Pakistan’s limitations on China’s Uyghur issue

Pakistan’s limitations on China’s Uyghur issue


Since 2017, the prosecution of the ethnic Uyghur Muslim population in China has been a recurrent theme in global media. It was ten years ago, in 2009, that the approach of the Chinese state toward its Uyghur population took a particular security bent, when clashes erupted between the Uyghur and Han ethnic communities in Urumqi, resulting in the deaths of 140 people.
After this incident, there have been incidents repeatedly reported in news media outlets pertaining to unrest and violence within China’s southern Xinjiang province. Most recently, the debate has been focused on the Chinese government’s initiative to establish what it has labeled vocational training centers, but what Uyghur and international human rights groups call detention and internment camps. This has shored up the discourse of a systemic campaign launched by the Chinese state to control and police the Uyghur population to erase the Islamic identity of Uyghurs and to impose a state ideology upon them.
These developments have raised questions regarding the stance of the Muslim world on the issue and particularly the silence of Pakistan- China’s strategic ally in the region. As the issue has gained traction across print, electronic and social media, the official line of Pakistan has remained rather unclear.
In September last year, reports emerged that Pakistan had urged China to relax its high-handed approach toward the Uyghurs as it may propel them toward violence and extremism.

Pakistan is already surrounded by hostile neighbors and has no incentive to create complications in bilateral ties by attempting to interfere in an issue that the Chinese state considers an internal one.

Umer Karim

However, in a complete one-eighty, when Prime Minister Imran Khan was asked about the Uyghur issue in an interview, he deliberately down-played it and said he didn’t know much about the problem.
The Pakistan government discourse on the Uyghur issue actually gives us insight into the nature of Pakistan-China ties, where a Pakistan increasingly dependent and connected to China in the economic, security and political spheres has neither the will nor the incentive to get embroiled in the Uyghur problem.
From a Pakistani perspective, China is not only Pakistan’s key security partner but also a direct neighbor. This changes the strategic calculus, and if Pakistan takes a hard stand against China on any particular issue, a Chinese response will have much greater leverage vis-à-vis Pakistan, as compared to any other country even if it is still part of China’s One Belt One Road initiative.
Pakistan is already surrounded by hostile neighbors and has no incentive to create complications in bilateral ties by attempting to interfere in an issue that the Chinese state considers an internal one. 
Here it must also be considered that the public narrative within Pakistan on the issue has been over-run by the usual conspiracy theories. The favorite one, as always, remains the role of the US in manipulating the developments within Xinjiang and attempting to utilize them for its own political goals while making China look bad.
The meetings of US officials with Uyghur rights groups officials have also not helped demystify this line of argument. This, in a manner, makes it easier for the Pakistani government to keep playing with words and deflecting the issue in an articulate manner.
With China’s rise as a global economic power, geo-political realities across Asia have changed rapidly and most of the Muslim countries involved in China’s OBOR initiative have been extremely careful to not provoke Beijing, as that would have serious economic and political repercussions. It is in this vein that even countries like Turkey, which shares ethnic bonds with the Uyghurs, has had to tone down its rhetoric on the situation. In Pakistan’s case, there doesn’t exist any such ethnic connectivity.
Yet, all these points don’t absolve Pakistan from the Uyghur issue, specifically when it has been at the forefront of international forums to raise Kashmir and Palestine issues and demanding an end to human rights abuses in those places. Perhaps Pakistan can itself play a central role in addressing the problem, as it remains a key Chinese ally whose words of concern would not be considered ill-intended.
Only a comprehensive engagement of different Muslim countries with the Chinese state on the said issue might carry the weight to alter the security profiling of the Uyghur population. Pakistan cannot do it alone, even if it tried.
– Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, the conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan.


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