Following months of trade and investment restrictions, new legislation passed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday led to a claim by the Chinese foreign minister that China would take the necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and would not fear confrontation by the United States, according to a Reuters article.
The new legislation, known as the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, bans imports from the Xinjiang region in China over concerns about forced labour. The Act was passed with unanimous consent in the House of Representatives and Senate. In conjunction with trade embargoes adopted in recent months, the legislation keeps a provision of “rebuttable presumption” that all goods from Xinjiang were made with forced labour. U.N. experts and rights groups agree with the U.S. that more than a million Muslim minorities, mainly Uyghurs, have been detained in concentration camps in the trade-restricted western region. China vehemently denies such accusations, claiming the U.S. is “bullying” the economic superpower and making groundless strategic misjudgments to threaten China’s standing in the global economy.
The U.S. legislation blames eight tech firms for supporting “the biometric surveillance and tracking” of Uyghurs to further oppress the minority group and help the Chinese military, as stated by Reuters. The U.S. Treasury Department added the firms, including top drone maker DJI, to a list of entities suspected of having links to the Chinese military, barring Americans from trading or investing with them. Dozens of Chinese companies have been hit with investment and export restrictions as a result of the new legislation. Separate from the legislation, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted trade with China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences and its 11 research institutes, stating the academy uses biotech and “purported brain-control weaponry” for military uses. Several other technology companies were added to the list over allegations of attempts to acquire U.S. technology to modernize the People’s Liberation Army. United States Trade Representative Katherine Tai explained that the U.S. has a “moral and economic imperative to eliminate this practice from our global supply chains, including those that run through Xinjiang, China, and exploit Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities.”
Chinese embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu wrote in an email that “China’s development of biotechnology has always been for the well-being of mankind. The relevant claims of the U.S. side are totally groundless,” and the actions constitute “unwarranted suppression” that violate free trade rules. While violent action has not been taken by either party during this human rights-turned-trade conflict, the Chinese embassy in Washington has said Beijing would take “all essential measures” to uphold Chinese trade and research interests, which may imply readiness for combat if the U.S. does not “rectify” its “mistaken ways.” The full statement by the Chinese foreign ministry can be read here. China maintains that dialogue can and should be held, but “it should be on an equal basis” and mutually beneficial, said the foreign minister. “China always stands on the right side of history, on the side of human progress, on the side of international fairness and justice and stands with the large number of developing countries,” Wang said.
U.S. President Biden and Chinese President Xi spoke for three hours last month in what seemed to be a calmer version of talks between the economic powers. Both sides described the conversation as frank and direct. They tried to avoid conflict while proclaiming to maintain sovereignty on the Chinese side and morality on the United States side. While there were no immediate outcomes to the talk, Biden and Xi touched on many areas of disagreement, including North Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, global energy markets, climate change, military issues, and the pandemic. Thankfully, the beginning of peaceful and diplomatic means of resolution may signify a new relationship between the countries, especially when addressing human rights violations and trade restrictions. During a short exchange observed by reporters, Biden acknowledged that the everlasting competition between the U.S. and China must not veer into conflict, of which Xi agreed, comparing the countries to “two giant ships sailing in the sea” that needed to be steadied so they didn’t collide. However, a collision may be inevitable if the U.S. cannot verify the human rights abuse accusations and China continues to deny any accusation of such abuses. The U.S. cannot do much without violating China’s sovereignty, which can be considered the main issue at hand. If the talks aren’t enough to turn down the temperature, the international community may be roped into a larger and more violent course of action. Tensions could easily escalate if the U.S. seeks UN or NATO help in an attempt to unify the global economy against China.
Several countries have accused China of forced slavery and genocide of Uyghurs, including Canada, the Netherlands, the UK, and Australia. A 2018 UN human rights committee said it had credible reports that China detained up to one million people in “counter-extremism centres” in Xinjiang, according to a BBC article. Despite a multitude of reports stating the contrary, China continues to state the centres are “re-education” camps designed to “combat separatism and Islamist militancy in the region,” implying all of the men, women, and children in the camps are there for radical implications. China’s absolute rejection of all accusations and reports provides the clearest obstacle to a solution without violence, which the situation can quickly escalate to given China’s reaction to the U.S.’s thus far peaceful paths of trade sanctions and withdrawal from the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. The problem lies in sovereignty and China’s desire to protect it to the fullest extent. The U.S. cannot verify accusations without violating China’s sovereignty, and building an international coalition presents an alternative path of violence if China feels threatened, as it likely would.
Since President Biden has taken office, the U.S. has emphasized strengthening relationships in Asia through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Meanwhile, China only has one formal ally, and it’s a controversial one – North Korea. Many states in the international community have publicly condemned China for the Uyghur genocide, so the possibility for a peaceful joint front against China is evident. However, China has relaxed the 2017 UN sanctions against North Korea as “fraternal rhetoric” has returned between the East Asian states. North Korea’s suspected nuclear arsenal and military capabilities could viably support China if the U.S. were to corral a coalition to intervene, given how adamantly China has been denying the accusations. The peaceful actions the U.S. has pursued have only aggravated China, which may lead observers to believe that China hopes the U.S. will simply look the other way. Moving forward, the U.S. will have to decide whether to risk Chinese confrontation if an international coalition were to be built against the genocide in Xinjiang or to step out of internal Chinese affairs and turn an eye to human rights violations to maintain international peace. Both paths set a dangerous precedent.
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