Muslim countries seem happy to throw Ummah solidarity to the wind in their efforts to cozy up to China.
It used to be that anyone wanting to be a friend of China would simply have to agree with the “One China Policy.” But cozying up to China has become a much more complicated business these days. A much darker side has emerged.
In the early days of the 21st century just as China was dipping her toes into the ocean of World Trade club possibilities, every week would see delegations from small, poor countries, being paraded on Chinese national television with relentless predictability shaking hands over Taiwan’s inalienable relationship with China. Cementing a trade deal with the wannabe superpower seemed to be that easy and Taiwan’s “inalienable rights” to be an independent nation didn’t seem to come into it.
Eighteen years have passed since Beijing was admitted into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its begging bowl days are well and truly over. China has swollen exponentially into her role as the world’s second-largest economy. Bursting at the seams with grandiose schemes and projects, and with treasure troves to give away, ingratiating oneself with China has become less straightforward and more sinister. The hoops to jump through are more subtle and signing on Beijing’s dotted line fraught with compromise and uncertainty. Accepting Beijing’s cash is not without strings, it involves buying into China’s vision for the world and indeed for her own people to boot. Hidden behind every Chinese official “stranger bearing gifts” is a Trojan Horse laden with treacherous potential and subterfuge, as several countries on the trade route have discovered to their cost.
These days the hegemon not only requires complicity with her expansionist intentions; she also requires your silence.
China appears unstoppable. Once it simply hankered after membership of the 164-member state WTO. But having reached this watershed in 2001 after much wrangling, Beijing is no longer content to be a humble member on the sidelines of a vast organization. Her sights are set on greater things. President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013 has set the superpower on a fast track to conquer the Silk Road by land and sea. According to the China Daily, the idea behind the BRI is to “facilitate China’s engagement with the rest of world while making it possible to establish a more just and reasonable world order that would highlight the importance of Chinese wisdom in building a prosperous future for humankind.”
The CCP mouthpiece The Global Times, envisages that “In the future, BRI will be responsible for the majority of infrastructure projects worldwide,” and that ” History will remember the Belt and Road initiative as one of the most significant chapters in China’s history and a great milestone in the development of human civilization.”
China’s ambition for world leadership
The BRI network encompasses South East Asia, Eurasia, the Middle East, East Africa, Russia, and Europe. Consisting of multiple land routes of roads, pipelines and rail networks and sea networks through the Indian Ocean at least 70 countries have agreed to participate. Poverty struck and politically chaotic former Eastern European countries form the bulk of her westward march, together with war-torn middle-eastern nations, struggling African states, and much of the developing world form the parish into which Beijing is avalanching largesse. Sweeping through with her blank checkbook, nations which have signed up are being drowned with un-repayable loans, road and rail networks, oil and gas pipelines, and the promise of an invigorated economy through trade with Beijing. India is the only major and notable abstention. The whole project is expected to cost as much as 8 trillion dollars. China, in return, will be provided with alternate routes to the Middle East and Europe should the sea lanes via the Malacca Straits get blocked and a guarantee of much-needed oil and resources from the Middle East, Eurasia, and Africa.
And into this toxic mix enters Islam. Not only is Beijing tied up with outward expansion and ambition, it is now also battling on two conflicting fronts. Problems at home with the Uyghurs are muddying the waters. Juggling trade and development with a largely Islamic trade corridor, China’s own ambivalent relationship with Islam and Muslims on its domestic borders has been drawing unwanted attention from human rights “meddlers” into its own affairs at the recent United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Geneva meeting.
