Throughout history, US foreign policy towards non-security issues has tended to lack comprehensive action. The US will scramble to develop a national security strategy at the slightest threat of American values but proceed at a snail’s pace to address humanitarian issues. The American self-perceived “champion” of morality is incapable of upholding its influence when human lives are at stake, demonstrated by its feeble plan to address the ongoing Uyghur human rights crisis in China. Washington needs to double down on addressing the humanitarian issue in Xinjiang.
Up to the current day, the Trump Administration’s most significant step to address this issue is the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, passed in June 2020 with the intent “to direct United States resources to address human rights violations and abuses.” Undeniably, it is an appropriate first step put down on paper. However, simply being cognizant of human rights violations and calling for action oftentimes does not translate into direct action. In the grand scheme of US policy, this law does not accomplish anything besides serving as a formal moral statement brought up in Congress.
A month later, Washington enacted sanctions on China in protest of the Uyghur internment. It blocked exports to select Chinese government agencies and surveillance technology companies complicit in Xinjiang. Chinese imports were also blocked if suspected to have been produced using Uyghur forced labor. While more concrete than the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, these sanctions are only a slap on the wrist to China. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented in a press statement that “the sanctions most likely will have little or no practical impact.” The US cannot afford to enact truly hard sanctions on China out of economic dependence on trade– it cannot punish China without hurting itself. In the end, the sanctions are only a weak warning sign that hold no real threat.
The Trump Administration’s half-hearted jabs have not deterred President Xi from continuing the Uyghur repression. In fact, it appears that Washington cares very little, with Trump even allegedly stating for China to “go ahead” with its re-education camps. Insubstantial US policy on Xinjiang is shockingly disappointing in light of the magnitude of human rights abuses.
As America condemns yet condones China’s human rights abuses, its position as an influential world leader wanes. The US has painted itself as incapable of responding appropriately to forced mass assimilation. For other countries, American indifference towards international humanitarian crises can be perceived as unreliable, irresponsible, and even unethical. Under the Trump administration, its apathetic involvement would be unfavorable to the US image.
What Washington should do is firstly acknowledge China’s reasons behind its actions: prevention of violent terrorism, ethnic separatism, and religious extremism. Indeed these are valid concerns to China’s national security. However, it is also imperative to emphasize that such threats cannot be grounds for indiscriminate and collective punishment. In international discourse, the US must magnify the detriments that China can face, should it continue its repressive policies in Xinjiang. US rhetoric and policy should focus on the unjust repression of innocent Uyghurs who have not been threats to the state, and that it may backfire and cause more violence, not less. Moreover, signalling how China’s reputation is suffering in the international community of the West can act as a deterrent.
The US must start playing an active role in deterring further Uyghur repression, with the help of the international community and human rights organizations. It needs to set a precedent in promoting the fair treatment of Uyghurs by acknowledging Chinese concerns and using soft tactics to caution China about its actions. Only through careful and sustained commitment can Washington work towards realizing human rights in Xinjiang.