Tit-For-Tat Sanctions: A New Age For Chinese-Western Relations? – The Organization for World Peace

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A furious spat of sanctions between Chinese and Western governments has thrown global diplomatic ties into question. These sanctions mark the beginning of Biden’s tough stance on China, a position which has been closely followed by the likes of the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union, who have seen several of their own politicians, lawmakers, and businessmen suffer these tit-for-tat responses. The sanctions appear to signal a significant and markedly aggressive shift in global politics, begging the question of these sanctions’ direct effect and future outcomes.

The coordinated sanctions by the U.S., E.U., U.K., and Canada included travel bans and asset freezes on several high-ranking Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims. These officials include Wang Junzheng, party secretary of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and Chen Mingguo, the director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau. The former deputy Communist Party head in Xinjiang, Zhu Hailun, was also sanctioned. Zhu is accused of having held a “key political position” overseeing the camps.

On March 22nd, China responded by sanctioning individuals “that severely harm China’s sovereignty and interests and maliciously spread lies and disinformation.” Unlike Western governments’ coordinated response, China sanctioned a range of individuals including Gayle Manchin, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the commission’s vice-chair, Tony Perkins. China further targeted Michael Chong, a Canadian lawmaker, and a Canadian parliamentary committee that deals with human rights, amongst others.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that China’s retaliatory sanctions were “baseless” and would only shine a harsh spotlight on its actions in Xinjiang. “Beijing’s attempts to intimidate and silence those speaking out for human rights and fundamental freedoms only contribute to the growing international scrutiny of the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” Blinken said in a March 27th statement, speaking out after two more Canadian and American officials faced Chinese sanctions.

“We stand in solidarity with Canada, the U.K., the E.U., and other partners and allies around the world,” Blinken continued, “in calling on the P.R.C. to end the human rights violations and abuses against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang and to release those arbitrarily detained.”

Relations between the two global powers publicly soured when officials from both sides met in Alaska for the first time since President Joe Biden took office. U.S. officials said that the meetings were cordial, but when a top Chinese official asked whether follow-up talks would take place in Beijing, Blinken appeared to refuse.

In response to the U.S.-led sanctions, the Chinese foreign ministry said that “the Chinese government is firmly determined to safeguard its national sovereignty, security and development interests, and urges the relevant parties to clearly understand the situation and redress their mistakes.” The ministry’s spokesperson gave a dark warning: “[T]hey must stop political manipulation on Xinjiang-related issues, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs in any form and refrain from going farther down the wrong path. Otherwise they will get their fingers burnt.”

Several Western powers have recently voted to declare China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province “genocide.” China is believed to have detained several million Uyghur Muslims over the past few years in “re-education camps.” There is growing evidence that Uyghur women have been subject to mass sterilization and systematic rape, and beatings and forced labour are reportedly commonplace. Many analysts have pointed out these camps’ shocking similarities to the Nazi death camps which were responsible for the genocide of over six million Jews. China denies these allegations, claiming that it is only trying to combat Islamist extremism within the region.

China’s returned sanctions seek to dismiss any notion of human rights violations in the Xinjiang region, instead arguing that these Western allegations are merely a pretext to solidify Western hegemony, indicating purported abuses of Western powers. Primarily, China wants to be seen as intolerant of any challenge, believing that Western powers are now in decline and subject to China’s seemingly global economic and infrastructural monopoly. The country has recently begun using sanctions and its economic might to strongarm other nations. For instance, in January, Norwegian salmon exports (heavily reliant on Chinese buyers) slumped after Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Even after the West’s most recent sanctions, China’s intrinsic economic hold over certain countries has subdued several countries’ potential response. Western allies Australia and New Zealand, both heavily dependent on trade with China, issued their support for the ongoing sanctions and condemnation of the Xinjiang camps, but this was done cautiously. Both failed to impose their own sanctions. The South Korean and Japanese governments, also reliant on Chinese trade, have yet to comment. A plan to unshackle the West from the Chinese-run global supply chain must be put into action before the countries which depend on it can stand against the economic titan.

However, this is the first time China has had to react to collaborative sanctions of this kind before. It’s the first time the U.K. and the E.U. have imposed sanctions to this extent on Chinese officials – a significant move, considering plans for a E.U.-China trade deal as well as U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s promise for pan-Asia trade in a post-Brexit Britain. These deals seem far less likely now than they did last week, with Western countries signaling an allegiance with Biden’s government.

If Western allies are serious about tackling China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, it is unlikely that sanctions alone will be effective. “[I]f the target country is a large country which has a very strong leader, and has no internal political dissent or conflict, then, in those circumstances, the sanctions are unlikely to produce regime change,” former top U.S. treasury department official Gary Hufbauer recently noted. “There are very few cases where regime change has occurred in such cases.”

Furthermore, there is a high risk that these sanctions may in fact culminate in states like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela’s co-operation with China. Similar sanctions the U.S. imposed on Russia at the end of March have appeared to do just that. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he would discuss building “technological independence” and bypassing Western financial systems during a visit with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

Despite this, it appears these international sanctions have successfully delivered a warning to Beijing. Several analysts noted China’s delayed response to U.K. sanctions, suggesting the country was not expecting a tough line from Britain, especially considering the government’s pro-China Integrated Review. Under Biden’s example, Western leaders have rightly made their position on China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims clear. It is now time for Western universities, organizations, and companies to follow suit, telling China that genocide will not be tolerated.

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