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International relations

Beijing engages with Pakistan's Uighurs in 'charm offensive'

China wants Pakistanis on its side to protect its massive Belt and Road investment

A Uighur family prays at a local cemetery in Turpan county in Xinjiang province. Beijing has put many Uighurs in internment camps, according to media reports. (Getty Images)

QUETTA, Pakistan -- China is quietly launching a "charm offensive" to win over the Muslim Uighurs in Pakistan, where Beijing has invested billions of dollars through its Belt and Road Initiative.

In an unprecedented development, the Chinese embassy in Islamabad recently invited a group of Uighurs in the South Asian country to meet with officials. About a dozen Uighurs attended the meeting with Chinese diplomats, based on an image in a news release issued by the embassy.

Beijing has been accused by Western media of alleged human rights violations against Uighurs in China's Xinjiang autonomous region. The reports alleged that over a million Uighurs were detained in "re-education camps," which Chinese state media claimed were vocational training facilities.

At the meeting, the diplomats explained that the activities undertaken by Chinese authorities in Xinjiang were part of an "anti-terrorism stability" effort and "vocational skills education and training."

The press statement quoted Shen Zicheng, a counsellor at the Chinese embassy, as saying: "Xinjiang's anti-terrorism struggle has achieved significant results, and the current Xinjiang region is stable." 

Uighur leaders from the Rawalpindi and Gilgit-Baltistan regions who attended the meeting appreciated the economic and social development in Xinjiang and the fruit of the anti-terrorism policies, the statement said.

The meeting is seen as Beijing's latest effort to quell the rise of anti-China sentiments abroad. Experts say Beijing targeted the Uighurs in Pakistan because of the country's importance to its BRI project.

Pakistan forms the heart of Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature BRI, with Beijing investing $62 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Started in April 2015, the CPEC project involves the construction of an estimated 3,000 km network of new roads, railways and gas pipelines, as well as multiple power plants in Pakistan. The plan includes connecting the Gwadar port in the south of Pakistan to Xinjiang autonomous territory in the northwest of China.

Michael Kugelman, deputy director South Asia at Wilson Center, a U.S.-based think tank, termed the embassy's move as China's "charm offensive." The meeting was intended to ease tensions with Uighurs in Pakistan and reduce the possibility of them launching attacks on Chinese targets.

In Pakistan where the dominant religion is Islam, the news reports of the incarceration of Uighurs in internment camps also puts China in a bad light.

Beijing has always regarded the Uighurs in Pakistan as a security threat, demanding Islamabad control them. In the past, China blamed the Uighurs in Pakistan for terrorist attacks in Xinjiang. In April this year, Pakistani authorities arrested dozens of Uighurs in the Gilgit-Baltistan region at Beijing's behest.

"Some four dozen Uighur fighters were operating in sensitive areas close to CPEC projects," said a Pakistani security official.

There are 400 to 500 armed Uighurs in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Abdul Basit, associate research fellow at RSIS Singapore, a think tank. China considers them a huge security threat, he said.

"Meeting with Uighurs was an attempt by China to ensure that they don't pick weapons against the People's Republic in Xinjiang," Basit said. "China can't afford anti-China sentiment among Uighurs in Pakistan and therefore it wants to engage them."

For Beijing, the meeting with Uighurs also marks a change to a softer stance of engagement. The policy shift, experts said, is to win over Pakistanis sympathetic to the Uighurs.

But the problem for Beijing is merely one of image for now because the official Pakistan line is still to shrug off the alleged human rights violation in Xinjiang. "Islamabad does not want to antagonize Beijing and risk aggravating a relationship with China that has grown increasingly important for Pakistan, particularly amid a deteriorating relationship with Washington," Kugelman said.

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