Xinjiang — the new Palestinian issue?

US academic Ma Haiyun suggests that the US is making greater efforts to get the Muslim world on its side as its competition and even confrontation with China gets more intense. Internationalising the Xinjiang issue may be one of the ways it plans to do this, which will have implications for Southeast Asian countries.
Is Xinjiang becoming a new "Palestinian issue"? In this photo taken on 17 May 2020, residents are having tea in a teahouse in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China. (Xinhua)
Is Xinjiang becoming a new "Palestinian issue"? In this photo taken on 17 May 2020, residents are having tea in a teahouse in Kashgar, Xinjiang, China. (Xinhua)

With the rise of China, the pattern of international relations with China-US ties at its core has undergone fundamental changes. The China-US trade war, ideological differences, and the flexing of military muscle have worsened relations between both powers and implicated their respective allies. Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 pandemic that was first discovered in Wuhan and subsequently spread across the world has also aggravated the relationships between China and many other countries.   

As China-US relations change from being “competitive” to “hostile”, many countries would be forced to take sides.

The end of the Cold War left the Western alliance weakened and the Eastern bloc disintegrated. In those circumstances, the US emerged as temporary global hegemon. However, the US can no longer dominate international affairs following the fragmentation of international relations, proliferation of nuclear weapons, outbreak of traditional and non-traditional war, the flourishing of regional organisations, and the fact that high technology such as the internet and artificial intelligence are advancing quickly in non-Western countries.

For that matter, with the fall of bloc politics, increasing regionalisation, and the rise of middle powers, neither the US nor China has the will, ability, or resources to command great respect from other states like the US and the USSR did in the past. As China-US relations change from being “competitive” to “hostile”, many countries will be forced to take sides. 

In this file photo taken on 29 June 2019, US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)
In this file photo taken on 29 June 2019, US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

Seeking to win over the Muslim world

Historically speaking, the US’s relations with the Muslim world has been dictated by geopolitics and domestic politics. 

In 1786, when the US was still an emerging country, it already had contact with the Muslim world, signing a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Morocco. However, the main settlements of the Muslim world — be it in the Near East, Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, or Southeast Asia — were quickly colonised by old European powers and the Russian Empire. Since the late 18th century, the US’s relations with the Muslim world have been but a small and negligible part of its transatlantic relations.     

However, after the end of the Spanish-American War in the late 19th century, a rising America began extending its reach to the majority-Muslim colonies of European powers in the Middle East. Following World Wars I and II, during the Cold War — in particular with regards to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and the Suez Crisis (precipitated by Egypt‘s attempts to nationalise the Suez Canal Company), and up until the Camp David Accords (signed between Egypt and Israel) and the dissolution of the USSR — not only did the US successfully bring down traditional European colonial empires of countries such as the UK, France, and the Netherlands, it also removed the USSR’s influence over the abovementioned regions.   

Everything from the Palestinian question to the 9/11 attacks, and the multi-trillion Afghanistan and Iraq wars (and to some extent, even the Syrian civil war) have not only stymied the US economy, but also provided precious strategic buffer periods to the countries that the US sees as their competitors. 

Since the first world war, the US has supported anti-colonial movements based on the principle of “self-determination”. However, these efforts failed to get the Muslim world on their side, mainly because Israel — since its declaration of independence in 1948 — and Jewish political machines have been lobbying the US on its Middle East policies. Although the US has spent an enormous sum in the form of economic and military aid, not only was peace not achieved in the Middle East, it suffered the 9/11 al-Qaeda attacks in 2001 on its own soil.

Afghan security forces sit in a Humvee vehicle amid ongoing fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in Kunduz on 19 May 2020. (STR/AFP)
Afghan security forces sit in a Humvee vehicle amid ongoing fighting between Taliban militants and Afghan security forces in Kunduz on 19 May 2020. (STR/AFP)

According to what Osama bin Laden wrote in the letter “Why are We Fighting and Opposing You” addressed to the American people, the plight of Palestine having “sunk under military occupation for more than 80 years” is a source of hatred. Everything from the Palestinian issue to the 9/11 attacks, and the multi-trillion Afghanistan and Iraq wars (and to some extent, even the Syrian civil war) have not only weakened the US economy, but also provided precious strategic buffer periods to the countries that the US sees as their competitors. 

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has cost the US decades of national interest and power. Coupled with seeing the effects of the Soviet-Afghan War, the US has clearly realised the importance of the Muslim world amid competition between major powers. Especially now when China and the US have become new opponents, regardless of Obama’s “Rebalance towards Asia-Pacific” or Trump’s “Indo-Pacific strategy”, forging relations with the Muslim world has become unavoidable. After all, many of China’s neighbours are Muslim countries.

Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of the peace signing ceremony between the United States and Afghanistan's Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on 29 February 2020. (Giuseppe Cacace/Pool via Reuters)
Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of the peace signing ceremony between the United States and Afghanistan's Taliban in Doha, Qatar, on 29 February 2020. (Giuseppe Cacace/Pool via Reuters)

China’s large-scale implementation of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang since 2016 has also made the US realise the global strategic value of this issue.  

That is why, former US President Barack Obama offered a hand of friendship between the US and Muslim world in an unprecedented move during his speech in Egypt in 2009. And although Trump took office on the back of his appeal to the white and religious right votes, he has also firmly supported the establishment of an “Arab NATO”, signed a deal with Taliban aimed at bringing peace to Afghanistan, and extended gestures of goodwill to Pakistan. These actions were mainly taken to shift strategic and military resources eastwards to the Asia Pacific region to tackle China’s rise.

