Hidden Parallels: The Impact of Beijing’s Policies on the Rohingya Crisis
Despite fading from the international news cycle, a political and diplomatic solution to the Rohingya crisis remains stalled despite international and U.S. efforts to pressure Myanmar to guarantee their safe and voluntary return over the past few years. This status quo is partially the result of diplomatic influence from China.
Beijing made its position clear from the start of the Rohingya crisis, underscoring the need to respect Myanmar’s sovereignty and opposing humanitarian and political intervention. This follows longstanding policy in Beijing emphasizing the importance of asserting sovereignty and noninterference norms. Foreign criticism of China’s repression in Xinjiang gives Beijing an incentive to resist humanitarian intervention on principle to avoid the establishment of an international precedent, particularly when it is an intervention to address the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities such as the Rohingya. For the Rohingya, this means that Beijing is reluctant to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the Myanmar military, leaving the Rohingya with few allies and an inert international process.
The Plight of the Rohingya
In August of 2017, an estimated 745,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar’s Rakhine State to escape a genocidal campaign spearheaded by the military. The separatist Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) had earlier claimed responsibility for attacks against Myanmar police and army posts, and Myanmar’s military subsequently launched a scorched earth campaign against the Rohingya population, burning entire villages and raping and torturing civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya subsequently fled Myanmar. As of 2021, over 900,000 Rohingya remain in Bangladesh’s refugee camps. International human rights organizations have reported dire economic and health conditions. For instance, a fire in Cox’s Bazar, the largest refugee camp, underscored the unsafe conditions. Another estimated 600,000 are still trapped in Rakhine State and subject to government persecution.
Since the coup in Naypyidaw on February 1, 2021, the situation in Myanmar is now even more precarious. During a campaign of repression, the junta has killed a reported 1,400 people and arrested 11,000. Human Rights Watch found that police and soldiers have forcibly disappeared over 100 people and tortured and raped an unknown number. The situation has continued to escalate as the opposition shadow government, the National Unity Government, called for a people's defensive war on September 7. This triggered more clashes between the military and rebel factions. Fearing further persecution in this deteriorating environment, the Rohingya in Bangladesh see no plans for safe repatriation.
China’s Influence on the International Response
While the United States has publicly criticized the military and sought accountability for the perpetrators of human rights abuses against the Rohingya, China’s priority has been classifying the crisis as a domestic issue and advocating for non-intervention. China argues that only the parties directly impacted, namely Bangladesh and Myanmar, should have a say in its resolution. It has also worked to stymie action in the United Nations. As an alternative, Beijing proposed an unrealistic plan to address the Rohingya crisis: repatriate refugees, end the violence, and begin economic development in Rakhine state.
There are several concerns regarding the feasibility of China’s plan. Beijing understates the severity of the crisis by attributing the violence to economic underdevelopment rather than ethnic cleansing. China undersells the immediate danger facing the Rohingya and does not consider the likelihood that, once returned to Myanmar, the Rohingya would be unsafe in Rakhine State. Instead, the focus would be on development in Myanmar, which would conveniently facilitate China’s extensive BRI investments while dodging the awkwardness of accountability for human rights violations. This approach not only provides cover for Myanmar’s military, but it also reframes the crisis based on a China-preferred narrative, development over human rights. China’s aggressive support for and defense of the Myanmar military in international fora, such as the United Nations, provides the regime diplomatic cover.
China’s proposal for the international response to Myanmar reflects its own economic and political interests in preventing international intervention, including action against its repressive policy towards the Uighurs in Xinjiang. China certainly has economic and geostrategic interests in Myanmar: it has large investments in Myanmar and naturally opposes other nations increasing their influence in a close neighbor. However, Beijing’s interference in the plight of the Rohingya appears based fundamentally in concerns over setting precedents that could impact its own internal policies, particularly in Xinjiang.
The Chinese Defense of its Repression in Xinjiang
Xinjiang stands out as an extreme example of CCP repression. It is China’s geographically largest administrative region and historically populated by the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority group. The CCP began a campaign against Uighur separatism shortly after 9-11 with its own “war on terror.” In Xinjiang, Beijing originally attempted to coopt the region with its “Go West” policy and investment in local infrastructure that later evolved into Xinjiang’s establishment as a core Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) region. Ironically, as economic development failed to quell Beijing concerns about local “separatism”, the growing trading importance of the region has incentivized Beijing to invest heavily in political stability and expand “counter terrorism” efforts. Investments have continued with areas such as Kashgar becoming a Special Economic Zone.
The “Strike Hard Campaign Against Violent Terrorism” launched in 2014 saw an unprecedented escalation in repression. Although re-education camps existed previously in Xinjiang, the region saw an exponential increase in the number of installations in the spring of 2017. By 2018, Xinjiang contained approximately 1,200 re-education facilities, each housing an estimated 250-880 detainees. Based on 2020 estimates, roughly a million Uighurs have been detained, with accusations of abuse including torture and forced sterilizations. The camps are controlled through an extrajudicial network, and those who fail to comply face harsh punishments, including physical abuse. Xinjiang now has the some of the most intense government surveillance of anywhere in the world.
