to push for greater democracy in Hong Kong, the last thing the city needs is to see itself turning into another battleground for Sino-US politics.

This autumn's election will be the first major challenge to that effect.

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