Happy to cement trade deals and sign away billions in loans to the Islamic “enemy” without, China is doing her best to destroy the very same “enemy” within. Beijing finds no conflict between extra-judicially incarcerating 1.5 million Uyghurs in transformation through education camps, and seemingly wanting to eradicate Islam on its own territory, whilst at the same time shaking hands with the murky Saudi Arabian Prince bin Salman, who sealed 35 economic cooperation agreements worth $28 billion with China, in a February joint investment forum. Beijing sees no conflict either with branding 1.5 million un-tried Uyghurs as terrorists but at the same time refusing to label the Pakistan-based leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad, Masood Azhar, a global terrorist for the sake of protecting a strategic Belt and Road partner, and risk scuppering billion dollars worth of investment along the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
But here we also see the readiness of Muslim countries around the world to throw their weaker Islamic brothers and sisters to the Chinese lion without a backward glance. Only last December the OIC Islamophobia Observatory sub-committee of the OIC Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC), during the 14th Regular Session in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, flagged up its unease at China’s treatment of the Uyghurs. It complained that Xinjiang’s de-radicalization regulations of October 2018 were “excessive in nature, as virtually any activity could fall within the scope of its provisions and enables the authorities to justify the presence of detention/re-education camps. “The Commission expressed concern about these “disturbing reports on the treatment of Uyghur Muslims” and expressed its hope “that China, which has excellent bilateral relations with most OIC countries as well as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, would do its best to address the legitimate concerns of Muslims around the world.”
The OIC’s cynical volte-face on China’s treatment of Uyghurs
Only a matter of months later after Prince bin Salman’s trade deal coup with China, the OIC which represents 56 strategic Islamic countries, many of whom are along the Belt and Road corridor, effectively bought their silence in a dramatic volte-face, by not only not condemning China’s treatment of their Uyghur brethren, but actually praising its efforts in “providing care for its Muslim citizens.” The Council “welcomes the outcomes of the visit conducted by the General Secretariat’s delegation upon invitation from the People’s Republic of China,” it said, and “looks forward to further cooperation between the OIC and the People’s Republic of China.”
There’s a phrase, “pre-emptive obedience,” that’s often used to discuss relations with the Chinese,” says Theresa Fallon, a China analyst in Brussels. Speaking apropos China’s creeping takeover of ports along the Mediterranean and the resultant muzzling of criticism of China, (for example, Greece’s refusal to veto China over its abysmal human rights record in 2017) she commented: “It means making decisions with the idea of not upsetting China. That’s already happening, and it’s worrying if you consider the stakes. If you think of China’s growth strategy [in maritime ports], they’ve invested all along the peripheries of Europe. So, it’s like an anaconda strategy: Surround it and squeeze it.”
For China, not only are good relations with Islamic countries critical for the successful implementation of the Belt and Road Initiative, but a reciprocal willingness to pat China on the back to protect the considerable benefits to Muslim countries of staying in China’s good books is also vital. Apart from the recent Turkish whimper reported bravely by Al Jazeera complaining that the internment camps were a “great cause of shame for humanity,” very few Muslim countries have dared to speak out. In a rare break from OIC ranks Turkey, despite having a $3.6 billion debt burden to China, responded to rumors of the death of beloved Uyghur poet and musician Abdurehim Heyit by calling on China to “end the human tragedy.” China subsequently released video footage of the alive but subdued artist and hotly defended their “teaching and training centers” of “extremist students.” According to the South China Morning Post, Turkey’s outburst is, in fact, unlikely to affect long term relations with China, given that the bridge with Europe is vital for its Silk Road ambitions.
One of Beijing’s own pet hates is the crime of being two-faced. An eminent Uyghur academic and former principal of Xinjiang University Tashpolat Tiyip recently fell foul of this antipathy and was sentenced to death. By sidling up to the Muslim world and expecting them to turn a blind eye to the atrocities in Xinjiang, China has nailed its duplicitous colors to its own two-faced mast. Shout as the UNHRC may about China’s abysmal human rights record, and shout too at the lack of Muslim world outcry, it is becoming clearer that China, having entered the World trade arena as an underdog, is now no longer subject to its moral imperative. Neither it seems are any of those who deal with her.
It is abundantly clear that Muslim nations do not intend any day soon to torpedo their profitable relationship with a nation which is beginning to manipulate the strings of the world, by showing solidarity with their underdog brethren. Both sides have transparently shown their readiness to throw principle to the wind and make business the new moral imperative.