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Updated December 2, 2019

Protesters burn items at the Causeway Bay metro station entrance in Hong Kong on October 4, 2019, as people hit the streets after the government announced a ban on facemasks. Nicolas ASFOURI / AFP

China suspended US warship visits and sanctioned American NGOs on Monday in retaliation for the passage of a bill backing pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The financial hub has been rocked by nearly six months of increasingly violent unrest demanding greater autonomy, which Beijing has frequently blamed on foreign influence.

Last week US President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which requires the president to annually review the city’s favourable trade status and threatens to revoke it if the semi-autonomous territory’s freedoms are quashed.

The move came as the world’s two biggest economies have been striving to finalise a “phase one” deal in their protracted trade war.

“In response to the unreasonable behaviour of the US side, the Chinese government has decided to suspend reviewing the applications for US warships to go to Hong Kong for (rest and) recuperation as of today,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing.

China had already denied requests for two US Navy ships to dock in Hong Kong in August, without specifying a reason why.

“Operationally, from a military point of view, it doesn’t really make a difference for the US, as they can use many naval bases in the region,” Michael Raska, a security researcher at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told AFP.

However, it “sends a signal that US-China tensions will continue to deepen,” Raska said.

The last US Navy ship to visit Hong Kong was the USS Blue Ridge in April.

J. Michael Cole, a Taipei-based senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute, said the move was “mostly symbolic” but yet another sign of the “tit-for-tat escalation which is poisoning the bilateral relationship.”

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