President Donald Trump has said he held off on imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over the mass incarceration of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang to protect US-China trade negotiations, according to an interview published on Sunday.

Activists say China has rounded up at least one million Uighurs and other Turkic peoples and is trying to forcibly assimilate them by wiping out their culture and punishing basic Islamic practices.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump. File photo: The White House, via Flickr.

Beijing counters that it is running vocational educational centres that offer an alternative to Islamic extremism, but the issue has further shaken US-China ties, which were already troubled by a bitter trade dispute.

When asked by news site Axios why he has held off on imposing direct US Treasury sanctions on Chinese officials linked to Xinjiang, Trump said: “Well, we were in the middle of a major trade deal.”

“And I made a great deal, US$250 billion potentially worth of purchases,” the president added. “And by the way, they’re buying a lot, you probably have seen.”

“And when you’re in the middle of a negotiation and then all of a sudden you start throwing additional sanctions on – we’ve done a lot. I put tariffs on China, which are far worse than any sanction you can think of.”

The Trump administration has been criticised for being selective on punishing human rights abuses, though the president last week signed legislation that would authorise sanctions against officials involved in the Xinjiang detentions.

While Treasury sanctions could hit particularly hard by targeting assets, other US government departments including Commerce and State have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Bolton fallout

The Axios interview was conducted on Friday, as the Trump administration battled the fallout from explosive allegations in a book by the president’s former national security adviser John Bolton, who was closely involved in diplomatic matters.

John Bolton Donald Trump
John Bolton (left) and Donald Trump (right). File photo: The White House, via Flickr.

Bolton alleges in his book that Trump told Xi that he approved of the Xinjiang camps, an allegation denied by the American leader.

The former National Security Adviser also claimed that in 2018, Trump asked Xi to ramp up US farm purchases to help him with his re-election bid in 2020.

“No, not at all,” Trump told Axios when asked about the request.

“What I told everybody we deal with – not just President Xi – I want them to do business with this country. I want them to do a lot more business with this country.”

“What’s good for the country is good for me… What’s good for the country is also good for an election.”

Trump added: “But I don’t go around saying, ‘Oh, help me with my election.’ Why would I say that?”

“And remember, when I’m dealing with him, the whole room is loaded up with people… I wouldn’t want to say a thing like that.”

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