The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) clampdown on Uighur and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) has attracted profound scrutiny and polarized the international community. As many as 1.5 million, have been pitilessly detained in large networks of recently constructed camps, where they are forcibly reeducated and politically indoctrinated.
These vexatious developments have not only molded Chinese politics at home but also international politics and debate. Chinese authorities have tactfully pressurized countries with the Uighur population to repatriate them to China. Beijing has established an international coalition to support its draconian policies: when 22 countries had sent a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council mandating China to refrain from its unjustifiable internments in Xinjiang, that letter was contradicted by another letter from 37 countries defending the Chinese government’s “deradicalization, counter-terrorism, and vocational training policies.” The issue exacerbated tensions between the U.S. and China which lead to the U.S. putting sanctions against individuals and companies coming from China.
The Chinese policies in Xinjiang are glaringly disturbing and repugnant. Any effort to change the situation requires a substantial understanding of the threat perceptions of Chinese in the region, specifically the recent strategy of intensified collective repression.
Decoding China’s Repressive Strategy in Xinjiang
After the XUAR Party Secretary Chen Quanguo returned from the Central National Security Commission symposium in Beijing, the CCP policy in Xinjiang started to spring in 2017. The time frame of this upsurge is puzzling as the public security officials had repeatedly claimed that the strategy was working and there had been fewer cases reported that involved Uighur in Xinjiang, or anywhere in China. Surprisingly, CCP changed strategies after the period.
Various domestic factors have resulted in China’s long-standing security buildup and oppression in Xinjiang: political violence and contention involving the Uighur population in the region; the establishment of second-generation minority policies under President Xi Jinping that made CPP’s turn towards assimilations; and the leadership of XUAR Party Secretary Chen. The increased oppression that took place in 2017, however, was largely motivated by China’s external security threats- most significantly the belief that the terrorist networks may diffuse back into Xinjiang from cross borders.
There are two reasons attributed to the heightened Chinese insecurity. First, the CCP was alerted by the handful of contacts between Uighur and Islamic militant organizations in Southeast Asia and the Middle East in 2014-2016 which also included arrests in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, additionally, up to 5000 Uighur fighting alongside the militant groups in the Middle East.
The connection of Uighur groups abroad to the violent incidents in Xinjiang is highly questionable. The western scholars are doubtful, and even the most generous calculation of Uighur militant capability does not imply that the insurgency inside Xinjiang is present, or even impending. Additionally, the contacts that took place in 2014-16 were confined to a few cases. Nevertheless, these contacts exposed the shift of possibility of cooperation between Uighur and Islamic militants groups in Southeast Asia and the Middle East from completely theoretical to an emerging operational reality. In 2015 and 2016, leaders of several militant groups in the Middle East with some associated with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State also made statements signaling their desire to target China.
The aforementioned developments seem to have got the CCP’s notice. In 2019, the New York Times published leaked documents that quoted Xi saying, “East Turkestan’s terrorists who have received real-war training in Syria and Afghanistan could at any time launch terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.” The documents reveal the fact that despite the Chinese party-state uses the eloquence of terrorism to deflect or reduce international pressure and justify oppressive actions; senior party members including Xi himself fear terrorist threats from abroad subverting their rule at home.
The other element that added to the CCP’s shift in strategy was a change in how the party perceives the nature of domestic threats to regime stability. In 2014, Xi disseminated a new “comprehensive security” framework, which cautioned that international happenings could destabilize regime at home and called for heightened vigilance. The framework required party workers to focus on the increased vulnerability to jihadist infiltration, as they compared it to a virus: even if people showed no sign of radicalism they could still be infected by the extremist virus unless they were properly inoculated.
The two developments reshaped the Chinese perception of counterterrorism and its incidental domestic security policies. As a result, Beijing increased deployment of counterterrorism activities abroad, while at the same time its military delegates visited the Middle East and grew regional counterterrorism cooperation with the Southeast Asian countries. The CCP also targeted diaspora networks to prevent terrorist threats from reentering China; they suggested that detention and reeducation should psychologically and politically make the population resilient to jihadist infiltration.
Eventually, the CCP is unjustifiably imprisoning and forcibly re-educating a large number of people who have merely shown any inclination towards anything except normal Uighur cultural or Muslim religious practice, based on threat perceptions that may be inaccurate in most cases.
