BACKGROUND: On February 9 2019, Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that harshly criticized China's policy toward the ethnically Turkic Uighur population in China's Xinjiang province, reversing a three-year policy of conciliation toward Beijing on the Uighur issue. Belatedly castigating China's October 2017 adoption of its "Sinification of All Religions and Beliefs" policy as a program for "eliminating the ethnic, religious and cultural identities of the Uighur Turks," Turkey's foreign ministry spokesperson declared, "It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighur Turks incurring arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons." Decrying Beijing's actions as a "great shame for humanity," Turkey's foreign ministry officially called upon "on the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to take effective measures in order to bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang."
The precipitating event for the astounding policy turn-around seems to be the reported death of Abdurehim Heyit, who was imprisoned by Chinese authorities. A revered poet and performer of traditional Uighur music, Heyit is a symbol of the struggle to preserve the Uighur cultural heritage. A bridge between Uighur and Turkish Cultures,Heyit has a large following in Turkey where he performed just prior to his 2017 arrest. The Turkish foreign ministry explicitly mentioned the singer by name and its sorrow over Heyit's death. However, to Turkey's embarrassment, China Radio International's Turkish-language service released a videodated February 10, 2019, in which a man appearing to be AbdurehimHeyit speaks in the Uighur language and states that he is in "good health."
In her February 11 press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chun attempted to undermine the legitimacy of Ankara’s protest over Beijing’s treatment of Xinjiang’s Uighur population. Focusing on the erroneous claim Heyit died in Chinese custody, she declared"Turkey made groundless accusations against China based on the absurd lie of portraying the living as dead. This is extremely wrong and irresponsible, and we firmly oppose it." The following day the Chinese government issued a travel advisory admonishing its citizens against traveling to Turkey. China’s Ankara embassy warnedChinese residents and tourists in Turkey to “be wary and pay attention to their personal safety.” While a legitimate concern given the past history of popular anti-Chinese violence in Turkey, including attacks on travelers from other East Asian nations mistaken for being Chinese, Beijing’s advisory targets Turkey’s tourism industry at a time when the country’s economy is fragile. While the overall impact to Turkey's tourism will likely be small, the advisory also serves as a warning shot from Beijing that it is prepared to retaliate economically for any further Turkish action.
IMPLICATIONS: As China’s gateway to Central Asia, Xinjiang is a critical launching point for Beijing's effort to create its Silk Road Economic Belt, an overland transit corridor for China-to-Europe trade (the "Belt" of China's massive Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI). Announced by Chinese President Xi Jinping in October 2013 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Beijing has already invested over $250 billion in Central Asia. Beijing seeks to rapidly develop its vast northwestern Xinjiang province to secure its integration within China and the projection of Chinese hegemony westward across Central Asia. Formerly a majority in what many Uighur nationalists refer to as 'East Turkestan', Turkic Uighurs now constitute an estimated 45 percent of Xinjiang's population due to the heavy migration of ethnic Han Chinese as part of Beijing's development program.
China casts a wary eye at Turkey as the center of pan-Turkic activism that threatens Beijing’s interests in Xinjiang and Central Asia. Turkey is home to the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (TÜRKSOY), and, of more immediate concern to China, a sizeable and highly active Uighur expatriate community.
As mayor of Istanbul in 1995, now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan built a memorial monument to İsa Yusuf Alptekin, leader of the short-lived East Turkestan Republic, defying a Turkish government ban and Chinese protests. In 1992, then Turkish President Turgut Özal and Alptekin declared, “Turkic republics under former Soviet rule have all declared their independence. Now it is Eastern Turkestan’s turn. It is our desire to see the ancient homeland of the Turkic people a free country.”
As Prime Minister, Erdoğan harshly condemned China's suppression of the July 2009 'riots' in Xijiang's capital Urumqi and publicly declaredChina's actions to be "a kind of genocide."
Following this nadir in Sino-Turkish relations, Erdoğan attempted to mend relations with Beijing. In the period after 2011, as Turkey distanced itself from its Western allies, it embraced a closer relationship with China, positioning itself as a partner for China's BRI.
