Over the past year, the United States and its Western allies have taken up the cudgels for China’s Muslim ethnic minorities.
Proudly extolling its commitment to human rights promotion, the Biden administration has openly accused Beijing of committing “genocide and crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims have long been facing systematic persecution at the hands of Chinese authorities.
Even relatively friendly Western nations such as New Zealand, which has been courting large-scale investments from China, lambasted Beijing’s “severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang”. Germany, a top trading partner of China, meanwhile, mobilised a strongly-worded resolution at the United Nations, which called on Beijing to grant international investigators “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang.
In an unprecedented move, the US, the United Kingdom, Canada and the European Union have also imposed coordinated sanctions against top Chinese officials believed to be overseeing the persecution of Muslim minority groups in the country. This has gone hand in hand with a Western-led boycott of Chinese products allegedly utilising textile materials from forced labour camps in Xinjiang.
But the latest outbreak of violence in the Middle East, during which 11 days of Israeli bombardment led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians in Gaza, has exposed the paucity of the West’s claims to moral ascendancy. And China has exploited the West’s brazen hypocrisy to deflect blame from its own abuses and, quite ironically, even position itself as a defender of the Palestinian people and an ally of the Muslim world.
In his first State of the Union address, President Joe Biden declared that “no responsible American President could remain silent when basic human rights are being so blatantly violated” anywhere in the world. He vowed that, “America will not back away from our commitments – our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms and to our allies.”
True to his words, Biden has tirelessly mobilised fellow democratic allies and strategic partners, from Europe to India and Japan, to challenge authoritarian superpowers such as China. In stark contrast to his immediate predecessors, Donald Trump and Barack Obama, Biden has made the defence of democratic values and human rights central to his foreign policy.
But while the US and its Western allies have enthusiastically promoted human rights to pressure and criticise authoritarian rivals, they adopted a very different position when their own allies committed abuses, including potential war crimes.
For instance, the US supported for years the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen, which has killed some 130,000 people and triggered one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Major European powers such as the UK and France are still among the top exporters of advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia.
While the Biden administration has rolled back military support to Riyadh, there has been no concerted effort to ensure accountability for widespread human rights violations committed during the course of the conflict.
During the first week of the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in May, the US president similarly stood by its ally. It was not until May 15, when Israeli forces targeted a high-rise building in Gaza hosting international media, including Al Jazeera, that Biden began to raise the need for an immediate ceasefire.
And even that belated call for a cessation of hostilities was seemingly not a principled stance for human rights but a response to growing domestic pressure, especially from fellow Democrats in the Congress.
Influential progressive legislators such as Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar openly criticised Israel’s “apartheid” practices and the disproportionate use of violence against civilian-populated targets in Gaza. Gregory Meeks, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called for an emergency meeting on the crisis, while Senator Bernie Sanders moved to block the US’s sale of precision-guided weapons to Israel.
What proved crucial to Biden’s political calculus, however, was strong condemnation of Israel’s actions by more moderate Democrats. Veteran Senator Bob Mendez, for example, publicly expressed how he was “deeply troubled by reports of Israeli military actions that resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets”.
Eventually, Biden hailed the Egypt-brokered May 20 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas as a triumph of “quiet diplomacy” and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, visited the region and announced a package of development assistance to Palestine, including “immediate disaster assistance” for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Gaza.
It’s far from clear, however, whether the Biden administration is willing to address the root causes of the conflict, or acknowledge the urgent need for a just peace. If anything, Biden has repeatedly emphasised his categorical support for Israel. “No shift at all,” Biden recently said when asked about his commitment to “the security of Israel”. “Until the region says unequivocally, they acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no peace,” he added, indicating there will be no meaningful shift in the US stance towards the conflict under his leadership.
While the ceasefire is a welcome reprieve, it came too little, too late for 253 Palestinians, including 66 children, who were killed as a result of Israel’s relentless 11-day aerial bombardment of Gaza. The ensuing damage to critical infrastructure, including to hospitals and the Strip’s only COVID-19 testing lab, has also triggered yet another massive humanitarian crisis in the besieged territory.
The West’s delayed and dithering response to the crisis provided China with a strategic opening. Throughout the early days of the violent escalation, while the West did little more than issuing messages of support for Israel, China, as the rotational United Nations Security Council president, repeatedly pushed for an immediate ceasefire and took a far more critical stance towards Israel.
Under a four-point proposal, the Asian powerhouse advocated for “cessation of violence” as a “top priority”, calling on “all parties, especially Israel …[to] exercise restraint and stop hostilities immediately”.
When the US blocked Beijing’s move in order to shield Israel from criticism, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused Washington of “obstruction” and said the Western power must “shoulder its due responsibilities, adopt a fair stand and support the [UN] Security Council in playing its due role in easing the tensions”.
As the Israeli bombardment of Gaza entered its second week, the Chinese diplomat openly declared his country’s commitment to help deliver “justice and equity” for Palestinians, calling on Israel to “exercise restraint” and “put an end to violence, threats, and provocations against Muslims, and maintain and respect the historical status quo of the holy sites in Jerusalem”.
As a result, Beijing has positioned itself as a superpower that is more neutral, if not sympathetic, towards Muslim nations at a time when competition between the US and China is heating up across the Middle East and beyond.
Despite enjoying burgeoning trade and technological ties with Israel, China has long been positioning itself as a defender of the Palestinian people on the international arena.
Back in 2018, Vice-President Wang Qishan visited the occupied Palestinian territories, where he pushed for a bilateral free-trade agreement. That year also saw Chinese President Xi Jinping unconditionally offering $15.5m in development aid just as the US drastically decreased its funding of UN agencies helping Palestinian refugees. Last year, Beijing’s envoy to the UN declared “China is a sincere friend of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people can always count on China’s support for their just cause and legitimate national rights.” Following the latest ceasefire, China immediately pledged $1m in emergency aid as well as 200,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to Gaza residents.
Given the cross-sectarian resonance of the Palestinian struggle, China’s consistent display of solidarity with the Palestinian people allowed it to cultivate warm ties with both Sunni and Shia-majority nations across the region.
This is strategically important in light of China’s heavy reliance on hydrocarbon imports from the Middle East as well as the centrality of the region to its Belt and Road Initiative of transcontinental infrastructure development.
Ultimately, the West’s hypocritical indifference to widespread human rights abuses by its allies as well as the suffering of millions of Palestinians in occupied territories not only allowed China to deflect attention from its own mistreatment of Muslim minorities at home, but also paved the way for it to enhance its image as the superpower that is considerate of the issues that matter the most to the Muslim world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.