China warns ties will be hit as US House passes Uighur Bill

Ethnic Uighur minority people at Grand Bazaar in Urumqi city, in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The United States Congress overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday a Bill targeting China's mass crackdown on ethnic Muslim minorities, angering Be
Ethnic Uighur minority people at Grand Bazaar in Urumqi city, in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The United States Congress overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday a Bill targeting China's mass crackdown on ethnic Muslim minorities, angering Beijing and threatening to disrupt ongoing trade negotiations.PHOTO: EPA-EFE
Anti-government protesters at Chater Garden in Hong Kong on Monday. About a week ago, US President Donald Trump ruffled Beijing's feathers by signing human rights legislation backing the protesters.
Anti-government protesters at Chater Garden in Hong Kong on Monday. About a week ago, US President Donald Trump ruffled Beijing's feathers by signing human rights legislation backing the protesters.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING • China has warned that US legislation calling for a tougher response to Beijing's treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority will affect bilateral cooperation, clouding prospects for a near-term deal to end a trade war.

The United States Congress overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday a Bill targeting Beijing's mass crackdown on ethnic Muslim minorities, less than a week after US President Donald Trump signed separate human rights legislation on Hong Kong.

The approval by the US House of Representatives of the Uighur Act of 2019, which still requires passage by the Republicancontrolled Senate before being sent to Mr Trump, has angered Beijing and further strained an already testy relationship.

Several sources familiar with Beijing's stance said the Bill could jeopardise the "phase one" trade deal already fraught with disagreements and complications.

With a new round of US tariffs on Chinese goods scheduled to take effect on Dec 15, the possibility of another breakdown is growing.

"Do you think if America takes actions to hurt China's interests, we won't take any action," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters when asked whether the Uighur Act would affect the trade talks. "I think any wrong words and deeds must pay the due price."

Negotiators have continued to work on a trade deal. But sources familiar with the talks say the two sides are still wrangling over the details, including whether existing US tariffs on Chinese goods will be removed.

Bloomberg reported yesterday, however, that Washington and Beijing are "moving closer" to agreeing on how much tariffs would be rolled back in an initial trade deal despite the Hong Kong and Xinjiang issues, citing people familiar with the talks.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC on Tuesday that staff-level trade negotiations with China were continuing, but no high-level trade talks had been scheduled. Planned US tariffs on remaining Chinese imports will take effect on Dec 15, barring significant progress in the talks or a deal, he said.

Ms Hua said China would set no timeline or deadline for a trade deal and would take "decisive" counter-measures to defend its interests if what she called US protectionism and bullying over trade continued. She did not elaborate on the measures.

Mr Trump said on Tuesday that a trade deal might have to wait until after next year's election.

A Chinese official, who declined to be identified, warned that US implementation of tariffs on Dec 15 will be countered by China with retaliatory tariffs - an outcome the official said would seriously disrupt ongoing negotiations.

Another Chinese official, who also declined to be identified, said it may take a very long time for Washington and Beijing to reach a deal if they cannot find a way to strike a deal while "the iron is hot".

The Uighur Bill, which was passed 407-1 in the Democratic-controlled House, requires the US President to condemn abuses against Muslims and call for the closure of mass detention camps in western China's Xinjiang region. It urges Mr Trump to impose sanctions for the first time on a member of China's powerful politburo, Xinjiang Communist Party secretary Chen Quanguo.

Beijing called the Bill a malicious attack on China, demanded that the US prevent it from becoming law and said it would act to defend its interests as necessary.

Vice-Foreign Minister Qin Gang made "stern representations" to Mr William Klein, the US Embassy's minister counsellor for political affairs, and urged the US to stop interfering in China's domestic affairs.

The US Embassy in China, in an e-mail statement, told Reuters it would not speculate on China's possible counter-measures. "We continue to call on the PRC to immediately release all those arbitrarily detained and to end its draconian policies that for more than two years have terrorised its own citizens in Xinjiang," the statement said, using the initials of China's official name, People's Republic of China.

The White House has yet to say whether Mr Trump would sign or veto the Bill, which contains a provision allowing the President to waive sanctions if he determines that to be in the national interest.

World Uyghur Congress spokesman Dilxat Raxit said the House Bill was an important action opposing "China's continued push of extreme persecution" and that the organisation looks forward to Mr Trump signing it into law.

Analysts said China's response to the passage of the Uighur Bill could be stronger than its reaction to the US law backing Hong Kong protesters.

Beijing said on Monday it had banned US military ships and aircraft from visiting Hong Kong ports and sanctioned several US-based non-governmental organisations.

Uighur and Kazakh activists have expressed solidarity with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Some Hong Kong protesters have, meanwhile, pointed to suppression in Xinjiang as an example of what they fear will ultimately befall their city. "China will harvest your home like Xinjiang - BE AWARE OR BE NEXT," read a piece of graffiti at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the site of a days-long occupation by protesters.

REUTERS, ASSOCIATED PRESS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2019, with the headline 'China warns ties will be hit as US House passes Uighur Bill'. Print Edition | Subscribe