The nondemocratic nations often get threat assessments wrong simply because they have difficulties in obtaining good information to initiate with. The very narrative of vaccination, paradoxically, makes that clear: people who are evidently “symptom-free” are nevertheless being thrown in detention and reeducation camps on a massive and intensive scale.
Beijing’s policy of “preventive repression” in the context of counterterrorism took a threat that was at a low level, to begin with, and sought to make sure that it would never materialize into anything more significant. The consequences of this approach have resonated inside China and across the world.
Implications for Current Policies
The United State’s policy concerning Xinjiang should balance two objectives: acknowledging that there may be some genuine concern about terrorism on Beijing’s part and criticizing the use of that concern to justify the indiscriminate repression and collective punishment. The objectives are not paradoxical, but segregating them will require a careful adoption of measures on the part of the U.S. and international policymakers.
Involvement with the CCP’s efforts to curb the terrorist threats doesn’t mean uncritically accepting its response to the problem. Moreover, for the United States or the international community to assist China in fighting terrorist threats, it’s pertinent that Beijing remains transparent. The Chinese security behaviour, characterized by the inability to know the situation may become a hurdle in cooperation against security threats as countries don’t know what will be done in their name.
The United States should focus its rhetoric and policy on the large number of innocent people who are trapped in Beijing’s counterterrorism dragnet. It is pertinent that policymakers make efforts to communicate with the people who have suffered due to Beijing’s draconian policies. The United States and the international community should acknowledge that the CCP’s policies are targeting and punishing people who don’t qualify as “terrorists” under any rational definition of the word. The international community must find ways to exert pressure on Beijing over the human rights consequences of the current measures while at the same time limit its attempts to modify current international human rights norms in a way favourable to it.
The American policymakers and other advocates have, over the past year, shifted their stance towards a simplistic “it’s not counterterrorism” argument that discharges CCP’s insecurities. The engagement of blatant arguments over whether Xinjiang is a case of counterterrorism may not be effective, especially when it appears that the CCP at least partly perceives it that way. The possibility of persuading the CCP to change course on a counterterrorism basis may not be helpful, but the chances of success may be probably higher if the issue is treated solely as a matter of human rights violation.
Though CCP’s emphasis on counterterrorism has largely been instrumental there are risks involved in the current approach. Turning down Beijing’s assertion of security concerns will only set up the CCP to dig in and display graphic images of violence to justify and prove that it faces a real threat. If Beijing successfully convinces domestic non-Uighur audiences in China or in other countries that the Uighur is a threat to security the U.S. dismissals could backfire. Additionally, this approach is neither a helpful tool for American foreign policy nor does it minimize human rights violations in Xinjiang. Consequently, the United States and other democracies should collectively say that no matter how real the CCP perceives the terrorist threats to be, they are not a blank check to approve of Beijing’s massive human rights violations. To add more, the U.S. and European democratic counterparts should keep on pressuring China on the emergence of human rights violation from Xinjiang but to effectively confront the situation they must refrain from getting bogged down in an unhelpful “is it counterterrorism” debate.
Another alternative is that other countries could stress upon the use of indiscriminate repression and false positives in the use of violence, which is commonly backfired: if the CCP is only concerned with regime preservation, the strategy it has adopted in Xinjiang is incredibly risky. For instance, the Uighur who have been targeted unjustifiably after living their lives as “model citizens” may challenge the CCP as a result of being repressed.
The aforementioned approach is of particular significance for countries that must decide on how they take a stance and what are they going to do about the opposing stances adopted by the U.S. and China on this issue. Taking into consideration that most countries are concerned about counterterrorism and seek to be respectful of human rights may align with the United States, weakening the global support for the legitimacy of China’s preferred approach. This will facilitate the United States to emphasize more credibly that Beijing’s linking of international terrorism with its domestic policies of repression poses an unnecessary conundrum for nations that aim to genuinely collaborate with China to reduce common terrorist threats. The mass internment of Chinese Muslims makes it harder for countries with a sizeable Muslim population to approve of the law enforcement and counterterrorism cooperation with China. Turkey, in recent criticism of China’s Uighur Policy, stated the approach as “a great embarrassment for humanity”.
However, if these countries see an increased risk of terrorism at home as a result of cutting off counterterrorism cooperation with China, they may have to face significant potentially difficult tradeoffs. Countries that have significant counterterrorism cooperation with Beijing are mostly absent from the U.N. letter adopting a public stance on Xinjiang. To be realistic, the United States may not be able to convince every country to dramatically change their stance on China’s counterterrorism approach as some of them are well known for their own human rights violations. As a consequence, the United States should try to be on the record for trying to offer realistic alternatives.
