May 14, 2021 – Stealth War Newsletter 37: Calls to investigate Xinjiang; Endless Frontier Act; Bangladesh and the Quad

By: Jamestown Foundation

Fri May, 2021, Age: 2 years



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May 14, 2021

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Strategic Indicator
This issue’s number to watch

0.53 percent
China’s annual growth rate over the past ten years according to census data, a drop from a rate of 0.57 percent between 2000 and 2010. The declining growth rate has been a concern for Beijing, which has launched a natalist campaign to prevent a population decline.

Top Stories

New research from the Uyghur Human Rights Project found that China has detained or imprisoned at least 630 imams and other religious figures since 2014 in its crackdown in Xinjiang. The research, published on Eid, tracked 1,046 clerics using court documents, family interviews and media reports. The clerics were detained on broad charges, such as “inciting separatism” or “gathering a crowd to disturb social order. In its crackdown on the Uyghur minority, China has linked religion to extremism, citing common religious practices such as gathering prayer groups or preaching as “endangering national security.” Notably, the report found 304 clerics held in prison instead of being sent to China’s “re-education” camps. In addition, there is evidence that at least 18 clerics died in detention.

At a virtual event on May 12, NGO Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations to open an inquiry into China’s policies toward the Uyghur minority whether or not Beijing granted access to Xinjiang. The event came after Human Rights Watch published a report in April outlining China’s “crimes against humanity” committed against Uyghurs and other Turkic groups in Xinjiang. China campaigned for member states not to attend the event, calling it “anti-China” and interference in its “internal affairs.” Countries at the event, including the U.S., Britain and Germany, urged for open access to Xinjiang for UN experts to examine the situation.

Amid this growing evidence of discriminatory policies and a increasing backlash over China’s Muslim policies by Western nations, Muslim leaders from Xinjiang declared their support for the Chinese Communist Party and rejected allegations of human rights abuses in the region to foreign diplomats and media at an Eid reception. The President of the Xinjiang Islamic Association Abdureqip Tomurniyaz asserted that China’s policies prevented the rise of extremism in the region and allowed people to improve their livelihoods through vocational training. Religious leaders from five mosques participated in the event, describing celebrations for the Islamic holy day and rejecting Western accusations of human rights abuses as an effort to contain China’s rise. The event was a Chinese government effort to counter allegations of human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

China has also courted its neighbors in Central Asia with Belt and Road Initiative projects and COVID-19 vaccines. In a multilateral meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi gathered with counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to discuss the development of a “grand Eurasian passageway of interconnectivity,” agricultural cooperation and a crackdown on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing has linked with “extremism” in Xinjiang. China also emphasized the urgency to defend “national sovereignty and territorial integrity” regarding its policies. Outside of China, its Central Asian neighbors hold significant Uyghur populations. The Belt and Road Initiative is a key tool for China to build multilateral ties with its neighbors and secure its grip on Xinjiang.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has voted to advance the bipartisan Endless Frontier Act, a legislative package that aims to better position the U.S. for long-term economic and technological competition with China. The Endless Frontier Act includes a multibillion dollar fund for advancing strategically important scientific research and development, strengthening the National Science Foundation, and establishing regional technology hubs to revive American innovation and manufacturing. The bill follows a number of other China-centric legislative proposals, including the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Strategic Competition Act; the Senate Banking Committee’s recent proposal to sanction Chinese actors engaged in intellectual property theft and cyberattacks against the U.S. and forthcoming legislation aimed at countering forced labor, fighting censorship and shoring up U.S. supply chains and trade enforcement.

Together, these policies signal a growing bipartisan consensus on the need to more proactively counter China across a variety of economic and security domains. Policy watchers have noted that on issues such as Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Indo-Pacific, the Biden administration has largely followed the Trump administration’s China policy. Further developments in trade and finance have been delayed by the Biden administration’s systematic review of Trump-era policies, but there are signs that U.S. regulators may be walking back some of the Trump administration’s final acts against Chinese companies.

On Tuesday, the Pentagon agreed to remove Xiaomi Corporation from a blacklist banning U.S. investment in Chinese companies affiliated with military-civil fusion, an initiative which seeks to leverage civilian technologies for military use, one month after a Washington DC judge criticized the Pentagon’s rationale for including Xiaomi on the list and ordered a temporary halt on enforcement. Two other Chinese companies, TikTok and Wechat, have also recently won legal cases after being targeted on national security grounds by the previous administration.

