US to Confront China on Uyghur Issue at UN

September 18, 2019 Updated: September 18, 2019

UNITED NATIONS/BEIJING—The United States is considering how to confront China during the annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations next week over its detention of some 1 million Muslims and Uyghurs in a remote region.

While the United States is the largest financial contributor to the U.N. budget, President Donald Trump has questioned the value of multilateralism as he focuses on an “America First” policy and touts the protection of U.S. sovereignty.

Trump’s first U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley, stepped down at the end of 2018, and was replaced just last week by Kelly Craft.

“China is taking advantage in the U.N. of the relative antagonistic, critical attitude of the USA towards the U.N. itself, and is occupying spaces and projecting influence much more than before,” said a senior European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Uyghurs and Tibetans demonstrate against China outside of the United Nations (UN) offices during the Universal Periodic Review of China by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Nov. 6, 2018. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

During the high-level U.N. gathering next week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States would seek support in calling out China’s detention policy in remote Xinjiang, where the United Nations says at least 1 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims have been detained.

Pompeo in July called China’s treatment of Uyghurs the “stain of the century,” saying at an international conference in Washington that China was “home to one of the worst human rights crises of our time.”

A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the White House was considering whether Trump might mention China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and possibly its broader human rights record in his speech to the 193-member U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 24.

The White House said Trump would host a “Global Call to Protect Religious Freedom” at the United Nations on Monday, the day before his address to the General Assembly, and would be introduced by Vice President Mike Pence.

“The President will call on the international community to take concrete steps to prevent attacks against people on the basis of their religion or beliefs and to ensure the sanctity of houses of worship and all public spaces for all faiths,” White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham in a statement on Tuesday.

Hinges on Trade

Beijing describes the complexes in Xinjiang as “vocational training centers” helping to stamp out extremism and give people new skills. But China is worried about public criticism and has met with some foreign envoys ahead of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and a session of the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, according to four Beijing-based diplomats.

CHINA-XINJIANG- internment camps
A facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, in Artux, north of Kashgar in China’s western Xinjiang region, on June 2, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

“With Hong Kong as well, these are not topics China wants called attention to ahead of the 70th anniversary,” one of the diplomats said, referring to the massive military parade Chinese leader Xi Jinping will oversee in Beijing on Oct. 1 marking seven decades of the People’s Republic of China.

Months of sometimes violent demonstrations show no sign of letting up in Hong Kong where protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy.

There was no indication, however, that tougher talk at the gathering would translate into concrete action on the issue against Beijing.

The senior U.S. administration official said Pompeo and Pence could also address China’s treatment of the Uyghurs at events on the sidelines of the U.N. gathering, but a final decision on any U.S. remarks “is expected to hinge on how the trade issue is going.”

China and the United States are set to resume trade talks in October, but most analysts do not expect a durable trade deal, or even a significant de-escalation, any time soon.

In unusually blunt remarks, China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, told reporters last month—during his first week on the job—that while Beijing was willing to cooperate with other U.N. member states, China would never allow interference in the country’s “internal affairs, especially on issues related to Xinjiang, Tibet and to Hong Kong.”

Last week, China condemned a U.S. bill that calls on the U.S. government to exert more pressure on China over Xinjiang-related issues.

Active China

Some U.N. diplomats said China has been working to spread and formalize Xi Jinping’s political thought.

“Xi Jinping-thought attempts to rewrite the rules of multilateralism,” said a senior European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We may disagree with them … but ‘Xi Jinping’ is a clear concept, which they promote and get into resolutions.”

An example is that for the past three years, a Security Council resolution to renew the mandate for the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan included a reference to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road) initiative, a massive plan to recreate the old Silk Road. But the United States and other members said this year they could no longer accept that language.

A U.S. defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there was concern about growing Chinese influence in international organizations as the United States has pulled back in some ways, but called it a “slow-moving train.”

Former U.N. political affairs chief and veteran U.S. diplomat Jeffrey Feltman, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, argued that the United Nations had become more of a competitive rather than cooperative environment.

“It’s not realistic to think that the United States is going to be able to single-handedly lead these organizations the same way that they could after 1989,” he said, referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union. “If the U.S. leaves a vacuum in the leadership of the U.N., others will fill it.”

By Michelle Nichols and Ben Blanchard

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