Trump formally cuts ties with World Health Organization, says he's revoking Hong Kong's trade perks in rift with China

David Jackson, Deirdre Shesgreen and Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump said Friday his administration would withdraw from the World Health Organization and move to revoke Hong Kong's special trading status in twin decisions likely to exacerbate U.S-China tensions.

Trump did not give a timeline or specify exactly what privileges would be yanked from Hong Kong, a global financial hub that could see its status tarnished by the move.

Trump said Hong Kong is not entitled to special treatment by the United States, because it is no longer autonomous from mainland China. He said he would direct his advisers to begin the process of eliminating the "full range" of perks that Hong Kong now enjoys, which includes export controls, tariff exemptions and other benefits. 

Trump also said he would formally end the U.S. relationship with the World Health Organization, blasting the multilateral institution as a tool of China. 

"China has total control over the World Health Organization, despite only paying $40 million per year," Trump said, noting that the U.S. contribution to the WHO has been approximately $450 million dollars a year. 

"Chinese officials ignored their reporting obligations to the World Health Organization and pressured the World Health Organization to mislead the world," Trump said, referring to China's handling of the coronavirus.

Because the WHO has resisted implementing reforms that his administration sought in the wake of the pandemic, Trump said, "we will be today terminating our relationship with the World Health Organization and redirecting those funds to other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs."

It's not clear how that would work. For starters, Congress approves funding for WHO, and lawmakers have already started pushing back on Trump's decision to withdraw from the Geneva-based organization.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate health committee, said while the WHO's actions should be examined, that review should occur after the pandemic, not in the middle of it. Trump's the move to withdraw from the WHO, he said, could have severe consequences.

"Withdrawing U.S. membership could, among other things, interfere with clinical trials that are essential to the development of vaccines, which citizens of the United States as well as others in the world need," Alexander said. "And withdrawing could make it harder to work with other countries to stop viruses before they get to the United States.”

Even Trump's secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has conceded the WHO does vital work in eradicating polio and other diseases in a bevy of low-income countries. Other global health groups are probably not going to be able to fill that void, even with a new infusion of U.S. dollars. 

Critics said Trump's WHO announcement was yet another attempt to deflect blame from his own mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak – and one that would end up hurting the U.S. 

“For the US to have one of the WORST domestic responses of any developed country in the world and then CEASE contributions to @WHO in the middle of a raging global pandemic is an embarrassment – a sign of weakness, panic, and scapegoating," tweeted Brett McGurk, a former special State Department envoy who served under presidents Trump, Obama and Bush. "It also endangers American citizens." 

Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama adviser, said Trump's WHO decision would only empower China more. 

"Trump is so mad about Chinese influence at the WHO that he's going to dramatically increase Chinese influence at the WHO," Rhodes tweeted. "Makes a lot of sense in the middle of a pandemic that requires global cooperation."

WHO chief: Public health 'superstar' or pro-China propagandist? 

Trump made the WHO and Hong Kong announcements during a Rose Garden event in which he leveled a long list of complaints against China – from engaging in unfair trade practices to hiding the scope and severity of the deadly coronavirus.   

"The Chinese government has continually violated its promises to us and so many other nations," Trump said, reading from a teleprompter and taking no questions from reporters. 

Trump's decisions come after Xi Jinping's government moved to impose a so-called "national security" on Hong Kong, which critics say is aimed at snuffing out pro-democracy protests that have roiled Hong Kong for months. 

China's new law would ban sedition, secession and other forms of subversion by Hong Kong residents against Beijing. It would also allow China's secretive state security agencies to operate in the city, sparking fear about possible arrests of pro-democracy activists. 

"Hong Kong was secure and prosperous as a free society. Beijing's decision reverses all of that," Trump said. The new law, he said, "extends the reach of China's invasive state security apparatus into what was formerly a bastion of liberty." 

Washington vs. Beijing: Pompeo declares Hong Kong no longer autonomous from China

Trump said his directive would affect "the full range of agreements we have with Hong Kong, from our extradition treaty to our export controls on dual use technologies." The State Department would also revise its travel advisory for Hong Kong, he said, "to reflect the increased danger of surveillance and punishment by the Chinese state security apparatus."

Zack Cooper, an expert on U.S. defense strategy in Asia with the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank, applauded Trump’s moves but said China is unlikely to reverse course. He noted that China has taken a number of aggressive actions recently – against India, Australia and in the South China Sea.

“These steps will anger Beijing, but they are unlikely to prevent the Communist Party from exercising greater control over Hong Kong,” Cooper said. “Therefore expect tensions to rise in the days and weeks ahead."

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have been escalating for weeks as Trump has blamed China for an alleged cover-up about the coronavirus outbreak. Chinese officials initially censored warnings about the virus and later circulated false theories asserting the coronavirus originated with the U.S. Army.

The already frayed U.S.-China relationship took a more serious turn this week after China adopted a new security law that threatens Hong Kong's autonomy, leading the Trump administration to declare it no longer considers the city to be autonomous from mainland China.

Two women hold up posters of the U.S. flag and a depiction of President Donald Trump, right, during a pro-democracy rally in a shopping mall in Hong Kong on May 28, 2020.

The legislation, adopted Thursday in China’s rubber-stamp Parliament, will not take effect immediately. Chinese officials have defended the law as necessary for the country's national security and for Hong Kong's prosperity.

Superpower struggle:China approves sweeping national security legislation for Hong Kong, jeopardizing the city's autonomy and angering Washington 

Trump announced his decision to revoke Hong Kong's trade status even as Washington and Beijing are in the middle of trying to implement 'phase one' trade deal reached earlier this year. 

More: U.S., China sign 'Phase One' trade agreement, signaling pause in trade war

Critics warned China's new national security law for Hong Kong could spell the end of civil liberties in the city and cripple its status as a global financial hub. The Trump administration joined the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia in warning China's action is destabilizing and "in direct conflict" with its international obligations.

The law "raises the prospect of prosecution in Hong Kong for political crimes and undermines existing commitments to protect the rights of Hong Kong people," a joint statement said.

Hong Kong was returned to China from British control as a semiautonomous territory in 1997 – on the condition that China maintained a "one country, two systems" framework guaranteeing freedoms not found on the mainland – including freedom of speech and an independent judiciary. 

Xi Jinping: China strengthening armed forces amid tensions with U.S. over coronavirus, Hong Kong

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: China: Trump revoking Hong Kong trade perks, cuts ties with WHO