Battling atheist China: US highlights Xinjiang issue and religious freedom in Indo-Pacific region

Ma Haiyun says that the US and China’s relations with the Muslim world have been a sticking point — for very different reasons. Yet as the US turns its focus to the Indo-Pacific region, Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East may feel increasingly marginalised by geopolitical shifts and feel even more compelled to use their views on the Palestinian and Uighur issue as a vote of allegiance for the US or China. In Southeast Asia, the Muslim-majority countries face even more pressure as US-China competition intensifies in their own backyard. Whichever side they are on, all parties are gearing up for the next phase of US-China competition to be fought in the arena of global religious freedom.
Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group take part in a military parade during a condolences ceremony for the movement's former leader Ramadan Shalah in Gaza city, on 8 June 2020, two days after his death in neighbouring Lebanon. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group take part in a military parade during a condolences ceremony for the movement's former leader Ramadan Shalah in Gaza city, on 8 June 2020, two days after his death in neighbouring Lebanon. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

The Uighur Human Rights Policy Act 2020 passed by the US Senate in mid-May was signed into legislation by President Trump in mid-June. This law allows the US to impose sanctions on Chinese officials and other individuals for human rights violations against “Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, members of other Muslim minority groups, or other persons in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region”. 

Although Israel and China are both facing a Palestinian and Uighur issue respectively, US foreign policy towards its ally and competitor are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

Around the same time, the US-Israel Security Assistance Authorisation Act of 2020 that pledges to provide US$38 billion in military aid to Israel over the next ten years was passed by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and moved to the Senate.

Interestingly, US Republican Senator for Florida Marco Rubio was involved in the introduction of both bills. Although Israel and China are both facing a Palestinian and Uighur issue respectively, US foreign policy towards its ally and competitor are at opposite ends of the spectrum.

US Senator Marco Rubio speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing, in Washington, US, on 5 May 2020. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters)
US Senator Marco Rubio speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing, in Washington, US, on 5 May 2020. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/Reuters)

China’s Palestinian issue position finds favour with Muslim world

Historically speaking, the US’s conflict with the Muslim world is, to a certain extent, due to its long-standing Middle East policies that favour Israel. Even the 9/11 attacks are related to Palestine, as evidenced by Osama bin Laden’s open letter to the Americans, which said that one of the sources of Muslim anger is America’s support for Israel’s long-term military occupation of Palestinian territory.

...the Chinese Communist Party has always considered the Palestinian issue as the disastrous result of Euro-American imperialism and Zionism.

According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in 2005, even in a post-9/11 era, Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East still feel that the US favours Israel too much. A 2016 Brookings Institution paper mentions that 80% of people from predominantly Muslim countries have a negative view of the US. According to yet another 2019 Pew Research Center survey, even American Jews think that the Trump administration favours the Israelis too much. 

In contrast, since it came to power, the Chinese Communist Party has always considered the Palestinian issue as the disastrous result of Euro-American imperialism and Zionism. During the Bandung Conference in 1955, Premier Zhou Enlai, head of the delegation of the People's Republic of China, proposed to add the Israeli and Palestinian issue to the meeting agenda, with special emphasis on the issue of Palestine refugees.

Since then, while China’s Middle East policy continues to be adjusted, its fundamental stance towards the Palestinian issue remains unchanged. When the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations passed the US-Israel Security Assistance Authorisation Act, China almost immediately reiterated the “land for peace” principle and other fundamental positions on the Palestinian issue at the United Nations Security Council.

This picture taken on 3 June 2020 shows a view of the Palestinian neighbourhood of Wadi al-Joz (below) in occupied east Jerusalem, with a backdrop of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem's old city. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
This picture taken on 3 June 2020 shows a view of the Palestinian neighbourhood of Wadi al-Joz (below) in occupied east Jerusalem, with a backdrop of the Dome of the Rock Mosque in Jerusalem's old city. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

China’s position on the Palestinian issue has won praise from the Muslim world, and with it, brought about the establishment of diplomatic relations with various Muslim countries in the 1950s and 1960s, the support from Muslim countries for the government representatives of the PRC to be the only legitimate representatives of China to the UN in the 1970s, and even the widespread support and participation from Muslim countries in its current Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

On the other hand, the US’s Palestine policies have harmed the relationship between the US and the Muslim world and jeopardised the US’s global strategic deployment. According to a survey conducted by the University of Maryland in 2008, 80% to 90% of people in the Middle East region see the US and Israel as top threats, while only 5% viewed China as a threat. There were also almost twice as many people who hoped that China would become a major power as compared to those who supported the US. In the 2017-2018 Arab Opinion Index survey conducted by Doha’s Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 84% respondents across 11 Arab countries felt that the US constituted a threat to security and stability in the region, as compared to 28% for China.

In the long term, raging anti-US sentiments in the Middle East region would only allow the US to implement gradual offshore deterrence and regional balancing strategies. China’s timely rise, on the other hand, has provided the US with the political conditions and an excuse for military mobilisation to strategically shift from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region. Just as the US is adjusting its Middle East strategy and further undermining the Palestinian issue, it is also vigorously stirring up the Uighur problem in the Muslim world, especially in the Southeast Asia region that is considered the soft underbelly of the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy, and the doorway of China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

Do Middle Eastern countries truly support China’s Uighur policies?

Since China separately introduced the BRI to Muslim countries Kazakhstan and Indonesia in 2013, Xinjiang’s Uighur issue has also become increasingly complex. The Xinjiang region was already laden with separatist worries as a result of the dissolution of the USSR and the independence of Central Asian states; the US war in Afghanistan has also deepened concerns over terrorism, while the BRI’s implementation in Muslim countries around China has brought about concerns over a so-called “extremism”. The escalation of these policies has finally triggered the large-scale “re-education” or “transformation” camps targeted at ethnic and religious groups between 2016 and 2017.

