Will Xinjiang Debacle Put Turkish-Chinese Relations at Risk?

The violent
ethnic clashes in China’s northwestern Xinjiang province are the kind of
political debacle the leaders of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development party
(AKP) wish had never happened. In the wake of Beijing’s ruthless crackdown,
Turkey’s government appears to be torn both ways. It certainly values economic
ties Turkey has developed with China and in general has great respect for
Beijing’s growing might. But Turkish leadership is increasingly finding itself
under the mounting pressure of domestic public opinion demanding that Ankara do
something to stop the Chinese persecution of Uighurs, their Muslim and Turkic

It would appear that Ankara is
set to perform a delicate balancing act. Yet there is a concern among some
international and Turkish observers that domestic political considerations – in
particular, the AKP’s desire to be seen no less nationalistic than the
opposition — puts Turkey on a collision course with China.

Positive trends in Sino-Turkish relations

The Turkish President Abdullah Gul made an official state visit
to Beijing and had a stopover in the region – the highest-level Turkish visit to
Xinjiang – only one week before Xinjiang erupted.  

The state visit took
place on the invitation of the Chinese President Hu Jintao. Chinese leadership
has paid close attention to the positive efforts of Turkey to promote good and
constructive dialogue with Beijing. As a matter of fact, in recent years Turkey
has had an important and constructive role in Beijing’s Xinjiang policies as
Turkey has repeatedly emphasized that Xinjiang and Uighurs are part of China. As
an example of this, Turkey pleased the ears of Beijing by referring to Xinjiang
as Chinese Xinjiang. Beijing so much trusted Turkish ‘One-China’ stance that it
provided a rare opportunity for the President Gul to give a speech on June 28 at
Xinjiang University. In his address, the president said that Xinjiang
constitutes one of the most important bonds between the two countries and that
the Uighur people in Xinjiang form a bridge of friendship between China and
Turkey. During his visit President Gul was made the Honorary Professor of
Xinjiang University.

In economic sphere, Turkey has actively promoted
closer ties with still developing Xinjiang. This appeared to be a good entry
strategy, as mainly low-end Turkish products cannot compete with domestic
Chinese brands in the developed coastal regions of China. In addition, Turkey
believed that its companies and products have special appeal among the Uighur
people in Xinjiang. This emerging strategy has been warmly welcomed in Beijing
as China has not been terribly successful in integrating Xinjiang into the world
or domestic markets. Moreover, from Beijing’s point of view, the region’s
developing economic ties with Turkey would also help diversify the dominant role
of Foreign Direct Investments made by the Commonwealth of Independent States’
countries that constitute more than half of all FDI’s made in the region (2006).

So far, bilateral trade relations have been dominated by Chinese exports
and Chinese companies have invested a meager $61million in Turkey. Just prior to
the Turkish President’s state visit there were increasing expectations of the
growing economic ties between the countries, including plans of investments in
strategic sectors. Chinese car manufacturer Chery Auto came out with an
announcement in May, that it is planning to open a factory in Turkey, but it
needed more government support before it will proceed. Istanbul also held in the
beginning of Junly a business forum for 23 Chinese companies operating in
strategic sectors, like power plants and energy production, construction sector,
motor vehicles, iron-steel products, and transportation. In addition, the
Hurriyet newspaper reported that one of the positive outcomes of the Turkish
delegation’s talks in Beijing was the signing of the trade deals by the eight
Turkish companies worth $3 billion.

All these positive economic outlook
and achievements as well as the accumulated political trust appear to have been
endangered by the Turkish reaction to the Xinjiang crisis.

Reactions within Turkey

As the Turkish
media kept on reporting in the wake of the rioting about hundreds of casualties
among the Turkic Uighurs (China’s latest official death toll is 197 people with
most of the dead being Han Chinese), the nationalist sentiment in Turkey has
been rising steeply.

“China should know that when East Turkestan is
hurt, Turkey is hurt,” a commentary published in the Bugun daily warned. “East
Turkestan is bleeding,” echoed the Sabah newspaper. “Turkey cannot remain
indifferent to the sufferings of its ancestral lands.”

