Twenty-two democratic countries, including Canada, signed a letter earlier this week condemning China's mass detention of ethnic Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang. The initiative was unprecedented, not only because it was the first major international challenge to China's incarceration of up to one million people in its "re-education" camps, but also because the 22 countries went ahead without the United States, which did not sign the letter.
The US has historically led liberal democracies in criticizing human rights abuses in authoritarian states. Last year, however, Canada discovered the costs of doing so alone. When Justin Trudeau's government called on Saudi Arabia to release human rights activists from prison, Riyadh responded by expelling Canada’s ambassador, suspended bilateral commercial negotiations, pulling their students from Canadian universities, and reportedly ordering the divestment of Canadian assets. Washington remained neutral in the dispute.
In the absence of US leadership and the protection it offers, liberal democracies have three options for responding to human rights abuses elsewhere. They can keep their heads down and say nothing. They can speak out individually, thus exposing them to the risk of targeted retaliation by affronted authoritarian regimes. Or they can take a lesson from the insurance industry and pool this risk by acting together.
By jointly criticizing China earlier this week, eighteen European countries, along with Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, chose the third option. It was a smart strategic move. When the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to imprisoned Chinese democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo in 2010, Beijing cut off diplomatic relations with Norway and imports of Norwegian salmon. Last December, China detained two Canadians and later imposed restrictions on Canadian agricultural imports in apparent retaliation for Canada's arrest of Huawei senior executive Meng Wanzhou on a US extradition request. But China will have difficulty retaliating against 22 countries that are simultaneously condemning human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
As I wrote recently in a Chatham House briefing paper, democratic middle powers are far from powerless in the absence of American leadership. By working together, they can establish a measure of collective protection, and perhaps even sustain elements of the rules-based order that are under pressure. This week's joint criticism of China is an excellent example of this strategy in action, but in an era of increasingly emboldened authoritarians, this type of cooperation will need to become the norm, not the occasional exception.