China and Malaysia’s relations are set for a new test after the Muslim-majority country freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslim detainees it held on humanitarian grounds, ignoring a months-old request from Beijing for their repatriation on security grounds. The detainees had been charged with illegally entering Malaysia after escaping a jail in Thailand last November.

Malaysian prosecutors dropped charges against the Uighurs, a Turkic language-speaking Muslim ethnic minority indigenous to China’s western Xinjiang province. Last week they were allowed to travel to Turkey, where thousands have fled to seek asylum from Chinese persecution and are welcomed by Turkish nationalists who regard them as kin.

The Uighur detainees had been imprisoned in Thailand since 2014 and were ordered to remain in custody until their nationalities could be proven, a situation complicated by the fact that both China and Turkey claim them as their citizens. Twenty prisoners staged a jailbreak last year using blankets to scale barbed-wire fences, with some crossing into neighboring Malaysia.

“They have done nothing wrong in this country, so they are released,” Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told reporters in his first public comments on the issue since charges against the Uighur detainees were withdrawn. A statement by China’s Foreign Ministry, however, took a hard diplomatic line against the decision.

“These people are all Chinese nationals. We resolutely oppose them being deported to a third country,” said the statement, which expressed hope that Malaysia would “attach great importance” to its concerns. Beijing has been vigorous in its attempts to persuade foreign governments to extradite ethnic Uighurs it believes pose a security threat.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/How Hwee Young
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad speaks during a press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, August 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/How Hwee Young

The Chinese government has overseen a massive security crackdown in Xinjiang in recent years, imposing sweeping restrictions on Islamic practices in a supposed bid to eliminate religious extremism. It accuses armed Uighur separatists of plotting unrest and carrying out stabbing and bomb attacks that have killed hundreds of China’s ethnic Han majority.

Sources cited in a Reuters report earlier this year claimed Malaysia had been under “great pressure” to deport the Uighurs to China rather than to Thailand. Western foreign missions and human rights groups later tried to dissuade authorities from handing the Uighurs to Beijing over fears they would be persecuted if returned.

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration fulfilled Beijing’s extradition requests for Uighurs. Biometric information provided by Beijing enabled the arrests of 29 Uighurs in Malaysia since 2011, all of whom were deported to China, including six who were repatriated in 2012 despite having pending refugee status applications.

Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby, had called on the then Malaysian government to provide the 11 Uighurs with access to refugee status determination proceedings. The US State Department echoed those calls, urging Malaysia to provide temporary protection for the detainees while their eligibility for refugee protection was determined.

Malaysia had been in talks with Thai authorities over the fate of the detained Uighurs, though it never reached a resolution. Analysts believed Malaysia would eventually comply with China’s extradition requests, as it has in the past to maintain and deepen already robust economic and security ties.

Prior to his defeat at the ballot box in May’s general election, Najib relied on China’s economic largesse as a political life raft. Despite being a relatively minor recipient of Chinese investment up until 2012, Malaysia became one of the top investment destinations for projects linked to China’s US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) under Najib’s watch.

Malaysia’s new Mahathir-led government has taken a significantly more independent stance toward China, making the recalibration of ties with Beijing a key foreign policy priority. Since taking office in May, his administration has cancelled or deferred some US$23 billion worth of projects awarded to Chinese companies by the previous government.

Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after morning prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele
Police watch as Uighur Muslims leave the Id Kah Mosque after prayers in the old town of Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. Photo: AFP/Johannes Eisele

Though Mahathir has moved to reset the terms for dealing with China, his administration has consistently signaled his broad support for BRI and Chinese investment. Chinese state media has in recent months been relatively cautious in its response to Mahathir’s rebalancing efforts and has appeared careful not to criticize Malaysia’s new administration.

Indeed, Beijing has shown patience and a certain willingness to entertain valid criticism of mega-projects that Mahathir had cautioned against on grounds of safeguarding national sovereignty. Some analysts, however, believe Malaysia’s open defiance of China’s request to extradite asylum-seeking Uighurs could be a bridge too far for Beijing.

“China’s Foreign Ministry has said it ‘resolutely’ opposed the move, a sparingly used term normally reserved for core interest issues such as Taiwan or the South China Sea,” said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic & International Studies in Malaysia.

“There’s good reason to expect China to impose certain costs on Malaysia, if for no other reason than to warn other countries to comply with China’s wishes on the extradition of Uighurs,” said the analyst, who believes deporting the Uighurs to China would have been “untenable” for the government given strong civil society support for the detainees.

The United Nations has cited harrowing reports about Uighur detention centers in China. Photo: Twitter bit.ly/2PBPq1d
The United Nations has cited harrowing reports about Uighur detention centers in China. Photo: Twitter bit.ly/2PBPq1d

“Muslim and human rights NGOs were instrumental in lobbying the government to release the 11 Uighurs to Turkey. Malaysia has strongly advocated for Muslim communities around the world — the Palestinians and Myanmar’s ethnic Rohingya minority in particular,” he said. “But we shouldn’t pretend that it hasn’t been selective at times.”

Under Mahathir, who served previously as premier from 1981 to 2003, Malaysia had been “noticeably mute” during Russia’s 1990s military campaign in Chechnya, said the analyst. “I don’t expect Malaysia to be particularly vocal on the Uighurs given the importance of the relationship with China. It will just do what’s needed to placate domestic pressures on the issue.”

While it remains to be seen whether Mahathir’s latest defiance of China will spiral into a full diplomatic tiff, Chinese state media has so far been quiescent on the move, pointing fingers instead at Western politicians and media for setting off “a wave of anti-China” rhetoric over Beijing’s muscular counterterrorism efforts in Xinjiang.

“Western forces don’t care about the welfare of the Xinjiang people. They would rather sacrifice stability in Xinjiang and the lives of hundreds of thousands for a single geopolitical victory over China,” said a recent editorial in the nationalist Chinese tabloid Global Times which defended a new legislative amendment recognizing local governments’ use of internment facilities critics have labeled “re-education camps.”

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed (left) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talk during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 20, 2018.Photo: AFP / POOL / How Hwee Young
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed (L) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang  at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, August 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/How Hwee Young

In August, a United Nations committee said it had received “credible reports” that up to a million ethnic minority Uighurs and other Muslims were being held in such camps and subject to “political indoctrination.” Beijing refers to the sites as “vocational training centers”, where those accused of minor criminal misdemeanors receive reformative training.

China denies the arbitrary detainment or ill-treatment of its citizens, though has refused to release statistics on how many Uighurs and other Muslims have been detained in Xinjiang. Critics have characterized Beijing’s efforts to impose political and social control in the province as a campaign of assimilation aimed at erasing Uighur culture and identity.

“The Chinese government will not permit Xinjiang to become a second Syria, Libya or Iraq,” China’s Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told the Financial Times in a recent interview, framing Beijing’s conduct as consistent with global anti-terrorism efforts. Upheaval in Xinjiang can seep through China’s borders “and maybe spread to Europe,” the official said.