Some Turkish
commentators go as far as invoking the idea of independent Xinjiang – an
argument destined to enrage the official Beijing. “Although the riots failed to
be successful today, they will open the way of hopes for tomorrow,” wrote
Sabah’s columnist Nazli Ilicak, adding that one day East Turkestan might free
itself from China’s oppressive rule and become an independent country like
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Being pressured both by public
opinion and the opposition – which was quick to criticize the government’s
initially muted response to the “Urumqi massacres” – the AKP leaders appeared to
have toughened their stance and rhetoric. While in Italy attending the G8
meetings, Turkey’s Prime Minister Regep Tayyip Erdogan described the Xinjiang
incidents as “almost genocide” against Uighurs and urged China to stop the
“assimilation” of its Uighur minority.

“No state, no society that
attacks the lives and rights of innocent civilians can guarantee its security
and prosperity,” he warned. “Whether they are Turkic Uighurs or Chinese, we
cannot tolerate such atrocities,” Erdoğan said. “The suffering of the Uighurs is
ours.” Turkish prime minister stated that Turkey as a non-permanent member of
the United Nations Security Council was determined to bring the issue of the
weeklong unrest and Chinese crackdown in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region
to the council’s agenda.

For his part, Bulent Arinc, one
of the AKP co-founders and currently State Minister and Deputy Prime Minister,
lashed out at China speaking to journalists following the recent media and
communications conference. “We have profound historical ties to our brothers in
the Uighur region,” Arinc said, adding that there is a 300,000-strong Uighur
community living in Turkey. China, Arinc asserted, is trying to cover up the
truth about the incidents, relying on its economic might and power it wields in
world politics. “We most certainly value our relations with China,” he said,
“but this now stands on its own as an issue of human rights.”

Another, even stronger-worded
reaction came from Turkey’s Minister of Industry Nihat Ergun, who on July 9
called on businessmen and consumers to boycott Chinese products.

However, the most disruptive for
Turkish-Chinese relations could be the AKP government’s move to host in Turkey
Rebiya Kadeer – an Uighur leader living in exile in the United States. Official
Beijing accuses Ms. Kadeer of masterminding the Urumqi riots.

Remarkably, Ankara has recently
twice refused to issue a Turkish visa to Kadeer – apparently not wishing to
upset the Chinese leadership. But now, the AKP government’s stance on this issue
seems to have changed as Erdogan explicitly said on July 9, “If there is such an
application, we will issue a visa for her.” Kadeer immediately responded to good
news from Ankara announcing she will be visiting Turkey soon. Speaking to the
Cihan news agency in her home in Fairfax County, Kadeer, a millionaire
businesswoman-turned-political dissident known as the “Mother of the Uighurs,”
said she didn’t believe that “Turkey would sell out the Uighurs, who have
Turkish blood in their veins.”


The reaction of Beijing came a
week after the first official Turkish outburst of rage. In the official
statement China demanded that Turkey withdraw its leader’s remarks on genocide
and assimilation, which the state-owned China Daily blasted as “groundless and
irresponsible.” The Chinese Foreign Minister also made a personal phone call to
his Turkish counterpart strongly advising Ankara to retract its harsh words.

However, the Chinese media
reported on the Turkish reactions in a relatively restrained manner,
particularly if compared to the frenzied nation-wide anti-France campaign a year
ago in connection with Paris’ perceived support for the Dalai Lama. Even the
Chinese blogosphere appeared not to be overly agitated, with writers just
warning Turkey not to interfere in China’s internal affairs or asking what
exactly the relationship between Uighurs and Turkey is.
Naturally, Beijing’s
stance would significantly harden if Turkey’s leaders are going to meet Rebiya
Kadeer later this year. In the words of Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey
Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington,
“All hell is going to break loose if she shows up in Turkey, especially after
the comment that Erdogan made.” Kadeer is a very sensitive issue for Beijing and
the spokesman of China’s Foreign Ministry Qi Gang made this perfectly clear,
saying that “We resolutely oppose any foreign country providing a platform for
her anti-Chinese, splittist activities.” Beijing has recently put pressure on
Australia to prevent the screening of an Uighur film on Kadeer at a film

If Turkey does not take back its
words and make an open apology, Beijing could easily freeze economic and
political ties with Turkey without having any effect on China’s economic
development. Last year, while seeking to punish France, China made it
particularly difficult for French strategic industries like nuclear and aircraft
industries to work in China, and ordinary citizens arranged boycotts against
Carrefour department stores. However, France did not yield to the Chinese
pressure to make a unilateral apology. Eventually, the deadlock was resolved as
France and China made a joint communiqué on April 1, 2009. It stated that
“France and China reiterate their commitment to the principle of
non-interference” and that “France objects to all support for Tibet’s
independence in any form whatsoever.” Now, the question is: does Turkey have the
economic and political leverage to demand a politically face-saving joint
communiqué or will it have to yield to making a unilateral apology?

