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 kin.

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 million 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 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.”

China’s response

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 festival.

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 argues.

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”

Yet 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.

As 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” again.