Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 350, 25 March 2021

The US and allies sanction China; Beijing retaliates
Harini Madhusudan

In the news 
On 22 March, the US, UK, European Union, and Canada announced sanctions against four officials, former and current, in the Xinjiang province for alleged human rights abuses. The US had placed sanctions on two of the officials back in July 2020. The sanctions have also been placed on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, an economic and paramilitary organization from the region.
On the same day, China announced the imposition of sanctions on 10 European Union citizens, and four EU entities, calling the sanctions a "gross interference" in its internal affairs and a violation of international law.

On 23 March, the Foreign Ministers of China and Russia met in Guilin and condemned the sanctions that have been placed on them by the West. The two sides called the sanctions unilateral and called on the international community to oppose them.
Issues at large
First, the increased international focus on Xinjiang. During the recent period, a BBC documentary describing the systemic assault on women within the re-education camps was released. The United Nations had revealed that more than one million Uighurs and other primarily Muslim Turkic-speaking residents in the region are known to be held in these "vocational skills training centers." In February 2020, the Canadian Parliament had declared China's treatment of the Uighurs as 'genocide.'
Second, the US strategy in building a coalition to condemn China on human rights. The coordinated efforts by the four western countries come around the same time when the US following the same: the Quad meeting, the two-plus-two meeting, the US-China talks in Alaska, and the visits by the Secretary of State to various strategic partners across the world. The sanctions aim to send a clear signal of unity by acting together in condemning China.
Third, China's response. On Xinjiang, in February, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, during his address at the UNHRC, announced that China welcomes the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Xinjiang. He stated that there were over 24,00 mosques in the region, and the basic facts would show that there has never been genocide, forced labour, or religious oppression in Xinjiang. The Chinese side is visibly disappointed with the EU joining the sanctions regime and placed sanctions on 10 EU individuals and four entities for "maliciously spreading lies and disinformation." 
In perspective
The sanctions have been announced at a time when the US is seeking to repair the relations with its NATO allies. Though the scale of the sanctions placed is not alarming, the coordinated efforts by the four countries reflect a strong message. Chinese human rights violations, as the reason for the sanctions, figure to be ill-timed, considering the fact that there are multiple ongoing human rights violations that have not been addressed by the same groups of nations. The tit-for-tat nature of the sanctions is a sign of brewing hostilities, as well as a clear expansion of the number of actors in the dispute between the US and China.

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