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The European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada on Monday imposed fresh sanctions on Chinese officials over the crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities as Japan — the sole Group of Seven member not backing the measures — expressed "grave concerns" over the crackdown.

Brussels, London and Ottawa blacklisted former and current officials in the Xinjiang region — Zhu Hailun, Wang Junzheng, Wang Mingshan and Chen Mingguo — over alleged abuses, which have sparked international outrage.

Washington, which had sanctioned two of those officials in July 2020, added the other two to the list on Monday. The coordinated strike also targeted the state-run Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

Beijing responded with immediate tit-for-tat measures and its Foreign Ministry said the EU's move "grossly interferes in China's internal affairs" and "severely undermines China-EU relations."

Japan, meanwhile, which has seen its relationship with China grow colder over security issues after a period of warming ties, did not take part in the coordinated sanctions actions.

At a news conference Tuesday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, the government's top spokesman, expressed "grave concerns" over the situation in Xinjiang.

But asked about the possibility of the Japanese government imposing its own economic sanctions, such as asset freezes and import-export restrictions, Kato stressed that there is no provision in the Foreign Exchange and Foreign Trade Law that allows the government to unilaterally impose economic sanctions based solely on the issue of human rights.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO
Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato speaks during a news conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo on Tuesday. | KYODO

Kato's comments came after State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter earlier in the day told a news conference in Washington that the U.S. "will not make recommendations" as to what Japan decides to do on its own.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has been stepping up efforts to rally allies and partners to counter China, viewing the Asian giant as posing serious challenges to the stable and open international system that Washington is defending.

"Acting together sends the clearest possible signal that the international community is united in its condemnation of China's human rights violations in Xinjiang and the need for Beijing to end its discriminatory and oppressive practices in the region," Britain's Foreign Ministry said.

Tokyo has joined Washington on some fronts in standing up to an assertive Beijing, singling out China last week for the first time ever with a joint statement by the Japanese and U.S. top diplomats and defense chiefs over its "coercion and destabilizing behavior toward others in the region,” while specifically noting "shared serious concerns" about the human rights situation in Xinjiang.

"The message is that Japan is paying close attention" to the Xinjiang issue, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said after the joint statement's release.

Still, Tokyo has been reticent to push too strongly against Beijing for fear of totally alienating its powerful neighbor, since its economy relies heavily on China.

European countries, meanwhile, have appeared more willing to directly target China by championing the Xinjiang rights issue.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, "we’re sending the clearest message to the Chinese government that the international community will not turn a blind eye to such serious and systematic violations of human rights and we will act in concert to hold those responsible to account.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China "continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang" and called on Beijing to "bring an end to the repression of Uyghurs."

Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said the sanctions underscore "grave concerns with the ongoing human rights violations" in Xinjiang.

The symbolic move is the first time Brussels and London — in other matters increasingly at odds with each other since Brexit — have targeted China over accusations of widespread abuses and forced labor in Xinjiang.

They last hit Beijing over human rights breaches when they imposed an arms embargo in 1989 after the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Beijing blasted the EU measures and immediately hit back by announcing entry bans on 10 Europeans — including five members of the European Parliament — as well as two EU bodies and two think-tanks.

China's Foreign Ministry said the EU's move "grossly interferes in China's internal affairs" and "severely undermines China-EU relations."

The retaliatory strike drew condemnation from across the political spectrum in the EU.

"Rather than change its policies and address our legitimate concerns, China has again turned a blind eye and these measures are regrettable and unacceptable," EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said after a meeting of foreign ministers.

Reinhard Butikofer, a German legislator targeted by the sanctions, said China's response was "brazen and ridiculous."

"As the Chinese proverb says: The stone they have lifted will fall on their own feet," he said.

The Dutch government summoned the Chinese ambassador after one of its national lawmakers was among those sanctioned.

"China's decision is a totally unjustified response," Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

In France, the Foreign Ministry slammed the sanctions and, in a sign of rising tensions, summoned the Chinese ambassador to Paris over "unacceptable comments" he made in recent days.

A gate of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng, in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region | REUTERS
A gate of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Dabancheng, in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region | REUTERS

Australia and New Zealand on Tuesday voiced grave concerns about "credible reports” of severe human rights abuses against ethnic Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province.

"There is clear evidence of severe human rights abuses that include restrictions on freedom of religion, mass surveillance, large-scale extra-judicial detentions, as well as forced labor and forced birth control,” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and her New Zealand counterpart Nanaia Mahuta said in a joint statement Tuesday.

While the statement didn’t say they would issue any trade sanctions against China, it could lead to further tensions between Australia and its largest trading partner. Those tensions ramped up in April when Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government called for independent investigators to visit Wuhan to prove the origins of the pandemic. Since then, Beijing has targeted Australian goods including coal, wine and barley for trade reprisals.

Rights groups believe at least 1 million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in the northwestern region, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilizing women and imposing forced labor.

China has strongly denied allegations of forced labor involving Uyghurs and says training programs, work schemes and better education have helped stamp out extremism in the region.

The EU faces a delicate balancing act over relations with China, as it treats Beijing as a rival but also a potential economic partner.

Brussels late last year sealed a major investment pact with China after seven years of negotiations, but is under pressure from the Biden administration.

Biden has been looking to marshal a united front against Beijing as he drops the unilateral approach of his predecessor Donald Trump.

Blinken is currently on his way for a three-day visit to Brussels, during which he will discuss foreign policy with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen.

Blinken exchanged fiery barbs with Chinese officials during their first high-level talks last week, amid rising tensions between the rival world powers.

The European investment pact would eventually need to be approved by the European parliament — but there has been growing opposition to signing off on the deal.

Parliament chief David Sassoli insisted the Chinese move "will have consequences."

Monday's measures from the EU were part of a package of human rights sanctions that also included figures in Russia, North Korea, Eritrea, South Sudan and Libya.

A mechanism — designed to make it easier for the bloc to target rights abusers worldwide — was launched this month with sanctions on four Russian officials over the jailing of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

The listings published in the EU's official journal included two senior officials in Russia's Chechnya over the persecution of gay men in the region.

They also targeted two North Korean ministers, two Libyan militia leaders, a senior commander in South Sudan's army and Eritrea's national security agency.

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