Politicising Xinjiang

At the same time, the US is also searching for China’s “Palestinian issue”. China’s fight against the “three evils”, namely separatism, terrorism and extremism, in Xinjiang since the 90s have gradually demonstrated the geopolitical value of Xinjiang to the US. In particular, China’s large-scale implementation of “re-education camps” in Xinjiang since 2016 has also made the US realise the global strategic value of this issue. 

Military and political struggles as a result of geopolitical changes to safeguard national sovereignty escalated into a massive conversion of religion and ethnic groups.  

The Xinjiang issue is the result of a transitional and hastily devised response to the impact of sudden geopolitical changes in the Central Asia region concerning the superpowers US and USSR. It is made to tackle the longstanding political tussle between the US and the USSR, which had resulted in the dissolution of the latter and the independence of some states in Central Asia. It is also intended to ease concerns over security and sovereignty issues brought about by the US-Taliban military face-off.   

This file photo taken on 31 May 2019 shows a watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, Xinjiang, China. (Greg Baker/AFP)
This file photo taken on 31 May 2019 shows a watchtower on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, on the outskirts of Hotan, Xinjiang, China. (Greg Baker/AFP)

However, this extended period of intense engagements within the autonomous region did not subside even after the state of affairs in the Central Asia region had settled down following the USSR’s collapse. It also did not ease after the US’s gradual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. On the contrary, it went from being “anti-separatist” and “anti-terrorist” to “anti-extremist”. Military and political struggles as a result of geopolitical changes to safeguard national sovereignty escalated into a massive conversion of religion and ethnic groups. The US and the West, as well as the Turkish and Muslim worlds, became involved, turning the Xinjiang issue into a global issue of human rights, ethnic groups, and religion.     

This has already been demonstrated through public criticisms of Xinjiang policies by the legislators, non-governmental organisations, and people of countries like Kuwait, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Its ongoing nature as well as the increasing animosity between China and the US, have quickly made the Xinjiang issue somewhat akin to the “Palestinian issue”. At least from 2016, coverage of the issue in terms of Western media reports to academic research, political condemnation and parliamentary legislation has proceeded apace, precipitating far-reaching impacts.    

Ethnic Uighur demonstrators step on a poster with an image of Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Chen Quanguo, during a protest against China in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on 1 October 2019. (Huseyin Aldemir/File Photo/Reuters)
Ethnic Uighur demonstrators step on a poster with an image of Communist Party Secretary of Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Chen Quanguo, during a protest against China in front of the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on 1 October 2019. (Huseyin Aldemir/File Photo/Reuters)

In particular, while many Middle Eastern Arab monarchies and Central Asian authoritarian regimes show support for China’s Xinjiang policy at the United Nations Human Rights Council, civil societies of these states are bound to have stronger reactions over time. This has already been demonstrated through public criticisms of Xinjiang policies by the legislators, non-governmental organisations, and people of countries like Kuwait, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Just as the US has gained support from dictatorships in the Arab states for the Palestinian conflict through its “carrot and stick” policies but failed to turn public sentiment in the Arab world around, China has also gained the support of some Muslim countries — especially key countries that received huge investments from China for the Belt and Road Initiative — for the Xinjiang issue but see a clear and widening gap between the governments and people of these countries towards the issue.    

Overview of the session of the Human Rights Council during the speech of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 27 February 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)
Overview of the session of the Human Rights Council during the speech of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on 27 February 2020. (Denis Balibouse/Reuters)

With the fragmentation of international relations and the spotlight of China-US competition turning towards the Asia-Pacific region, even if the main majority-Muslim middle powers, — especially non-Arab countries that may be more democratic — are unable to choose between China and the US, they have to take into account their people’s wishes. In particular, the muted response of Indonesia and Malaysia — both neighbours of China and located at key spots of the Maritime Silk Road — to the Xinjiang issue at the UN Human Rights Council demonstrates how the countries have navigated the intricacies of their domestic politics in forming their “dare not speak” attitudes amid delicate relationships with external major powers.     

In the long term, if the Xinjiang issue continues to escalate, the relationship between China and the Muslim world, including Southeast Asia countries, would be severely affected.

For example, Malaysia’s independent investigations on the Xinjiang issue is not just a simple denial of Western allegations but an appropriate response based on the state of its domestic politics. As a country with a large population of Muslims, Indonesia’s muted response at the UN Human Rights Council shows that the issue is highly sensitive in its society and holds great uncertainty in the future.   

People leave the Baiturrahman grand mosque after taking part in the second Friday prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Banda Aceh on 1 May 2020. (Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)
People leave the Baiturrahman grand mosque after taking part in the second Friday prayers during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on 1 May 2020. (Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP)

In the long term, if the Xinjiang issue continues to escalate, the relationship between China and the Muslim world, including Southeast Asia countries, would be severely affected. To a certain extent, it could even be on par with the impact that the Palestinian conflict has had on the US.    

In particular, for Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, China’s Xinjiang conflict would be organically connected to a myriad of complex issues including the ethnic problems of both countries, territorial disputes in the South China Sea region, clashes between China and the US in the region (that is, the Indo-Pacific strategy and the Belt and Road Initiative), power struggles of some major powers (such as the US, Japan, and India) over the region, and socioeconomic problems caused by the huge damages that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about. These would easily produce a political and social resonance, in turn forging policy synergies. To a certain extent, it could also re-awaken the earlier instincts these countries had when they first formed ASEAN, which was to guard against the powerful country in the North.

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