As U.S.-China relations have become increasingly confrontational, few issues have attracted Washington’s attention more than the egregious and ongoing human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Over the past four years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has targeted Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui and other ethnic minority groups in the province with systematic repression ranging from high-tech surveillance and arbitrary arrests to detention camps and forced labor. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called these atrocities “the stigma of the century,” and a growing chorus of voices called on President Trump to describe the oppression as genocide.
Meanwhile, the Trump government has introduced a series of sanctions against party elites and corporations directly involved in the Uighur persecution. The authorities have also blocked the import of slave laborers from Xinjiang and advised U.S. companies to clean up their supply chains from this area.
These steps, if enforced, could hamper up to one-fifth of Xinjiang’s economy. But in and of themselves they will not save the Uighurs. To achieve this, policymakers must look beyond their existing tools, understand the game the CCP is playing, and consider new sanctions that would actually paralyze China’s campaign in Xinjiang.
Such an effort begins and ends with Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy project: the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.
OBOR envisages an integrated Eurasian economic market with Beijing as its capital. In economic terms, it is China’s plan, formulated in response to an aging workforce and rising labor costs – to anticipate the imminent realignment of global supply chains. Geopolitically, it offers China direct access to the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Persian Gulf, while bypassing the Malacca Strait patrolled by the United States. Technologically, it exports China’s digital authoritarianism to autocratic regimes across the continent. Politically, it represents the CCP’s move to weaken American influence in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Overall, the initiative provides a glimpse of the world that China hopes to build and reveals its plan to deconstruct the current system.
These efforts depend on Xinjiang. Of the six OBOR land routes currently under construction, three pass through the westernmost region of China. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project giving China access to deep-sea ports in the Indian Ocean, originated in Kashgar and runs through the Tajik district of Tashkurgan on the Chinese border with Kashmir. The New Eurasian Land Bridge begins on the east coast of China, then crosses Xinjiang before crossing Kazakhstan and Central Asia on its way to Europe. Finally, the economic corridor China-Central Asia-West Asia has its origin in Xinjiang and crosses the continent in a westerly direction before ending in the Balkans.
The economic impact of these routes on regional growth can hardly be overestimated. In 2018, Rand Corporation estimates that under certain circumstances the initiative could increase trade volumes throughout Asia by $329 billion (an increase of 7.3 percent) and trade for the European Union by $133 billion (an increase of 2.6 percent). In fact, Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” development plan has brought tens of billions of dollars of Chinese investment to the Kingdom over the past three years.
Beijing is using this economic potential to buy the silence and even the support of the OBOR partner countries for its Xinjiang policy. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was particularly clear about his government’s loyalty to China: “They came to help us when we were at rock bottom, and so we are truly grateful to the Chinese government. These financial incentives are lubricating China’s “belt and road” that runs over the backs of the oppressed minorities.
The transport infrastructure, financial incentives and OBOR political partnerships are the most important – and most overlooked – factors that explain why the CCP is cracking down hard in Xinjiang. If Washington is serious about changing the risk-reward calculus for the CCP and forcing party leaders to end the oppression of the Uighurs, or at least substantially increase the cost of the Xinjiang re-education campaign for Beijing, policymakers must take this reality into account.
Instead of imposing one-time sanctions, Washington should sanction all trade flowing through Xinjiang. These sanctions would reflect existing anti-money laundering provisions by preventing U.S. banks from providing financial services to any company that facilitates or benefits from commercial activities in a region where serious human rights violations are taking place. This instrument, if implemented and enforced throughout Xinjiang, could effectively cut off half of OBOR’s land routes from the international dollar-denominated banking system.
Importantly, the underlying principle is not to punish legitimate trading activities, but to target the trade that exploits persecuted and brutalized groups. Similar to laws prohibiting the import of “blood diamonds”, this authority would stop the trade that depends on atrocities such as forced sterilizations, population control and systematic repression.
Regardless of whether the United States calls China’s persecution of the Uighurs genocide, policy makers must think beyond the existing instruments to hold the CCP accountable. This need is characteristic of America’s broader challenge to China: the transition from reactive confrontation to proactive competition. OBOR’s link with the Uighurs is an enormous vulnerability of the CCP – one that U.S. policymakers can and should exploit.
Michael Sobolik is Fellow for Indo-Pacific Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.