Is this the beginning of a new cold war rivalry, somewhat similar to what took place in the last century, between 1945 and 1991—something the new millennials did not get to see?
It started as just a trade rift in 2019, but soon got into a diplomatic slugfest over the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, so much so that the United States got half of the world in support to “boycott” China. Today, the tensions between Beijing and Washington are flaring up on multiple fronts and threaten to get increasingly bigger. From the South China Sea to Tibet to Hong Kong, US defence and diplomacy experts are intensively engaged in keeping Beijing on a “tight leash”, but are also anticipating and gearing up to counter the threats from the rattled Dragon.
The latest in the list of triggers for this cold war rivalry are the US sanctions against Chinese officials it deems responsible for human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The US sanctions on Thursday named Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party chief of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and three other top officials from the region’s leadership, as well as its police department. Announcing the sanctions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, “The individuals and the police department were believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the unjust detention or abuse of Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang.”
China is in no mood to relent and apologise, and will never do so, say experts, as obvious from the way Beijing has been defying global criticism for the “alleged coronavirus outbreak”. Instead, reacting to the US sanctions, Beijing has threatened to retaliate with “reciprocal” measures against institutions and individuals critical of its policies in Xinjiang.
But many insiders and Washington think tank experts fear “the worse is in offing if this stretches on”. Particularly in the case of human rights abuses against the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, some are raising questions on what they call “China’s double-standard diplomacy”. The case here is of Beijing’s growing dependence on Islamic nations like Pakistan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but discriminating against Uyghur Muslims on its own land. The repressive regime of Chinese President Xi Jinping has crossed all limits when it comes to its own minority, who face forced birth control measures, illegal detentions, persecution and unwarranted police roundups.
The birth rate of the minority Uyghurs has shown a drastic dip to about 60% since 2017, the time from when Beijing really got tough in the name of “safeguarding against terrorism and territorial sovereignty”. Beijing has been indulging in high-handed repressive policies like banning Ramadan fasting and festivities to observing daily prayers to discourage the Turkish Muslims settled as minorities in Xinjinag province.
Professor Walter Andersen, a former State Department diplomat and Asia affairs expert at Johns Hopkins University, says: “The Chinese think that what they do at home are out of bounds to external criticism—and so they see no contradiction in good relations with Muslim countries and cracking down at home. In fact they are infuriated at the human rights criticisms of China.”
Aparna Pande, Director at Hudson Institute and a top Asia expert, echoes Andersen: “It hardly makes a difference for China.” Pande told The Sunday Guardian: “It will not create problems for China at the level of state-to-state relations. Yes, it has and will continue to hurt the image of China among Muslims around the world. But Beijing has rarely cared about how the average person views it. All it has cared about is how it can spin the narrative and how it can drown out any negative views on China.” Another China expert, Professor Dibyesh Anand of London’s Westminster University says, “China’s draconian repression of Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists as well as Han Chinese dissidents, and now the increasing control over Hong Kong, go hand in hand with heavy investment in public diplomacy and seeking support for its actions from non-Western countries. What explains this is the basic idea that China wants recognition from the wider world that it is a strong and respectable power.”
Andersen, however, hints at trouble due to Beijing’s “discrimination against an Islamic minority” on its own land. “The treatment of Uyghurs certainly enhances popular suspicion of China in Islamic states—and triggers Islamic radical terrorism against the Chinese targets,” Andersen told this newspaper. Beijing has been wary of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a terrorist group formed out of jihadist Uyghurs, hence has been trying to contain the minority in “what it deems to safeguard its territory”. But this can be counter-productive, says Andersen, adding, “Not only does this trigger suspicion of China overseas, but threatens to enhance popular Chinese Muslim resistance at home and distrust of the Chinese government.”
China knows fully what it commands in the Muslim world. Pande explains: “During the 1950s-70s, China wanted to build relations with other countries and so used countries like Pakistan as their ‘window to the Muslim world.’ That has changed, both from the 1980s when Communist China was recognised as ‘China’ instead of Taiwan, and with China’s economic and military capabilities. Finally, through its debt diplomacy, China has built enough support—either through elite capture or through indebtedness—in many Muslim countries to ensure that it will not face any criticism.”
In fact, it has got support from the Saudi Prince and the UNHRC, says Pande, adding: “This is not a new occurrence and dates back decades. However, the ante has been upped in recent decades primarily for fear of being unable to control the beliefs of non-Han Chinese. So what was done with respect to Tibetan Buddhists and Christians has been extended to Uyghurs and other Muslim groups. The Saudi Prince on a visit to China approved of China’s measures and the Prime Minister of Pakistan refused to comment on them, so I don’t really see any drastic change. At the UNHRC, most Muslim countries did not support the resolution against China.”
Professor Anand added, “China sees the West in general, and the US, as its main competitor and invests heavily in getting several developing countries on its side to neutralise international criticism. Muslim majority countries not only maintain silence around the repression of Uyghurs by Chinese Communist Party but actively support it because they prefer to buy into the idea that human rights criticisms are interference in the internal matters of sovereign states and hence should be opposed.”
But the latest US sanctions against Beijing is also seen as a growing support to the “grudge building against China for its discrimination and double-standard policies in dealing with Muslim minorities”. Andersen says, “There is criticism in Turkey as China’s policies are up against a growing Turkish nationalism. Democratic nations like the US, India and Europe are already using Chinese actions to keep the spotlight on Beijing and Washington has already imposed the sanctions and threatens more…This highly critical stance has bipartisan support in the US.”
This doesn’t seem to be ending here and at least till the US elections get over. Will Tibet be next in the US armoury to circle China in its own “discriminatory minority web” along with supporting democratic nations, including India? The political emergency, amidst the US Presidential elections, compels us to think so!