Will Allies Follow U.S Lead On Uighur Sanctions?

Japan and some European nations are beginning to take note.

The United States announced new sanctions on China last week, targeting its use of forced labor of Uighurs in cotton production.

The measures target the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) one of the largest producers of the crop in the country. Organized along military lines, the organization has been a crucial part of China's settlement efforts in Xinjiang. Located along China’s border with Central Asia the province is home to many predominately Muslim ethnic groups of which the Uighurs are the largest.

The move is the latest in a series of bills and acts from the Trump administration designed in response to China’s harsh treatment of its Uighur minority. While China's policies have been condemned by other liberal democracies, few of them have actually rallied to the cause and so U.S. sanctions efforts are so far mostly unilateral. Such policies will likely be continued under incoming U.S. president Joe Biden who labeled China’s actions a "genocide."

The question is whether other democratic allies will follow the  lead of the U.S..Furthermore, China’s increasing interest in imposing retaliatory sanctions in response—witness the targeted sanctions China applied to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Sen. Bob Menendez (D- New Jersey) this past summer—may give some other governments pause.

This summer Congress passed the Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, which seeks to penalize Chinese entities and individuals involved in efforts aimed at the ethnic cleansing of China’s Xinjiang province referred to by many locals as East Turkestan. As part of that campaign, Uighur women have been sterilized against their will or forced into marriages with non-Uighurs. At least 1 million of the region’s inhabitants have been forced into concentration camps, though Uighur activists say the real figure may be closer to 3 million. A recent report from Haaretz alleges that Chinese state supported organ harvesting may be increasingly focused on the Uighurs. Furthermore, digital surveillance is increasingly the norm for Uighurs not living in the camps, which China has described as re-educational vocation centers. 

Beyond those camps, about 80,000 Uighurs have been transported to 27 factories across China, according to a report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released earlier this year. Some end up working on products developed by American companies. The Uighur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which passed Congress in September and is currently under consideration in the Senate, would impose sanctions on the involvement of American companies from such practices. A recent report from the New York Times highlighted how American companies like Nike and Apple advocated against the new restrictions – claims the companies deny. 

The United States policy of targeted sanctions builds on the precedent set by the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act and American allies in Japan, and Europe are beginning to take note. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute report also indicated several Japanese companies use the factories that rely on Uighur labor, and European firms like retailer Marks & Spencer and BMW were also indicated in the report. 

Japan’s National Security Secretariat and its Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry are exploring the issue, which would be unprecedented in Japanese foreign policy. When Japan has used such sanctions in the past—as it did against apartheid South Africa—it is usually justified under Japanese law as being in alignment with Japan’s commitments to the United Nations.

“Japanese considerations for the establishment of the equivalent of the U.S. Uighur Human Rights Policy Act, aimed at imposing sanctions on China for alleged human rights abuses of the Uyghur Muslims, may be complicated by the fact that both Japan and China are now signatories to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP),” says Saeed Khan, an expert on the Muslim world at Wayne State University, “It is doubtful whether Japan will, or can, enact legislation that would violate either the letter or the spirit of this new partnership.”

The RCEP is a free-trade agreement involving 15 member states, constituting 30 percent of the world’s population as well as 30 percent of the world's GDP. The RCEP was signed in November linking three of Asia’s four largest economies and long-time rivals. Indeed the agreement marks  the first free trade agreement linking China with Japan and South Korea.

Were Japan to move forward with the proposal to establish its own legislation, it would join a growing chorus of vocal condemnation though. In this regard Japan’s economic interest may put it in conflict with its political alignment with other liberal democracies which are increasingly concerned about the plight of China’s Uighur population.

 A report from the Canadian Parliament released last month referred to the situation in Xinjiang as “genocide.” Earlier this year France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned the practices of “mass arrests, disappearances, forced labor, forced sterilizations, the destruction of Uighur cultural heritage” and asked that the camps be closed. 

“Sanctions are still the best instrument for the international community to force authoritarian countries to respect the rule of law, human rights, and the dignity of people," said Maurizio Geri, a former analyst with NATO.

While specific European policies on the matter remain unclear, a growing number of British parliamentarians are calling for similar sanctions in the United Kingdom. 

“We raise these concerns directly with the Chinese authorities and will continue to do so in the G20, the U.N. and every other context,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said when asked about his government's policy.

“[These are] symbolic step towards defending the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, instead of a shameful policy that turns a blind eye to genocide for economic gain,” said the Brussels-based East Turkistan Republican Party in a statement. “We hope that Japan will introduce the bill as soon as possible in response to the Chinese threat. But on the one hand, these have become slogans and have no real impact, and have no effect on stopping China's brutal policies against the Uyghurs.”

International relations scholars have long debated whether sanctions can have a real impact on altering a country’s behavior. Examples where sanctions have helped end policies in violations of human rights principles are disputed. Some argue that targeted sanctions helped bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa.

“The effects of such action may be to make repression more costly than otherwise the case,” says Ian Chong, an East Asian affairs analyst, based in Singapore, “even if immediate effects in getting Beijing to exercise restraint are likely to be more limited.”

Joseph Hammond is a former Fulbright fellow and journalist who has reported extensively from Africa and Eurasia.