The deployment of the aforementioned principles can effectively address the problem of foreign fighters from Xinjiang who participate in Syria and the broader Middle East. This challenge is not confined to China, as it is a global one that reflects the absence of common democratic or international proposal for resolving such glaringly disturbing issues. If international democratic community doesn’t create a mechanism Beijing will tactfully work bilaterally with the countries to simply meet its repatriation demands to punish and re-educate its own nationals, adding to the already devastating human rights violation while leaving the broader global issue unresolved.
Rather than conceding to China’s initiative on this issue, the United States and its allies must lead the way for initiating an international solution to address and validate security concerns among countries. Additionally, the measures should be compatible with human rights: they do not rest on repatriating individuals where they will be persecuted or executed without any justifiable trial. This will lead the United States and the international community to remove Beijing’s internal and external justification for its current policies, making it harder for it to defend at home or abroad.
To sum up, the international community should keep its focus on China’s massive human rights violations in Xinjiang. To do this effectively, it’s pertinent that it must carefully and strategically engage with China’s counterterrorism narratives.
Importance of peace in Afghanistan is vital for China
There are multiple passages from Afghanistan to China, like Wakhan Corridor that is 92 km long, stretching to Xinjiang in China. It was formed in 1893 as a result of an agreement between the British Empire and Afghanistan. Another is Chalachigu valley that shares the border with Tajikistan to the north, Pakistan to the south, and Afghanistan to the west. It is referred to as the Chinese part of the Wakhan Corridor. However, the Chinese side of the valley is closed to the public and only local shepherds are allowed. Then there is Wakhjir Pass on the eastern side of the Wakhan corridor but is not accessible to the general public. The terrain is rough on the Afghan side. There are no roads along the Wakhjir Pass, most of the terrain is a dirt track. Like other passages, it can only be accessed via either animals or SUVs, and also due to extreme weather it is open for only seven months throughout the year. North Wakhjir Pass, also called Tegermansu Pass, is mountainous on the border of China and Afghanistan. It stretches from Tegermansu valley on the east and Chalachigu Valley in Xinjiang. All of these passages are extremely uncertain and rough which makes them too risky to be used for trade purposes. For example, the Chalagigu valley and Wakhjir Pass are an engineering nightmare to develop, let alone make them viable.
Similarly, the Pamir mountain range is also unstable and prone to landslides. Both of these routes also experience extreme weather conditions. Alternatives: Since most of the passages are risky for travel, alternatively, trade activities can be routed via Pakistan. For example, there is an access road at the North Wakhjir that connects to Karakoram Highway.
By expanding the road network from Taxkorgan in Xinjiang to Gilgit, using the Karakoram Highway is a probable option. Land routes in Pakistan are already being developed for better connectivity between Islamabad and Beijing as part of CPEC. These routes stretch from Gwadar up to the North.
The Motorway M-1, which runs from Islamabad to Peshawar can be used to link Afghanistan via Landi Kotal. Although the Karakoram highway also suffers from extreme weather and landslides, it is easier for engineers to handle as compared to those in Afghanistan.
China is the first door neighbor of Afghanistan having a common border. If anything happens in Afghanistan will have a direct impact on China. China has a declared policy of peaceful developments and has abandoned all disputes and adversaries for the time being and focused only on economic developments. For economic developments, social stability and security is a pre-requisite. So China emphasizes peace and stability in Afghanistan. It is China’s requirement that its border with Afghanistan should be secured, and restrict movements of any unwanted individuals or groups. China is compelled by any government in Afghanistan to ensure the safety of its borders in the region.
Taliban has ensured china that, its territory will not use against China and will never support any insurgency in China. Based on this confidence, China is cooperating with the Taliban in all possible manners. On the other hand, China is a responsible nation and obliged to extend humanitarian assistance to starving Afghans. While, the US is coercing and exerting pressures on the Taliban Government to collapse, by freezing their assets, and cutting all economic assistance, and lobbying with its Western allies, for exerting economic pressures on the Taliban, irrespective of human catastrophe in Afghanistan. China is generously assisting in saving human lives in Afghanistan. Whereas, the US is preferring politics over human lives in Afghanistan.
