Islamic Terrorists or Chinese Dissidents? U.S. Grapples with Uyghur Dilemma

Header over-emphasizes terrorist/extremist angle and underplays, unlike article, human rights and cultural genocide angle:

President Joe Biden and his administration are grappling with a new foreign policy dilemma: how to deal with Uyghur separatists seeking to take on the People’s Republic of China and establish an independent Islamic state in the northwestern Xinjiang region at a time when Washington is also increasing pressure on Beijing.

The U.S. stance for the last two decades since the “war on terror” was declared after 9/11 has been to view groups such as Uyghurs factions as enemy actors, due to their reported links to Al-Qaeda. One such organization, a Uyghur separatist group known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was added to the Terrorist Exclusion List, a Patriot Act measure designed to disallow suspected militant group members from entering the United States.

Over the course of the past 20 years, however, Washington’s foreign policy priorities have shifted dramatically, a change marked most notably by Biden’s military exit from Afghanistan. That exit was set in motion by Donald Trump, whose focus throughout his tenure in office was on another national foe, China.

In addition to confronting Beijing on trade, political unrest in Hong Kong and tensions over Taiwan, the Trump administration endorsed allegations that China was conducting a “genocide” in Xinjiang, the northwestern province that is home to the Uyghurs. The offenses were said to have occurred as part of China’s extensive counterterrorism measures in the region that included sprawling detainment camps, known officially as vocational education and training centers, in which more than one million people are believed by international critics to have been detained.

Chinese officials have strongly rejected these allegations, arguing that the facilities are a crucial part of the Communist nation’s national security strategy, Beijing’s own “war on terror.” Xinjiang was the site of a deadly Uyghur insurgency that began in the 1990s in the form of bombings, stabbings and vehicle rammings that killed scores of authorities and civilians alike.

The widening U.S.-China divergence on the narrative took a dramatic turn just days after the U.S. presidential election last November, when the Trump administration removed ETIM from the Terrorist Exclusion List, citing a lack of activity, even as Uyghur fighters set up camp in Afghanistan and Syria.

The Biden administration continues to support that stance.

“ETIM was removed from the list because, for more than a decade, there has been no credible evidence that ETIM continues to exist as the same organization that was conducting terrorist attacks in Syria at the time of their designation,” a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek.

As recently as February 2018, however, the Pentagon was conducting airstrikes against targets said to be linked to ETIM in Afghanistan.

But the State Department now sees it as a separate group altogether, one which is behind the active Uyghur insurgency in two conflict-ridden countries.

“Uyghur terrorists fighting in Syria and Afghanistan are members of the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP),” the State Department spokesperson said, “a separate organization that China and others have incorrectly identified as ETIM.”

Yet the spokesperson noted that the two groups have nearly identical goals.

“TIP is an organization allied with the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qa’ida elements operating in Syria, and the group seeks to establish an independent Uyghur state, East Turkistan, in the area of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China,” the State Department spokesperson said.

Asked by Newsweek whether the Biden administration planned to brand the still-active Turkistan Islamic Party as a candidate for the Terrorist Exclusion List or the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the spokesperson declined to comment as a matter of protocol.

“The United States does not comment on deliberations related to our terrorist designation process,” the State Department spokesperson said.

One Man’s Terrorist, Another Man’s Freedom Fighter

The Turkestan Islamic Party itself has spurned the “terrorist” label that officials in Washington, Beijing and other governments have ascribed to it.

“We, on the part of the group, have not posed any threat to any person, group, state or people,” a spokesperson for the Turkestan Islamic Party’s political office told Newsweek, “and even the Chinese people only see good from us, because we do not oppress the people like the Chinese government.”

The spokesperson said that the group’s activities were limited to the Chinese state itself due to its controversial policies in Xinjiang.

“Even in the future, we do not have any idea for the likes of targeting, kidnapping, threatening or [doing] anything bad against an innocent person or country,” the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson said, “and we do not have a problem with any person or country other than the unjust Chinese government.”

The spokesperson argued that any other illicit activities may be carried out by Chinese spy agencies in order to blame the Turkestan Islamic Party.

“Anything that happened or happens, this is not from our side, but will be from the unjust Chinese intelligence,” the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson added, “because we are not terrorists who target innocent people like the Chinese government [does].”

At the same time, the group does not rule out waging armed struggle as a means to achieve its political aims.

“The Chinese government should leave the land of East Turkestan by the peaceful path,” the spokesperson said. “If they choose the path of war without leaving peacefully, then we have the right to choose all kinds of paths in order to restore our homeland.”

The region known to Uyghur separatist proponents as East Turkestan comprises around 25 million people living across a span of some 700,000 miles of China’s Xinjiang and parts of neighboring Gansu and Qinghai provinces — roughly the size of France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom and Ireland combined.

The area came under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party with the rest of the mainland as Mao Zedong’s victorious People’s Liberation Army drove the nationalist Republic of China forces to exile in Taiwan in 1949.

At the time, the Soviet Union, the world’s top communist power, backed the East Turkestan separatists as a check against Chinese power.

The People’s Republic of China today recognizes some 56 ethnic communities, including the majority Han population, the world’s largest ethnic group, which has increasingly expanded throughout the nation.

This migration is rooted in economic motives as China rapidly developed in recent decades, but those supportive of the separatist East Turkestan cause saw a state-sponsored plot to actively suppress Uyghur culture.

“East Turkestan is the land of the Uyghurs,” the Turkestan Islamic Party spokesperson said. “After the Chinese government occupied our homeland by force, they forced us to leave our homeland because of their oppression against us. The whole world knows that East Turkestan has always been the land of the Uyghurs.”

Source: Islamic Terrorists or Chinese Dissidents? U.S. Grapples with Uyghur Dilemma

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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