On Hong Kong protests, China tells U.S. to back off

Diplomacy with Chinese officials is usually highly scripted, very staged and often indirect. Yet Wednesday, there was no mistaking Beijing's message to Washington: back off.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi clearly told Secretary of State John Kerry that the U.S. should not meddle in the pro-democracy protests taking place in Hong Kong.

Drone's eye view of Hong Kong protests
Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters demand government reform

"Hong Kong affairs are China's internal affairs. All countries should respect China's sovereignty," Wang told Kerry in a photo spray immediately preceding his closed-door meeting with Kerry at the State Department. Wang is the highest ranking Chinese official to speak openly about the protests which Beijing considers to be "illegal."

He made the comments after Kerry publicly called for Beijing to grant the "highest possible degree of autonomy" to Hong Kong and stressed that the U.S. supports "universal suffrage." America's top diplomat then went a step further and said that the U.S. had "high hopes" that the authorities will "exercise restraint" when dealing with the peaceful protests. With those clunky diplomatic phrases, the administration essentially told Beijing not to use force to break up the protests and that the U.S. endorses the demands of the demonstrators to be able to elect candidates who aren't handpicked by the central government.

At the moment, the Chinese strategy appears to be to wait out the protesters and hope that public support fades away. There have been no signs so far that Beijing is planning the type of heavy-handed response that it adopted 25 years ago when it declared martial law and rolled tanks through the streets of the Chinese capital to quash student-led protests.

How current President Xi chooses to respond to this new challenge will be revealing.

Mike Green, who served on the National Security Council team for Asian affairs during the George W. Bush administration, said the question is "how does he back down on this one in the eyes of the world?" Green, who currently serves as the Senior Vice President for Asia at Washington think tank CSIS, said that the level of that response "goes to the heart of how much political pluralism the Chinese can tolerate."

The standoff in Hong Kong threatens to become a new irritant in the already complex U.S.-China relationship. Cyber hacking, territorial disputes in the South China Sea that threaten U.S. allies and other diplomatic disputes as well as Beijing's record of human rights abuses are causes of tension between the two powers.

President Obama will try to find points of agreement during his upcoming visit to China in November. He stopped by to visit Wang today while the Chinese foreign minister was at the White House to meet with National Security Advisor Susan Rice. According to a White House press release, the president told Wang that he was following developments with Hong Kong "closely" and hoped that they would be addressed "peacefully."

For his part, Kerry will try to make headway on the remaining long list of agenda items with China at a previously unscheduled meeting Wednesday evening. The two diplomats planned to discuss Ebola, the threat of ISIS, and the president's upcoming visit to China.