The US has destroyed Afghanistan during the last two decades, infrastructure was damaged completely, Agriculture was destroyed, Industry was destroyed, and the economy was a total disaster. While, China is assisting Afghanistan to rebuild its infrastructure, revive agriculture, industrialization is on its way. Chinese mega initiative, Belt and Road (BRI) is hope for Afghanistan.
A peaceful Afghanistan is a guarantee for peace and stability in China, especially in the bordering areas. The importance of Afghan peace is well conceived by China and practically, China is supporting peace and stability in Afghanistan. In fact, all the neighboring countries, and regional countries, are agreed upon by consensus that peace and stability in Afghanistan is a must and prerequisite for whole regions’ development and prosperity.
Shared Territorial Concern, Opposition to US Intervention Prompt Russia’s Support to China on Taiwan Question
The situation around the island of Taiwan is raising concerns not only in Chinese mainland, Taiwan island or in the US, but also in the whole world. Nobody would like to see a large-scale military clash between China and the US in the East Pacific. Potential repercussions of such a clash, even if it does not escalate to the nuclear level, might be catastrophic for the global economy and strategic stability, not to mention huge losses in blood and treasure for both sides in this conflict.
Earlier this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow continued to firmly support Beijing’s position on Taiwan as an integral part of China. Moreover, he also underlined that Moscow would support Beijing in its legitimate efforts to reunite the breakaway province with the rest of the country. A number of foreign media outlets paid particular attention not to what Lavrov actually said, but omitted his other remarks: the Russian official did not add that Moscow expects reunification to be peaceful and gradual in a way that is similar to China’s repossession of Hong Kong. Many observers of the new Taiwan Straits crisis unfolding concluded that Lavrov’s statement was a clear signal to all parties of the crisis: Russia would likely back even Beijing’s military takeover of the island.
Of course, diplomacy is an art of ambiguity. Lavrov clearly did not call for a military solution to the Taiwan problem. Still, his remarks were more blunt and more supportive of Beijing than the standard Russia’s rhetoric on the issue. Why? One possible explanation is that the Russian official simply wanted to sound nice to China as Russia’s major strategic partner. As they say, “a friend in need is a friend indeed.” Another explanation is that Lavrov recalled the Russian experience with Chechnya some time ago, when Moscow had to fight two bloody wars to suppress secessionism in the North Caucasus. Territorial integrity means a lot for the Russian leadership. This is something that is worth spilling blood for.
However, one can also imagine that in Russia they simply do not believe that if things go really bad for Taiwan island, the US would dare to come to its rescue and that in the end of the day Taipei would have to yield to Beijing without a single shot fired. Therefore, the risks of a large-scale military conflict in the East Pacific are perceived as relatively low, no matter what apocalyptic scenarios various military experts might come up with.
Indeed, over last 10 or 15 years the US has developed a pretty nasty habit of inciting its friends and partners to take risky and even reckless decisions and of letting these friends and partners down, when the latter had to foot the bill for these decisions. In 2008, the Bush administration explicitly or implicitly encouraged Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili to launch a military operation against South Ossetia including killing some Russian peacekeepers stationed there. But when Russia interfered to stop and to roll back the Georgian offensive, unfortunate Saakashvili was de-facto abandoned by Washington.
During the Ukrainian conflicts of 2013-14, the Obama administration enthusiastically supported the overthrow of the legitimate president in Kiev. However, it later preferred to delegate the management of the crisis to Berlin and to Paris, abstaining from taking part in the Normandy process and from signing the Minsk Agreements. In 2019, President Donald Trump promised his full support to Juan Guaidó, Head of the National Assembly in Venezuela, in his crusade against President Nicolas when the government of Maduro demonstrated its spectacular resilience. Juan Guaido very soon almost completely disappeared from Washington’s political radar screens.
Earlier this year the Biden administration stated its firm commitment to shouldering President Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan in his resistance to Taliban advancements. But when push came to shove, the US easily abandoned its local allies, evacuated its military personal in a rush and left President Ghani to seek political asylum in the United Arab Emirates.
Again and again, Washington gives reasons to conclude that its partners, clients and even allies can no longer consider it as a credible security provider. Would the US make an exception for the Taiwan island? Of course, one can argue that the Taiwan island is more important for the US than Afghanistan, Venezuela, Ukraine and Georgia taken together. But the price for supporting the Taiwan island could also be much higher for the US than the price it would have paid in many other crisis situations. The chances of the US losing to China over Taiwan island, even if Washington mobilizes all of its available military power against Beijing, are also very high. Still, we do not see such a mobilization taking place now. It appears that the Biden administration is not ready for a real showdown with Beijing over the Taiwan question.
