WASHINGTON: The United States expressed concerns on Wednesday (Aug 14) over Chinese security force movements on the border with Hong Kong and urged Beijing to honour the territory's autonomy as protests continued.
A day after President Donald Trump appeared to take a hands-off position on the protests, a State Department spokesperson voiced concerns about the "continued erosion" of Hong Kong's autonomy and expressed "staunch" support for freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the territory.
Senior members of Congress declared their backing for the protesters, blaming Beijing for a violent crackdown by the Hong Kong government.
"The United States is deeply concerned by reports of Chinese paramilitary movement along the Hong Kong border," the spokeswoman, who would not be named, said in a statement.
She said it was important for the Hong Kong government to respect "freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly" and for Beijing to adhere to its commitments to allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.
She said the protests reflected "broad and legitimate concerns about the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy."
"The continued erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy puts at risk its long-established special status in international affairs," she said.
A 1992 US law affords Hong Kong preferential treatment in matters of trade and economics compared with China. Areas of special treatment include visas, law enforcement and investment.
PARAMILITARY FORCES "IN THE THOUSANDS"
A US official said Beijing had stationed large numbers of paramilitary People's Armed Police "near and further out from Hong Kong", but said there had been no sign they were moving toward the border.
The number of personnel was "in the thousands", said the official, who did not want to be identified, and the aim appeared to be to intimidate the protesters.
He said protests had yet to reach a level that would compel Beijing to send them in. "I don’t think they’ve reached any tipping points," the official said.
"They have amped up training and made it all pretty visible," he said, but added: "There are no recent indicators that they are preparing to deploy."
China's state-run Global Times media outlet reported on Monday that People's Armed Police had been assembling in Shenzhen, a city bordering Hong Kong, "in advance of apparent large-scale exercises".
It cited video it had obtained showing numerous armoured personnel carriers (APCs), trucks and other vehicles on expressways heading in the direction of Shenzhen over the weekend. It noted that the role of the paramilitary force was "dealing with rebellions, riots, serious violent and illegal incidents, terrorist attacks and other social security incidents".
On Tuesday Trump cited American intelligence as saying that China was moving troops to its border with the former British colony, and urged calm as clashes continued between protesters and authorities.
LAWMAKERS URGE TOUGHER LINE
The State Department's expression of concern came after senior US lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, called on Trump to take a tougher line with China as worries grew over a possible Chinese intervention.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned China on Monday that any violent crackdown on protests in Hong Kong would be "completely unacceptable".
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, called the use of force "perpetrated against" the demonstrators "extremely alarming".
"The pro-Beijing Chief Executive and the Hong Kong police forces must immediately cease the aggression and abuse being perpetrated against their own people," she said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the Republican chair of the Senate's East Asia subcommittee, Cory Gardner, said the Trump administration "must make clear to Beijing that any crackdown in Hong Kong will have profound consequences for China, including imposition of US sanctions".
Trump said last month that Xi had acted "very responsibly" in dealing with the protests. The Financial Times newspaper reported earlier in July that the US leader had agreed with Xi at the June Group of 20 summit to tone down criticism of China's handling of the crisis.
Prominent Democratic Senator Ben Cardin warned China on Tuesday that Congress would act and Hong Kong could lose its special US trade status if Beijing intervened directly to crack down on the protests.
On Wednesday, the Democratic chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, and the panel's leading Republican, Michael McCaul, said they were concerned that 30 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, China might again consider brutally putting down peaceful protests.
"We urge China to avoid making such a mistake, which would be met with universal condemnation and swift consequences," they said in a statement.
Earlier on Wednesday, the State Department issued a travel advisory urging "increased caution in Hong Kong due to civil unrest".
Flights resumed on Wednesday at the Hong Kong airport, one of the world's busiest, which shut down for two days after demonstrators occupied it.