Uighurs case a 'litmus test' for Australia's ties with China

Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific editor | June 01, 2009
Article from: The Australian

AUSTRALIA'S increasingly awkward relationship with China is likely to come under fresh strain, if the Rudd Government agrees to a request from US President Barack Obama to resettle 17 Uighurs held at Guantanamo Bay.

Leaders of Australia's 2000-strong Uighur community yesterday welcomed the news that Canberra was considering resettling the Uighurs, held without trial for the past seven years, after rejecting two requests from the previous Bush administration.

Australian Uighur Association general secretary Mamtimin Ala warned that taking the detainees - who have been cleared of links to terrorism - could create additional difficulties with China, which has strongly lobbied Canberra to reject them.

"We are aware of the delicate situation the Australian Government is in. It doesn't want to risk its relationship with China. This is a sensitive litmus test for Canberra," he said. "Beijing wants to send a strong warning to all Uighurs inside and outside China, that 'if you're not content with our rule you will be punished, and you have nowhere to go'.

"China is eager to have the 17 back, so that in punishing them severely it can also show the West that it is on the right side in the war on terror."

The Muslim Uighurs are nine million people of Turkic descent whose home is resource-rich Xinjiang, an autonomous region in northwestern China.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has made it clear Beijing expects the 17 to be repatriated to China, firmly opposing their being resettled by any other country.

Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said Australia would consider resettling the Uighurs "on a case by case basis".

The Government has asked officials to fast-track advice on whether it is safe to let them enter Australia. An insider said the Government was keen to consider this application fully, coming from the new administration in Washington, and would not dismiss it as rapidly as before.

Differences between Canberra and Beijing have emerged over Chinese investment proposals for Australian resources and over China's military expansion.

Malcolm Turnbull on Saturday urged the Government to reject the US request.

"If the Americans believe they are safe enough to walk the streets of Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, then they would be safe enough to walk the streets of any American city," the Opposition Leader said.

Mr Ala said it was a fallacy to imply the 17 were dangerous, before Australia had even reviewed the clearances they had received from the US authorities. Mr Ala said the 17 were opposed to Chinese rule and had been living in their own camp in Afghanistan, which shares a border with Xinjiang. After 9/11, they fled to the mountains closer to home, but were handed over to Pakistan authorities, who passed them on to the US military.

China has accused them of being members of the East Turkestan Independence Movement. The ETIM has been blamed for almost every act of political violence in China in the past decade.

"The Uighurs in Guantanamo Bay are innocent. It would contradict core values of the US and of Australia to abandon them," Mr Ala said.

Additional reporting: Patricia Karvelas