On Monday, the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Li Jiming, warned Dhaka against joining the Quad grouping, threatening that doing so would result in “substantial damage” to relations. Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen protested Li’s comments, stating that, “As a sovereign nation, Bangladesh will determine the course of its foreign policy in the interest of its people.” Dhaka requested that foreign envoys respect “decency and decorum” following the Chinese ambassador’s remarks. These statements follow earlier comments made by Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe on April 29, wherein Wei said to the Bangladeshi President that China and Bangladesh should make joint efforts to counter outside a “military alliance” attempting to establish “hegemony” in South Asia.

Bangladesh has traditionally followed a policy of non-alignment, attempting to balance its relationships among major powers in the region. This policy, as reflected in Foreign Minister Momen’s comments, makes it unlikely that Bangladesh will either conduct joint efforts with Beijing to balance the Quad relationship, or join an expanded version of the Quad—which has not indicated any intention of expanding. Ambassador Li’s comments appear to be another example of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, wherein Chinese diplomats engage in vitriolic language against perceived slights and threats.

Across the Bay of Bengal, Beijing is finding more success in Sri Lanka, whose parliament will soon debate the controversial Colombo Port City Economic Commission bill on May 19-20. The bill would establish a Colombo Port City Special Economic Zone (SEZ) that would be overseen by a board of commissioners. Critics have claimed that the broad authorities and powers given to the commissioners could allow the notably pro-China President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to allow Chinese companies special privileges in the city. Sri Lankan Professor Suri Ratnapala argued that the bill would grant, “exemptions from national law, wide discretionary power granted to the commission, limitation of parliamentary, prudential and judicial oversight of the commission’s operations.” Following the domestic political backlash to the ceding of Hambantota port to a Chinese, many Sri Lankans reacted negatively to news of the Colombo Port City bill, which is seen as being in support of Chinese interests in the region.

Beijing is attempting to expand its influence in South Asia for a variety of reasons, including to ensure the security of vital sea lanes of communications through which much of its energy resources transit. But China is also attempting to limit the influence of its rivals, including India and the United States, in the region. The recent diplomatic spat in Bangladesh shows that Chinese attempts to garner influence in the region can often be unwieldy and self-defeating. However, in Sri Lanka, Beijing’s connections to policymaking elites and economic weight has gained greater success, likely raising anxieties in both New Delhi and Washington.

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte addressed the country today, where he vowed to not move Filipino Navy Ships an “inch backward,” rebuffing calls from China to move the ships away from disputed areas of the South China Sea. Manila has increased its naval presence near Thitu Island, called Pag-asa by the Philippines and the second largest of the Spratly archipelago in response to the months-long presence of Chinese Maritime Militia ships in territory the government considers part of its Exclusive Economic Zone. As Duterte said, “You can kill me but here I stay, this is where our friendship [with China] will end.” Duterte’s address follows a separate announcement earlier this week that the Philippines will create a naval refueling station on Thitu, which is also near a Chinese military installation. The island already hosts a navy jetty, a communications tower, barracks and a civilian-military airfield.  tima what wewor

Duterte’s recent statements are seen as an attempt to counter accusations that the president’s past friendliness to China has encouraged Beijing’s activities. In a past address, Duterte stated that, “Above all, I don’t want to fight China, we have a deep debt of gratitude.” Upon entering office in 2016, he said that he sought a “separation from the United States,” ostensibly so that the Philippines could be closer to China and receive greater development support.

In a major diplomatic shift, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez expressed his openness to open a trade office in mainland China to secure COVID-19 vaccines. Honduras is a part of a bloc of Latin American countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan; it does not have official relations with Beijing. Hernandez expressed his frustration with vaccine hoarding from wealthy nations that has prevented lower-income countries from accessing them. Many Latin American countries have received COVID-19 vaccines from China, including El Salvador and Mexico. Honduras is currently not in line to receive any because of its lack of diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China. In response, the U.S. State Department condemned the use of China’s COVID-19 vaccines as a diplomatic tool to undermine Taiwan’s relations. Taiwan has similarly accused China of using its vaccines to pressure Paraguay to cut ties with the island. The development in Honduras demonstrates China’s success in vaccine diplomacy amid dire need for COVID-19 relief among middle- and lower-income countries.

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