The Trump administration is on a diplomatic mission to persuade other countries to step up their criticism of China for human rights violations against Muslims in Xinjiang.
The US bid for more support in isolating Beijing over Xinjiang comes at a sensitive phase in its relations, as both countries are locked in intense negotiations to resolve their trade war. Liu He, China’s vice-premier, is heading to Washington this week for a new round of talks with Robert Lighthizer, the US trade representative, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, which are due to begin on Thursday.
There is no guarantee the US campaign for a more global front against China over the northwestern region of Xinjiang will succeed. Its attempts to persuade other countries to reject 5G technology sold by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications network company, which many American officials believe to be a security threat, have had mixed results. Despite Washington’s calls to be wary, many countries — including US allies — have bolstered their commercial relationships with China.
According to people familiar with the matter, the US state department has intensified conversations with EU member states and several Asian nations in recent weeks, urging them to be more “vocal” in attacking Beijing over the mass detention of more than 1m Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group native to the region.
An unclassified state department document distributed in March by US officials to foreign diplomats included accounts of abuse collected by advocacy groups and media organisations, satellite imagery showing the expansion of detention facilities in the region, and cited five main goals of Chinese policy in Xinjiang. These included Beijing’s desire to “block and divide global criticism” to “weaken Muslim/Turkic voices internationally” and the “sinicisation of Islam”, according to the document seen by the Financial Times.
The state department did not respond to requests for comment but Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, last week in Washington met representatives of the Uighur community, including Mihrigul Tursun, the survivor of a Chinese internment camp. Mr Pompeo called for the end of “repression” and the release of all those who had been “arbitrarily” detained.
“The world cannot afford China’s shameful hypocrisy toward Muslims. On one hand, China abuses more than a million Muslims at home but on the other it protects violent Islamic terrorist groups from sanctions at the UN,” he said on Twitter.
The Trump administration has been selective in its approach to human rights, with critics pointing out that it has refrained from harsh criticism of repressive, authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, an important ally, and even North Korea. Early in his presidency, Mr Trump sought to ban new arrivals in the US from a number of Muslim-majority countries.
Nevertheless, the US administration is trying hard to globalise its campaign against Chinese repression in Xinjiang. But many countries are reluctant to criticise Beijing, given China’s importance as a source of investment. US diplomats were comforted last week when EU ambassadors declined an invitation on short notice from Chinese officials to visit Xinjiang, so that they could gather more information and set their own terms for a visit.
The US, though, has struggled to rally big countries with large Muslim populations to attack China’s treatment of Uighurs. In separate interviews with the Financial Times in March, Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s president, said he “didn’t know the facts” on abuse in Xinjiang and Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, said he “didn’t know much” about the plight of the Uighurs.
China has rejected criticism that it has developed a network of “gulags” in its restive western region. It said the prison-like camps were “vocational training centres” that provided “deradicalisation education for citizens influenced by extremist ideas”.
The US diplomatic activity on Xinjiang has intensified in recent weeks as the Trump administration faced pressure from American lawmakers of both main political parties to take a tougher stance towards Beijing. Some have even called for the imposition of economic sanctions.
While the trade negotiators will try to keep the Xinjiang issue separate, it could be problematic if it makes hawks in Beijing more nervous of a deal, given that they are already uneasy that Mr Liu may make too many concessions to the US on economic policy.
Nevertheless, Mr Pompeo is pressing ahead, with US officials in Washington discussing the matter with diplomats stationed in the capital, as well as US diplomats raising Xinjiang in national capitals, people close to the matter say.
“The state department is quite active on this issue,” said one European official. “I cannot confirm there is a ‘structured or organised initiative’ on this but there have been several opportunities recently to discuss the issue and the Americans are advocating for being more vocal.”
Additional reporting by Michael Peel in Brussels and Lucy Hornby in Beijing