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Donald Trump

Trump’s America-first pivot does not equate to US going it alone, says envoy to Hong Kong

Kurt Tong, top US diplomat to city, says engaging with China still a priority

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 12:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 June, 2017, 5:28pm

Surely, life must be more difficult for the top US diplomat in Hong Kong under an unpredictable president in the White House who can upend policy with a single tweet overnight?

“Everything difficult about my life has to do with the fact that I eat too much and don’t get enough exercise,” Kurt Tong jokes when confronted with the question.

Firm diplomacy: Kurt Tong on being Washington’s man in Hong Kong

But he quickly sobers up to explain that the key mission of his office, to sell his country as a friend to the city and China as a whole, remains unchanged.

“I hope you look at the US as an overall entity,” he says. “My job, not just as a salesman, but as a representative, is to help people see the totality of the US as well.

“I firmly believe the US has a beneficial impact on other countries and is a country that respects rule of law, and we’ll continue that way. I don’t think we can operate in any other way.”

No matter who is in the White House? “Correct,” he replies. “That’s the fabric of our nation.”

He stresses the importance of commerce between his country and Hong Kong, a city that is heavily dependent on trade with the rest of the world and counts the US as its second-largest trading partner.

Last year trade between the city and the US amounted to US$42 billion.

Can China fill leadership void left by Trump?

Tong, the consummate diplomat, is careful not to sound critical of US President Donald Trump as he tries to reassure those who are alarmed by the maverick leader’s “America-first” pivot.

Engaging China, in particular, remains a priority. “President Trump has been very clear in his approach … his point is very direct,” he says.

There will be some difficult conversations on trade issues between US and China
Kurt Tong, US consul general

“One of the issues I expect him to continue to be very direct about is trade and economic affairs. It’s well known the US as a nation is not totally satisfied with the structure at home and the function of US-China economic relations and we would like to see some changes about it.”

Trump’s belligerent campaign rhetoric once included a vow to label China as a currency manipulator on the day he took office. The confrontational approach has now been replaced by niceties, as seen during his summit with President Xi Jinping in April.

The US president painted their relationship as an “outstanding” alliance, declaring that “tremendous progress” had been made.

Unlike his big boss, Tong does not use superlatives, but his message shares some of the positivity.

“So I expect there will be some difficult conversations on trade issues between US and China, but this doesn’t mean that’s not an insurmountable problem,” he says.

“That’s just the fact; we’ll have those negotiations and try to push China to accelerate its second economic reform and opening.”

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Trump’s globally condemned pullout recently from the Paris accord on climate change has revived concerns about the New World Order with the US going it alone, but Tong insists that is not the case. “It’s clear we’re not going to be an isolationist or protectionist regime. That’s not in the US national interest,” he says.

“The US has been a significant, pacific player both strategically and economically for decades and we’ll continue to be that. Solutions to problems, economic spheres as well as other areas require cooperation, bridge building and dialogue and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”