EU envoy says 'engagement' with China is the way to solve Xinjiang issue

BEIJING (Reuters) - Suspected Chinese abuses in the region of Xinjiang should be addressed through engagement with the government, the new EU ambassador to China said on Friday, a contrast to the position of U.S. officials who are considering sanctions.

Reports of mass detentions and strict surveillance of Muslim ethnic Uighur people in the far western region have sparked a growing international outcry.

A U.N. rights panel said last month it had received credible reports that up to a million ethnic Uighurs may be held in extra-legal detention, and called for them to be freed.

Chinese authorities have also set up thousands of police checkpoints across the region, and human rights advocates have decried martial law conditions and mass DNA collection.

The new EU ambassador, Nicolas Chapuis, who took up his posting this week, told reporters the European Union had been taking note of reports on abuses in Xinjiang, and had raised the issue with China, but it needed facts.

“The union’s stance is that we are working in the United Nations framework,” Chapuis said.

“We believe in dialogue. We believe in engagement, and first of all, we need the facts,” he said, without elaborating.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Xinjiang in recent years in unrest between members of the Uighur minority who call the region home and members of the ethnic Han Chinese majority.

Beijing says Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists. Officials deny mistreating Muslims there, instead saying they are putting some people through “vocational” style courses to prevent militancy spreading.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Manisha Singh told a congressional hearing on Thursday that Washington was weighing sanctions against Chinese senior officials and companies linked to allegations of human rights abuses there.

But Chapuis said the European Union must engage with China if it wanted to be more than a “soft power”.

“The strengthening of the EU-China relationship would show how the union would grow as a full power, not only as a soft power,” he said.

“To do this, engaging China for us is an absolute must.”

Chapuis added that there was an “urgency” to strengthen EU-China relations in the context of the “triangulation” between the United States, China and the European Union.

On the subject of global trade, he said it was normal for major trading partners to have some commercial friction, echoing a line used by Chinese officials to play down disputes.

Amid an escalating U.S.-China trade war, Beijing has put pressure on the EU to stand with it against U.S. President Donald Trump’s trade policies, though the world’s largest trade bloc has largely rebuffed those efforts, and broadly agrees with the U.S. assessment of unfair Chinese trade practices.

Nonetheless, Chinese state media has promoted the message that the EU is on China’s side, and some European officials have expressed concern that China is seeking to capitalize on divisions between Trump and U.S. allies in Europe.

Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel