U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday called on Kazakhstan to put pressure on Beijing over its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, saying officials in Nur-Sultan may provide assistance to those seeking asylum in Kazakhstan.
“The United States urges all countries to join us in pressing for an immediate end to this repression,” Pompeo told reporters. ‘‘We ask simply for them to provide safe refuge and asylum to those seeking to flee China. Protect human dignity, just do what’s right.”
Pompeo made the comments after a meeting with Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, Mukhtar Tleuberdi, in Nur-Sultan and ahead of a ministerial meeting with the foreign ministers from the five Central Asian states – namely Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan – dubbed the C5+1.
During his visit to the capital of Kazakhstan, Pompeo also met with the families of ethnic Kazakh-Chinese minorities who are among the detained or who have been sent to so-called internment camps in Xinjiang, officially known as the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.
“Grateful to Kazakhstan for not forcibly returning members of Muslim minority groups to an uncertain fate in China and protecting those who seek asylum,’’ Pompeo wrote on his Twitter account.
At the same time, the government of Kazakhstan made no comment on the issue.
According to data compiled by the United Nations, the Chinese government has detained at least one million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims in so-called “vocational training centers” to stamp out extremism and provide people with new skills. But U.S. government officials say they received, ‘‘reports of deaths, forced labor, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment’’ in these camps.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said late last year the Chinese government forced detainees to renounce their ethnic identities as well as their culture and religion.
According to the 2000 census, there were roughly 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs living in China. Ethnic Kazakhs are considered the second largest Turkic-speaking group in Xinjiang after the Uyghurs.
Since 2017, ethnic Kazakhs living in Xinjiang have been complaining about harassment by the Chinese authorities, ‘‘for having a relationship with Kazakhstan.’’ At the same time, they said they and their relatives have been sent to camps where they are exposed to communist propaganda and are forced to learn Chinese.
“The exact number of ethnic Kazakhs who are [kept] in vocational training centers is unknown, since those held in these centers are citizens of China,” reads a statement by Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry released in mid-2019. “Kazakhstan has no right to intervene in the problems of ethnic Kazakhs who are Chinese citizens.”
In December, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a bill that called for ‘‘targeted sanctions’’ on the Chinese government, to counter what the House calls the “arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment” of ethnic Uyghurs in China. The bill prompted an angry reaction from Beijing. It awaits approval by the Senate, and – if passed – the signature of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev believes international human rights organizations are fueling the fire regarding ethnic Kazakhs living in China.
“Many of reports issued by international human rights organizations are untrue. Anyway, there is some deliberate escalation around the issue related to ethnic Kazakhs,” Tokayev said in an interview with Deutsche Welle late last year. He said Washington’s allegations against Beijing come amid the trade war between the two countries.
“Time will tell how negotiations will end and whether sanctions against China will be lifted. But Kazakhstan should not become the territory of the so-called global anti-Chinese front,” Tokayev added.
Connections between Kazakhstan and China run deep. The land border between Kazakhstan and China runs for 1,782 km (1,107 mi). After almost 29 years of Kazakhstani independence from the USSR, China has invested $20 billion in what is Central Asia’s largest economy. China is considered Kazakhstan’s second-largest trade partner, just behind Russia, as trade between the two countries totaled $9.2 billion in the first eight months of 2019.
China, in turn, sees the world’s ninth largest country, in terms of landmass, as a gateway to western markets. In 2015, the two sides agreed to link Kazakhstan’s railways to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, incorporating the capital city, Nur-Sultan, into the global mega-logistics project.