(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and its Western allies at the United Nations sharply criticized China’s treatment of its ethnic Uighurs, stepping up pressure over human rights just as Washington and Beijing seek to complete a “phase one” deal in their lingering trade dispute.

“We call on the Chinese government to uphold its national laws and international obligations and commitments to respect human rights, including freedom of religion or belief,” U.K. Ambassador Karen Pierce said Tuesday in a statement at the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee on behalf of 23 countries including the U.S., Germany, France and Japan.

The Western criticism of China -- which the U.S. has sought to galvanize at the UN and other global bodies -- comes at a sensitive time. Vice President Mike Pence last week criticized China’s actions against protesters in Hong Kong as the two countries remain locked in a trade war and jostle for military and commercial dominance in the Pacific.

China quickly pushed back against the criticism. A group of 54 countries including Russia, Egypt, Bolivia and Pakistan signed a joint statement commending “China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.” The statement added that China’s actions in the western province of Xinjiang have been a justifiable response to the “challenge of terrorism and extremism.”

The U.S.-led letter criticized China’s efforts to “restrict cultural and religious practices, mass surveillance disproportionately targeting ethnic Uighurs, and other human rights violations and abuses” in Xinjiang. It called on the Chinese government to allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Special Procedures “immediate unfettered, meaningful access,” to the province.

The Trump administration this month slapped visa bans on Chinese officials linked to the mass detention of Muslims, the latest in an escalating series of U.S. steps to pressure Beijing over what Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has called “the stain of the century.”

To contact the reporter on this story: David Wainer in New York at dwainer3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert

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