If the US does not put its whole weight behind the Taiwan island, the latter will have to seek some kind of accommodation with the mainland on terms abandoning its pipe-dreams of self-determination and independence. This is clear to politicians not only in East Asia, but all over the place, including Moscow. Therefore, Sergey Lavrov has reasons to firmly align himself with the Chinese position. The assumption in the Kremlin is that Uncle Sam will not dare to challenge militarily the Middle Kingdom. Not this time.
From our partner RIAC
Russia-Japan Relations: Were Abe’s Efforts In Vain?
Expanding the modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward.
One year after the end of Shinzo Abe’s long period of leadership, Japan has a new prime minister once again. The greatest foreign policy challenge the new Japanese government led by Fumio Kishida is facing is the intensifying confrontation between its large neighbor China and its main ally America. In addition to moves to energize the Quad group to which Japan belongs alongside Australia, India, and the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has concluded a deal with Canberra and London to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines which in future could patrol the Western Pacific close to Chinese shores. The geopolitical fault lines in the Indo-Pacific region are fast turning into frontlines.
In this context, does anything remain of the eight-year-long effort by former prime minister Abe to improve relations with Russia on the basis of greater economic engagement tailored to Moscow’s needs? Russia’s relations with China continue to develop, including in the military domain; Russia’s constitutional amendments passed last year prohibit the handover of Russian territory, which doesn’t bode well for the long-running territorial dispute with Japan over the South Kuril Islands; and Russian officials and state-run media have been remembering and condemning the Japanese military’s conduct during World War II, something they chose to play down in the past. True, Moscow has invited Tokyo to participate in economic projects on the South Kuril Islands, but on Russian terms and without an exclusive status.
To many, the answer to the above question is clear, and it is negative. Yet that attitude amounts to de facto resignation, a questionable approach. Despite the oft-cited but erroneous Cold War analogy, the present Sino-American confrontation has created two poles in the global system, but not—at least, not yet—two blocs. Again, despite the popular and equally incorrect interpretation, Moscow is not Beijing’s follower or vassal. As a power that is particularly sensitive about its own sovereignty, Russia seeks to maintain an equilibrium—which is not the same as equidistance—between its prime partner and its main adversary. Tokyo would do well to understand that and take it into account as it structures its foreign relations.
The territorial dispute with Russia is considered to be very important for the Japanese people, but it is more symbolic than substantive. In practical terms, the biggest achievement of the Abe era in Japan-Russia relations was the founding of a format for high-level security and foreign policy consultations between the two countries. With security issues topping the agenda in the Indo-Pacific, maintaining the channel for private direct exchanges with a neighboring great power that the “2+2” formula offers is of high value. Such a format is a trademark of Abe’s foreign policy which, while being loyal to Japan’s American ally, prided itself on pursuing Japanese national interests rather than solely relying on others to take them into account.
Kishida, who for five years served as Abe’s foreign minister, will now have a chance to put his own stamp on the country’s foreign policy. Yet it makes sense for him to build on the accomplishments of his predecessor, such as using the unique consultation mechanism mentioned above to address geopolitical and security issues in the Indo-Pacific region, from North Korea to Afghanistan. Even under Abe, Japan’s economic engagement with Russia was by no means charity. The Russian leadership’s recent initiatives to shift more resources to eastern Siberia offer new opportunities to Japanese companies, just like Russia’s early plans for energy transition in response to climate change, and the ongoing development projects in the Arctic. In September 2021, the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok did not feature top-level Japanese participation, but that should be an exception, not the rule.
Japan will remain a trusted ally of the United States for the foreseeable future. It is also safe to predict that at least in the medium term, and possibly longer, the Russo-Chinese partnership will continue to grow. That is no reason for Moscow and Tokyo to regard each other as adversaries, however. Moreover, since an armed conflict between America and China would spell a global calamity and have a high chance of turning nuclear, other major powers, including Russia and Japan, have a vital interest in preventing such a collision. Expanding the still very modest elements of trust in the Japan-Russia relationship, talking through reciprocal concerns before they lead to conflict, avoiding bilateral incidents, and engaging in mutually beneficial economic cooperation is the way forward. The absence of a peace treaty between the two countries more than seventy-five years after the end of the war is abnormal, yet that same unfinished business should serve as a stimulus to persevere. Giving up is an option, but not a good one.
From our partner RIAC
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