Will Uyghur Muslims' Mistreatment Impact US-China Trade War?

Will Uyghur Muslims' Mistreatment Impact US-China Trade War?
 Beijing is being pressured by the US over its alleged treatment of the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang. The outgoing Trump administration sanctioned Chinese companies and officials, blocked a few imports from Xinjiang and initiated Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which if enacted by the Biden administration, would pave the way for a boycott of all goods from Xinjiang.  

Donald Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had termed the persecution of Uyghur ‘genocide’, which China rejected outrightly.  Although Joe Biden did not use the word in his talks with Xi Jinping, his administration is set to lock horns with China on the issue. 

Under intense domestic pressure from the Congress and human rights advocates, the Biden administration is all set to challenge China on account of its alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, crushing opposition in Hong Kong and assertive claims in Taiwan and South China sea. America’s political rhetoric has not undergone any dramatic shift with change of regime, and will continue to have profound implications for the world’s most important bilateral relationship. 

The first daunting question would be if the American government can deal with China after accusing it of ‘genocide’.  Accusing China of ‘genocide’ would send out a message that the country has committed the most heinous crimes and at the same time America wants talks with China over issues like global warming, Covid pandemic and trade.  This underscores the challenge democracies face to delicately balance players who are a threat to global norms and essential partners in tackling global crises. Refusing cooperation with them would endanger the world economy -- something major world players cannot afford.

Second vexing question is to determine if ‘genocide’ is the right word for the human rights situation in Xinjiang. The term was first used by Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of state, in his last days in office. Biden has not used it publicly, but his administration has stopped short of rescinding it. The UN Convention on Genocide says that the term ‘genocide’ refers to acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial, or religious group.” 

Without policy guidelines and analytical evidence, it is hard for America to establish intent of genocide in light of the UN convention. Naming or branding would simply diminish the unique stigma of the term and erode the legal implications. Since cold war, there have been five instances when the US has made public statements that genocide has occurred on account of mass slaughter. These were regarding atrocities in Bosnia, Rwanda, Iraq, Darfur and ISIS controlled areas after evidence and serious policy deliberations.  Therefore, the American government has to spell out a process for arriving at a determination of genocide in Xinjiang’s   case before branding it such. 

Some experts say that genocide, in the absence of mass murder, is a wrong word for human rights abuses on Uyghur. The Genocide Convention establishes international obligations for states to take robust steps to intervene in and prevent genocides in addition to punishing the perpetrators. However, America and its allies clearly shy away from intervening.   Many human rights advocates say that the case for genocide is starker against Myanmar’s persecution of Rohingya minority than against Uyghur in China, which America has turned a blind eye to.  

Another question is if trade be restricted on the pretext of human rights violations. Trade and human rights have an uneasy history of compatibility and aroused much debate since the inception of WTO.  Labour standards and human rights have been advocated by the developed countries to regulate trade and restrict exports from the developing countries by imposing sanctions against them when they failed to observe the minimum standards. 

The Clinton administration had explicitly linked trade with human rights for the first time and sanctioned Bangladesh, Pakistan and Myanmar on prevalence of child labour in their export sector. Similarly, it attempted to condition China’s ‘Most Favoured Nation ' trade status on improvement of  human rights record that was seen as interference in China’s domestic affairs and  a policy designed to keep China from reaching great power status. 

Following America, EU sanctioned Chinese officials on their alleged involvement with human rights violation in Xinjiang provoking tit for tat sanctions on EU officials, jeopardising the long negotiated Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), posing economic loss to business opportunities to both EU and China in times of global recession and heightened US-China rivalry. 

If the ball sets rolling, more countries and multinationals will have to balance trade with human rights without blowing up important bilateral relationships and disrupting global supply chains.

The writer has an LLM in International Economic Law