Ankara isolated

Some analysts warn that Ankara’s
going into the nationalistic (if not out-right pan-Turkist) overdrive could be
counterproductive. There are several reasons why Turkey should tread more
carefully. At the moment, international community appears to be not in the mood
to annoy the Chinese leadership. China has already shrugged off Erdogan’s
suggestion to discuss the Urumqi crisis at the UNSC saying the incident was its
own domestic business and of no concern to the outside parties. Beijing’s
position was backed on July 12 by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (in
which China plays a leading role together with Russia). The July 5 events in
Urumqi are the internal affair of the People’s Republic of China, the SCO
statement says.

Turkish efforts to
internationalize the Xinjiang crisis, some commentators note, appear to clash
with the interests of the leading world powers which, in the times of the global
economic downturn, seem more preoccupied with China’s stability than with its
progress toward democracy and inter-ethnic harmony.
Then, there is Turkey’s
own poor record of dealing with its minorities. “If Turkey were to go beyond
calls to respect human rights in [Xinjiang] region and appear to be supporting
Uighur separatism, it is clear that this will rebound with China referring to
the Kurdish issue and minority rights in this country,” one Turkish analyst

Finally, Turkey’s acting as the
sponsor of the Uighurs may actually hurt the Turkic population in Xinjiang
making them, as one commentary put it, “more of a target in China” and, as some
observers assert, it will certainly “lend credence to Chinese paranoia over
foreign plots.”

Most disturbingly, Ankara appears
to have found itself diplomatically isolated as its pro-Uighur stand was not
supported either globally or even regionally. While the Turkish leadership
actively sought to promote the Uighur case at various international platforms,
wrote Cengiz Candar, one of Turkey’s most prominent foreign policy commentators,
“we don’t see any Turkic republics or a single Muslim country in the same
frequency with Turkey or a single Western ally standing beside Turkey.” This
state of isolation, Candar warns, makes Ankara particularly vulnerable to
possible “fierce” retaliation on the part of China.

Volatile “greater Turkestan”

whatever tactical mistakes Ankara might have committed in its China policy
following the July Xinjiang unrest, this whole episode should be seen in the
broader historical and geopolitical context. The territories of the greater
Central Asia were divided between the Qing China and the Romanovs’ Russia in the
19th century. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of five
independent “Stans” in what used to be Russian Turkestan set in motion powerful
social forces including the nationalisms of the local Turkic peoples and the
rise of Islam. It is only natural that these same factors are at play across the
Chinese border in Xinjiang – historic East Turkestan. It should also come as no
surprise that Ankara’s interest in the so called “Turkic world” – the interest
that was lying dormant since the time of the Young Turks and Enver Pasha’
fantasies of Turkey’s Central Asian empire – has been revived in the wake of the
Soviet unraveling.  

These lands present an example of utmost
socio-cultural complexity, including in terms of their ethnic composition. Both
Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have sizeable Uighur populations—50,000 in Kyrgyzstan;
300,000 in Kazakhstan (including the country’s prime minister, Karim Masimov).
There are also an estimated 1million ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. Living in the
shadow of China, being keen to partake in Beijing’s financial largesse and
mindful of their own vulnerability, the “Stans” are not particularly interested
in promoting what China denounces as “Uighur separatism.” Thus it is noteworthy
that the Uighurs in Kazakhstan, where China has invested billions of dollars,
staged a mass protest of 5000 participants in Almaty on July 19.

Turkey is trying to position itself as the rising regional (if not global)
power, the country’s policy elite sees its ethnic, cultural and religious ties
to the Turkic world as the valuable strategic capital. These links appear to be
particularly important given the fact that the boundaries of the greater Central
Asia roughly coincide with what some American strategists aptly labeled the
“world’s arc of crises.” Turkey’s ability to successfully mediate in and help
settle these crises is believed to be one of the surest ways to enhance Ankara’s
international stature. So long as the lands of historic Turkestan remain
volatile with their geopolitical status appearing uncertain, the outside powers’
jockeying for position in the region will continue. Turkey seems to be
increasingly claiming to be one of these main players, alongside China, Russia
and the United States. This means that, however the current Xinjiang crisis
ends, Ankara and Beijing might well lock horns over the “greater Turkestan”