(US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo receiving Uighur activists, Washington, March 27, 2019)
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with Uighur Muslim activists in Washington DC, on March 27 is by no means a routine diplomatic event. Clearly, there is nothing personal about this meeting. Although Pompeo is a passionate Bible-reading Christian from the mid-west, his religiosity ends there and does not extend to the welfare of Muslims worldwide — be it Gaza or West Bank. Clearly, Washington has taken a considered step to make the ‘Uighur question’ a bilateral issue between Washington and Beijing.
According to the state department readout, Pompeo pledged “U.S. support to end China’s campaign of repression against Islam and other religions.” The readout referred to the so-called “internment camps since April 2017” in Xinjiang as well as China’s “repressive campaign”, which has made the million or more Uighurs “unable to speak for themselves, move freely, think for themselves, and undertake even the most basic practices of their religion.” The readout alleged that Chinese authorities subject Uighurs to “torture, repressive surveillance measures, homestays and forcible service of pork and alcohol.., confiscations of Qurans, and instances of sexual abuse and death.”
This is exceptionally harsh condemnation of China — and yet, no precipitate situation warranted it. And Xinjiang is a highly sensitive issue for China, too. No doubt, this is a deliberate act of provocation.
Ironically, the US-led orchestrated media campaign on the “internment camps” in Xinjiang is fizzling out. The US failed to make Xinjiang a Muslim issue complicating China’s relations with the Islamic world. The two most important beacon lights in the Muslim world — Saudi Arabia and Iran — dissociated from the western campaign on Uighur Muslims. The Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Mohammed actually commended Beijing’s national policies toward Muslim populations in Xinjiang and other provinces.
Suffice to say, the US’ game plan to repeat the cold-war era strategy to pit socialism against Islam hasn’t gained traction in the present case involving Xinjiang. The US campaign on Xinjiang suffered a severe setback when the recent foreign-minister level meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) in Abu Dhabi on March 1-2 decisively turned its back on Washington. The OIC resolution, inter alia, recalled the “outcomes of the visit” of the group’s delegation last month to China (including Xinjiang) and said that the OIC “commends the efforts of the People’s Republic of China in providing care to its Muslim citizens; and looks forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.”
Yet, the OIC resolution was pretty harsh in its criticism of the present Hindu nationalist government in India:
“Expresses deep concern over the growing activity of the extremist Hindu groups against Muslims in India trying to build a Hindu temple on the ruins of the historic Babri Mosque; also expresses concern over the unnecessary delay in determining responsibility for the demolition of the Babri Mosque; and urges the Indian Government to see to it that the Babri Mosque is rebuilt on its original site”;
“Invites the (OIC) General Secretariat to continue to monitor the situation of Muslims in India and to collect further information on the challenges and difficulties they are facing, politically, socially and economically with a view to offering them the required assistance, and to report on the matter to the next ministerial conference”;
“Urges the Indian Government to take steps to improve the economic conditions of Muslims in India in line with the recommendations of the Sachar Committee Report”;
“Express deep concern over reports regarding ‘Forced Conversion’ of minorities in India by Hindu extremist elements through ‘Ghar Wapsi’ or ‘Home Coming’ campaign and education programmes aimed at obliterating practices and rituals related to other religions and distortion of historic facts”;
“Taking note with grave concern of a number of incidents in India where people have been killed, imprisoned and fined for slaughtering cows, especially on Eid- ul-Azha”.
Suffice to say, Beijing has been remarkably successful in persuading the Muslim countries that Xinjiang is not a Muslim issue. But, quite obviously, Washington won’t take ‘no’ for an answer from the Muslim world. What could be the motivations behind Pompeo bolstering the US’ sagging campaign on the Uighur issue?
There could be several calculations. The US diplomacy is famous for resorting to pressure tactic to extract concessions. The US’ trade war with China is entering a climactic stage and it pays to wage a ‘psywar’ when Beijing seems to be outmanoeuvring Washington. Meanwhile, Washington watches with disquiet that China and Europe are getting along fine despite differences and are taking a lead role in ‘global governance’. Italy’s decision to join the Belt and Road and Airbus securing a $34 billion deal with China for aircraft cut into US interests. Again, China’s financial and commercial expansion in Venezuela and support for the Maduro government is complementing Russia’s role in blocking an incipient transition in that country.
However, the most crucial factor here is that Uighurs constitute a significant percentage of the ISIS cadres who fought in Syria and Iraq, lost the war and are now regrouping in other theatres. According to Syrian government estimates, anywhere up to 5000 had fought in various militant groups in Syria. Earlier on, the US downplayed the appearance of the ISIS in Afghanistan and used to shrug off the Russian and Iranian warnings. But lately, US commanders sing a different tune. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, told reporters while on a visit to Afghanistan in February, “They represent a very sophisticated and dangerous threat that we have to stay focused on.”
In the recent past, Moscow and Tehran have informed the UN details regarding the covert operation by the US to transfer the ISIS fighters from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. The US stonewalled at that time. But lately, the US has seized the ISIS presence in Afghanistan as an alibi for its open-ended military presence in the region even after a settlement with the Taliban.
Simply put, Pompeo’s meeting with Uighur separatist activists cannot but be seen in the backdrop of the endgame in Afghanistan and the rise of the ISIS in the Hindu Kush. Pompeo has made the Uighur question a political and diplomatic issue between the US and China at a time when militants from Xinjiang belonging to the ISIS are relocating to Afghanistan from Syria and Iraq.
On the other hand, the US is also using the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan to justify its permanent military and intelligence bases in that country (which borders Xinjiang.) Ask former Afghan President Hamid Karzai to explain the paradox and he would only say that this was exactly the strategy that the US pursued with the Taliban, too — waging the war against the Taliban in a way that prolonged the war and justified continued US military presence in a highly strategic region that includes Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran.
It could be that by brining the Uighur issue to the centre stage, the US aims to erode China’s ‘soft power’ in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are of course deeply religious Muslim countries. Indeed, if the US turns Afghanistan into a frontline ISIS state against China, that will put Pakistan in a most awkward position, apart from undermining Beijing’s plans to integrate Afghanistan into the Belt and Road. .