Beijing argues that international concerns regarding the Uighurs are only a ploy to undermine CCP authority and instill democratic changes in China...
China has condemned the international community for attempts to hold it accountable for its actions in Xinjiang. Beijing argues that international concerns regarding the Uighurs are only a ploy to undermine CCP authority and instill democratic changes in China, pointing to U.S. promotion of democracy and human rights. The CCP’s displeasure is heightened by efforts to use international norms and institutions to challenge its other objectives, especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Darren Byler argues that this has long been a cornerstone of Chinese policy both domestically and abroad. China’s leaders are loath to open the door to outside criticism of what it sees as its sovereign right to engage in wide-scale repression and, as noted by Sheena Chestnut Greitens, intrusive surveillance in response to perceived domestic “threats.”
This growing discomfort with humanitarian and geopolitical intervention has coincided with a China under Xi Jinping that appears more risk tolerant as it promotes its interests and pushes against the current liberal global order. This bolder approach combined with China’s desire to stand up against what it perceives as Western interference on humanitarian issues explains much of China’s interference in Myanmar and the Rohingya crisis.
There are obvious parallels in the plight of the two groups both as Muslim minorities faced with the state-sponsored suppression of their culture and safety, and victims of Chinese government policy. The conditions facing the Rohingya and Uighurs, and the subsequent limited actions taken by the international community, reflect the influence of China’s preferred non-interference norms. Beijing appears to perceive international intervention against Myanmar’s crackdown on the Rohingya not just in the context of backlash against an ally but as impacting China’s domestic and regional stability regarding its own minorities.
A recent decision in the International Criminal Court (ICC) exemplifies the Rohingya issue’s potential impact on China’s interests. Just like China, Myanmar refused to join the ICC, in theory limiting the ICC’s jurisdiction. However, the ICC broadened its judicial reach into Myanmar by acting on behalf of Rohingya in Bangladesh, an ICC member state. The court determined that it may exercise its jurisdiction over crimes so long as some of the criminal conduct occurs in a territory or state party to the ICC. The Court then found enough evidence to argue that “widespread and/or systematic acts of violence may have been committed” against the Rohingya across the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. The ICC is organizing a fact-finding mission for the case which is ongoing.
The risk of international pressure on China is genuine. In theory, a similar strategy to the one deployed in Bangladesh could be used against China. Many Uighurs have been forcibly deported from Cambodia and Tajikistan, both ICC members, back to China. Indeed, British lawyers representing two Uighur organizations filed cases against the Chinese government in the ICC. Furthermore, if UN fact-finding missions regarding the situation lead states and international organizations to declare the situation a genocide, this could set a precedent for UN investigations of China. Either of these actions would threaten China’s position in Asia and also the CCP’s domestic authority beyond Xinjiang, such as in Tibet or Hong Kong. Given this connection, the rationale behind Beijing attempting to keep the Rohingya situation a “domestic” issue makes perfect sense from the CCP’s perspective.
Need for Action
Regardless of China’s intransigence, the situation facing the Rohingya necessitates international action. Beijing’s desire to block intervention makes the actions of powerful nations such as the United States all the more necessary. Although the Biden administration’s leverage is limited here, the United States should attempt to work with partners such as Bangladesh and ASEAN to develop means of safely supporting the Rohingya refugees. Concrete action could include increasing humanitarian funding and facilitating safe housing for refugees while maintaining a stance against the Myanmar junta.
Beyond humanitarian aid, forming a coalition for accountability that can stand united on the Rohingya issue would be a sound policy option, even if the odds for success are low. Indeed, it may be possible to find a compromise with Beijing to address the Rohingya crisis, as there is a difference in how regional states approach the Rohingya issue versus Xinjiang, which is much more sensitive for China. For instance, Indonesian President Joko Widodo stated in 2019, “I don’t know about Xinjiang but we are concerned with the problem, for example, in Rakhine state —with the Rohingya.” Although China’s influence in South and Southeast Asia may lead some countries to balk at directly criticizing the CCP, there is arguably more room for a regional pushback with the United States on the Rohingya crisis. If a group of nations are able to come together to balance against Beijing’s interests, there may be enough international pressure to hold perpetrators accountable and establish a precedent for punishment in cases such as the Rohingya.
The ICC could prove to be the ideal forum for this. Unfortunately, the United States is not currently an ICC member, which weakens any coalition that could seek to bring charges against perpetrators of human rights abuses. However, if the United States wishes to reestablish itself as a champion of human rights and leader on the world stage, joining the ICC and supporting a case for the Rohingya could send a clear signal of that commitment to the rest of the world. This would allow the United States to more credibly work towards the establishment of a new global precedent regarding accountability for human rights abuses.
When the norm of non-interference comes with the cost of genocide, the international community cannot stand idly by. Although the Xinjiang and Rohingya issues occur in different contexts, there are parallels here, especially in the way that Beijing approaches international responses to these crises. If these kinds of crimes remain unchallenged, it opens the way for abuses such as those in Myanmar and Xinjiang to continue. Thus, the United States and its likeminded allies and partners should find ways to push back and reassert norms surrounding humanitarianism.
The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2022, Asia Program. All rights reserved.
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The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more