They can only show support for US’s Palestinian deal or China’s Uighur policies to try to retain some sort of strategic interest and support from the major powers.

Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner speaks during a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials on police and community relations hosted by US President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on 8 June 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)
Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner speaks during a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials on police and community relations hosted by US President Donald Trump in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on 8 June 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

While certain Muslim monarchies and dictatorships of the Middle East have remained silent or even nodded in approval at these practices, from the perspective of geopolitics and competition between major powers, these are just like the support they have given to the US’s “deal of the century” — a Middle East peace plan helmed by US President Donald Trump’s Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner — for the Palestinian issue.

The Middle Eastern Muslim countries’ support for China’s Uighur policies is fundamentally a show of their allegiance to China. Following the US’s offshore balancing strategies towards the Middle East and the shift in the main battleground of China-US competition to the Indo-Pacific region, the Middle East is increasingly marginalised in the strategies of major powers. They can only show support for US’s Palestinian deal or China’s Uighur policies to try to retain some sort of strategic interest and support from the major powers.

Muslim world in Southeast Asia caught in the fray

In the Indo-Pacific region, the main battleground of China-US competition, Southeast Asian Muslim countries are far more important to the major powers than the Middle East region. According to a 2019 ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute survey, 62% of the respondents think that the ASEAN region has already become an arena for major power competition. Half of the respondents lack confidence and trust in both China and the US. However, if asked to take a side, 54% would support the US, while 46% would support China.

Indonesia and Malaysia, ASEAN’s main member states, would likely have their domestic politics in mind when considering Muslim-minority issues. According to the same survey, 79.1% of Indonesian respondents were of the view that ASEAN should mediate between the Myanmar government and other stakeholders in the Rohingya issue in fellow ASEAN member state Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Indonesia and Malaysia were not among the 50 developing countries in support of China; neither were they among the 22 Western countries (including Japan) that criticised China’s Xinjiang policies.

While this survey did not address the Muslim-minority issues involving non-ASEAN members, such as the Palestinian and Uighur issues, Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s policies on the Rohingya issue gives us a hint of Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority countries’ attitudes on both issues. Indicatively, Indonesia rejected the US’s “deal of the century” at the United Nations Security Council, while Malaysia shot down the proposal at once.

Indonesians attend Eid al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on a street in Surabaya on 24 May 2020. (Juni Kriswanto/AFP)
Indonesians attend Eid al-Fitr prayers, marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, on a street in Surabaya on 24 May 2020. (Juni Kriswanto/AFP)

As for the Uighur issue, demonstrations of a relatively larger scale than those in Middle Eastern Muslim countries have also broken out in both countries. With regards to foreign policies targeted at the Uighur issue, Indonesia and Malaysia were not among the 50 developing countries in support of China; neither were they among the 22 Western countries (including Japan) that criticised China’s Xinjiang policies.

Indonesia and Malaysia are being particularly cautious in the Uighur issue and have unique views and policies on it. For example, Indonesia hopes for mediation and awaits a best solution, while Malaysia seeks an independent investigation of the truth behind it. As democratic Muslim countries, Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s positions are in line with their Palestine and Rohingya policies, as well as ASEAN’s position on similar matters.

Xinjiang a new battleground for religious freedom

Following the constant imbalance of power between Israel and Palestine, the weakening influence of Arab countries and the constant adjustments of their national interests and national policies, as well as the increasingly powerful Jewish lobbying groups in the US, the US’s Palestine policy has stagnated at “doing nothing” for a long time. On the other hand, China’s just position in the Palestinian issue has gained support from the Muslim world, including those in the Southeast Asia region. However, its Xinjiang issue is quickly becoming its “Palestinian issue” in the Muslim world, especially in Southeast Asian Muslim countries.

According to a 2019 ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute survey, 36% of Indonesians view China favourably in 2019, down from 53% in 2018. While this survey did not specifically mention the Uighur factor, a certain correlation can be drawn from Indonesia’s protest against China’s Xinjiang policy in 2019.

Devotees attend Friday prayers at the state mosque in Penang, ahead of the Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on 22 May 2020. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP)
Devotees attend Friday prayers at the state mosque in Penang, ahead of the Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on 22 May 2020. (Goh Chai Hin/AFP)

A subtle connection has been established between the US’s Indo-Pacific strategy and the globalisation or even “Palestinisation” of the Uighur issue. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said to an audience of over 100 religious delegations at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2019 that the Xinjiang issue is the “stain of the century” and that an International Religious Freedom Alliance needs to be formed to tackle religious oppression.

This implies that the US has given strategic value to global religious freedom and international religious alliance in a new round of competition with an atheist China.

By the US shifting its grand strategy of the century from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific region, from neglecting the Palestinian territory problem to highlighting Uighur’s religious issues, from protecting the religious rights of Muslim ethnic minorities to establishing an international religious alliance and battling against communist and atheist powers, it is demonstrating that its focus on the world’s Muslim ethnic minorities has already shifted from issues of territory to religion.

In this way, not only are they able to avoid the topic of Palestine’s occupied territory, they have also respected China’s territorial sovereignty. However, this has also highlighted the issue of religious freedom and its global relevance. This implies that the US has given strategic value to global religious freedom and international religious alliance in a new round of competition with an atheist China.

Related: Xinjiang — the new Palestinian issue? | ASEAN’s future: China or the US? | Unfavourable views: Southeast Asia's perceptions of China and the US worsen amid Covid-19