The most important yet under-discussed part of the Democratic debate three days ago was the exchange on China between South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and anti-Trump billionaire Tom Steyer. Though they did not attack each other directly, their responses to the moderators’ questions about how to handle China’s crescendoing record of human rights abuses showed stark differences in foreign policy between the two. When Buttigieg was asked whether he would be a proponent of boycotting the 2022 Beijing Olympics as president, he declared that if the Chinese were to repeat their actions in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in Hong Kong, “They will be isolated from the free world and we will lead that isolation economically and diplomatically." Tom Steyer pushed back on Buttigieg’s idea of isolating China by saying, “We have to work with them as a frenemy, people who disturb us, who we disagree with, but who in effect we are linked within a world that is ever getting closer.” He emphasized his point by invoking the climate crisis and China’s crucial role in tackling the existential threat.
Buttigieg and Steyer each push very different ideas on climate change in the context of international relations with countries like China. Steyer seems to think the most important function of foreign policy is to prevent an unlivable world. This line of thought makes sense for Steyer to have, given his continual emphasis that climate change is the greatest threat to humanity and must be treated as such. Most Democrats would agree with this point of view. The idea of ignoring human rights abuses in order to tackle climate change, on the other hand, conceptually makes sense in the denotation that if climate change continues to progress, it will exacerbate all of humanity’s problems. As sea levels rise and more places become unlivable, the world will see mass migration on a scale never before seen. As already seen in Europe, Australia, and America, increased volumes of immigration are inducing the decline of democracy abroad and the rise of human rights abuses. As China increases its coal mine approvals, churning out more and more coal, it logically makes sense to keep diplomatic channels open to tackle climate change. But what happens when China refuses to negotiate with America on climate change unless we stop talking about the Uighur Muslims in concentration camps, like they did with the president on trade? Is it worth it to whitewash a country’s human rights abuses to tackle climate change?
America has already taken that track with India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was barred from securing a Visa to visit the United States before 2014 by the State Department due to allegations that he supported Hindu extremists during the 2002 Hindu-Muslims riots while he was Chief Minister in the Gujarat government. The riots left over 800 Muslims dead and tens of thousands forced from their homes. Modi was subsequently banned from visiting the United States, at least until Uncle Sam needed him to come to the table on climate change. In 2016, President Barack Obama invited Modi to the White House. Together, they pledged to ratify the Paris Climate Accords. India accounts for 4.1 percent of all global emissions, and therefore for any climate negotiations to take place, it needs to be at the table. In the years since, India is one of the few countries on target to be compatible with the <2°C emissions trajectory scenario, but nevertheless are continuing to build new coal-fired power plants. In terms of India’s actions to tackle climate change, President Obama’s efforts to open up diplomatic relations with Modi seemed to have worked. In terms of human rights, it has not.
In the five years since Prime Minister Modi was allowed back into the U.S. with his history of human rights abuses ignored, the Indian government has begun a brutal campaign against its Muslim citizens. This started in Kashmir, where the Modi government announced the repeal of Article 370 from the Indian constitution in August. Article 370 had given the region some self-autonomy, which many Muslim Kashmiris saw as protection against the increasingly nationalist Hindu government. The Modi government coupled the repeal with a complete communications blackout, a strict curfew, and the axing of the Internet and many cell services. This has led to untold human rights abuses in the region by Indian government authorities, the vast majority of which is hidden from view. The Internet blackout is holding, and is the longest ever imposed in any democracy.
In August, the Indian government released a citizenship list in their attempts to identify and “root out” what it claims are illegal immigrants in the northeastern state of Assam. This list included two million people whose names do not appear on the National Registry of Citizens, a majority of them Muslim with some Hindus with Bangladeshi origin. If the people on this list can not prove they are citizens, they will be placed into mass detention facilities. The first camp, currently being built, is the size of seven football fields, and those detained in the camps may then be expelled from India. The Modi government has announced plans to extend this process to the entire country. Last week, the Indian parliament passed a law that redefined it's citizenship criteria to exclude Muslims. This has led to mass protests across the country and a violent police crackdown.
President Obama gave Prime Minister Modi a pass on his past human rights abuses in order to tackle climate change. But that silent acceptance led to an unforeseen level of human rights abuses. If the next president takes Steyer’s approach to China and puts aside human rights to deal with climate, the abuses will most likely get worse, based on India’s course of action. And seeing as China is already detaining millions of Uighur Muslims in large concentration camps, what would “get worse” entail? The fundamental question is: is it worth it to join authoritarians on dealing with an existential threat even if it means letting crimes against humanity take place? Or should we stand up for the dignity of all humans, even if it means losing out on potentially world-saving initiatives?
Anna Hickey is a second-year C.L.E.G. major in the School of Public Affairs. She serves as Chief Editorial Columnist and Administrative Director of the Agora.
Image credit Phil Roeder, Creative Commons