In the wake of renewed anti-China protests in Istanbul in 2015, President Erdoğan traveled to Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart to smooth over tensions, particularly after it became known that Turkish diplomats in Thailand assisted Uighur refugees to obtain safe passage to Turkey. In China, Turkey's president pledged his support for China's territorial integrity. At that point, Ankara was still in discussions with Beijing to obtain a $3.4 billion Chinese anti-missile system, only later to settle on the Russian S-400 system.
In May 2016, Ankara demonstrated its increasing willingness to accommodate Beijing when, in contrast to its usual practices concerning Uighur refugees, Turkey arrested 98 Uighursen route to Saudi Arabia with forged passports. After the failed July 2016 coup attempt against President Erdoğan's government and the resultant authoritarian crackdown, Turkey drew even closer to Beijing amidst criticism from Western capitals over the erosion of civil rights in Turkey.
By 2018, Ankara's accommodation of Bejing seemed to pay off with an infusion of desperately needed foreign capital. On July 26, 2018, Turkey's Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak announcedthat the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) agreed to provide a $3.6 billion loan package for Turkey's energy and transportation sectors. The loan was apparently the result of negotiations held with the state-owned ICBC during Albayrak's May 2018 visit to China.
Accordingly in late 2018, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government rejected a parliamentary motion brought by the İyi(Good) party to investigate human rights violation allegedly perpetrated by China against the Uighurs. The center-right, nationalist Good party broke away in 2017 from Turkey's main nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the coalition partner that provides the AKP with a ruling majority in parliament.
The Goodparty, along with the extreme Turkic nationalist Great Union Party (BBP) and other minor parties began highlighting the AKP's reluctance to speak out on the Uighur issue, undermining the image of the AKP among a segment of the nationalist vote before Turkey's upcoming March 31 nationwide local elections. On January 24, 2019, the BBP held a large rally to protest the AKP's inaction over the oppressive conditions faced by Uighurs in Xinjiang. The rally was the culmination of a series of smaller events that have been held in nationalist strongholds across Turkey during the last several months and created pressure for the President Erdoğan's government to act decisively before the issue siphoned off support among disgruntled nationalist voters already disaffected by the poor state of Turkey' economy.
CONCLUSIONS: Most of the Middle East has been silent on China’s treatment of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, fearing to risk its relationship with Beijing, particularly as U.S. interest and influence in the region seems to be waning. China is the world's largest importer of both oil and natural gas, thus constituting a critical export market for Middle Eastern hydrocarbons.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, Beijing also forms a crucial source of foreign infrastructure investment, especially for Turkey's rivals Egypt and Greece. China has invested $35 billion in the construction of the Egypt's new capital. Having transformed Greece's Piraeus port into one ofworld’s state-of-the-art container ports, Beijing now owns and operates one of the European Union’s major seaports, making Greece a major hub for Chinese goods to enter European markets.
Despite China's 2014 completion of an Ankara-to-Istanbul, high-speed rail link, Beijing has been cautious about inviting Turkey to play a larger role in the BRI, despite the country's geographical position as a land-bridge between Asia and Europe. China's $3.6 billion loan package in 2018 seemed to indicate that Ankara's three-year accommodation of China's policies in Xinjiang had begun to encourage Beijing to reconsider the limits it has imposed on Sino-Turkish cooperation.
Turkey's recent harsh condemnation of China will only reinforce Beijing's apprehension that Turkish nationalism's core element of Pan-Turkic solidarity poses an enduring threat to Beijing's vital interests in Xinjiang and its strategic ambitions across Turkic Central Asia.In his seminal 2013 article on Turkish-Chinese relations, Yunnan University Professor Xiao Xin summarizes the Chinese apprehension: “Given Turkey’s political trend, one can never be certain about its stance on ‘Eastern Turkistan’.” As long as the collision between China's agenda in Xinjiang and Pan-Turkic solidarity forms an inherent limit to Sino-Turkish cooperation, Turkey will continue to find itself confined to a secondary role in China's Belt and Road Initiative.
Dr. Micha’el Tanchumis a Fellow at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, Hebrew University and an affiliated scholar with the Centre for Strategic Studies at BaşkentUniversity in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM). Follow @michaeltanchum.
Picture credit: G. Uighur via Twitter and Wikimedia accessed on February 12, 2019