China-Turkey and Xinjiang: a frayed relationship

Igor Torbakov Matti Nojonen
5 August 2009

The violent ethnic clashes in China's northwestern province of Xinjiang on 5-6 July 2009 have had effects far beyond the region. The pressure from the Chinese government to halt the showing at the Melbourne film festival of a documentary film on the exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer - followed by the withdrawal of Chinese films from the programme and electronic harassment that disabled the festival's website - is but one example.

Igor Torbakov is a senior researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA)

Matti Nojonen is director of the Transformation of the World Order programme at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA)

The countries which host significant numbers of the Uyghur diaspora, or which have close ethnic or cultural ties with the Uyghurs, are among those that have expressed concern about the bloody events in Xinjiang and Beijing's ruthless crackdown's. Where such countries also have valuable economic and trading links with China, the potential for the violent episode to create political complications is evident.

This indeed is the situation with regard to Turkey, whose government has as result been torn between its desire to protect its economic ties with China and pressure from public opinion that it does something to stop the Chinese persecution of their Muslim and Turkic kin in "East Turkestan". 

In this position Ankara, under the leadership of the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (Justice & Development Party / AKP) of prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan,  is attempting to perform a delicate balancing-act. But the difficulties of the moment - reinforced by the AKP's desire to be seen as no less nationalistic and pro-Uyghur than the opposition - raises concern that Turkey and China could be on a collision-course. 

A positive dynamic 

The two countries have forged a good economic and political relationship in recent years. This was symbolised only one week before Urumqi erupted, when the Turkish president (and former foreign minister) Abdullah Gul made an official state visit to China, which included a stopover in Xinjiang - the highest-level ever Turkish visit to the region.

Also on the Xinjiang crisis in openDemocracy:

James A Millward, "China's story: putting the PR into the PRC" (18 April 2008)

Henryk Szadziewski, "Kashgar"s old city: the politics of demolition" (3 April 2009)

Yitzhak Shichor, "The Uyghurs and China: lost and found nation" (6 July 2009)

Henryk Szadziewski, "The discovery of the Uyghurs" (10 July 2009)

Kerry Brown, "Xinjiang: China's security high-alert" (14 July 2009)

Dibyesh Anand, "China's borderlands: the need to rethink" (15 July 2009)

Temtsel Hao, "Xinjiang, Tibet, beyond: China's ethnic relations" (27 July 2009)

Ross Perlin, "The Silk Road unravels" (28 July 2009)

The state visit had taken place on the invitation of the Chinese president, Hu Jintao. It reflects the Chinese leadership's appreciation of Turkey's positive efforts to promote constructive dialogue with Beijing - which has included Turkey's repeated emphasis that Xinjiang is an integral part of China (including references to "Chinese Xinjiang").

Indeed, Beijing's trust in Ankara's "one-China" stance is measured in its granting President Gul the rare opportunity to deliver a speech at Xinjiang University. In his 28 June address the president said that Xinjiang constitutes one of the most important bonds between the two countries, and that the Uyghur people in Xinjiang form a bridge of friendship between China and Turkey.

Many of Turkey's economic ties with China have been through Xinjiang, one of China's least developed areas. It seemed a good strategy for both sides: mainly low-end Turkish products cannot compete with domestic Chinese brands in the developed coastal regions of China, but could provide an entry-point for Xinjiang to international markets and help diversify China's sources of foreign direct investment (FDI).

More widely, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet reports that the visit to Beijing secured trade deals involving eight Turkish companies and worth $3 billion. There have also been expectations of more strategic ties, including a plan by the Chinese company Chery Auto to build a car-factory in Turkey (though this will depend on government support).

This gradual development of political trust and economic exchange makes the Xinjiang crisis - and the Turkish reaction to it - all the more unsettling for both countries.

Turkey's dismay

The boisterous and competitive Turkish media intensively reported the Urumqi events from the start. The majority of victims of the initial rioting (197, according to the official death-toll) may have been Han Chinese, but many media outlets announced hundreds of casualties among the Uyghurs. This contributed to a steep rise in nationalist sentiment in Turkey in which the Uyghurs seemed confirmed as a close cousin of the Turkic family.  

"China should know that when East Turkestan is hurt, Turkey is hurt", one commentary in the Bügün daily warned. "East Turkestan is bleeding", echoed Sabah; "Turkey cannot remain indifferent to the sufferings of its ancestral lands."

Some Turkish commentators even invoked the idea of independent Xinjiang - an argument destined to enrage 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; she added that one day East Turkestan might free itself from China's oppressive rule and become an independent country like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

The weight of press coverage, reflecting widespread public sentiment, had near-instant political effects. The opposition was quick to criticise the government's initially muted response to the "Urumqi massacres", leading the AKP leaders to toughen their own rhetoric. Regep Tayyip Erdogan, at the G8 summit in Italy - from where Hu Jintao had abruptly returned to China on  news of the unrest, described what had happened as amounting to "almost genocide" against the Uyghurs and urged China to stop the "assimilation" of its Uyghur minority.

Turkey's prime minister was emphatic: "No state, no society that attacks the lives and rights of innocent civilians can guarantee its security and prosperity. Whether they are Turkic Uyghurs or Chinese, we cannot tolerate such atrocities. The suffering of the Uyghurs is ours." Erdogan said that Turkey, as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, was determined to bring the issue of the Chinese crackdown onto the council's agenda.

Bülent Arinc, a co-founder of the AKP and currently deputy prime minister, echoed his leader, saying "we have profound historical ties to our brothers in the Uighur region" including a 300,000-strong Uighur community in Turkey. The industry minister Nihat Ergün went even further when on 9 July he called on businessmen and consumers to boycott Chinese products (though this was followed by a qualified retraction).

These acerbic remarks have begun to impinge on the potentially disruptive issue of Turkey's stance towards Rebiya Kadeer, the millionaire businesswoman-turned-political dissident living in the United States whom Beijing accuses of masterminding the Urumqi riots. Ankara has in fact twice refused to issue a Turkish visa to Kadeer, in an apparent wish to avoid upsetting the Chinese leadership. This attitude seems to be changing, with Erdogan (on 9 July) saying that a new visa application would be accepted.  Kadeer responded by telling the Cihan news agency that she planned to visit Turkey soon, and that believed "Turkey wouldn't sell out the Uyghurs, who have Turkish blood in their veins."

China's retaliation

For its part, Beijing took a week before responding to the first official Turkish outcry. In an official statement China demanded that Turkey withdraw its leader's remarks on genocide and assimilation, which the state-owned China Daily denounced 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.

At the same time, the Chinese media reported the Turkish public commentaries in a quite restrained manner, certainly when compared to the frenzied denunciation of France's government and media over perceived support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan protestors' cause in 2008. Even the notoriously partisan Chinese blogosphere seemed not overly agitated, with writers confining themselves to warning Turkey about interference in China's internal affairs or questioning the nature of the relationship between Uyghurs and Turkey; though some netizens are reported in official media as having called for Turkey to be "punished" over its attitude.

Beijing's stance would of course significantly harden if Turkey's leaders indeed host Rebiya Kadeer. The director of the Turkey project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Bulent Aliriza, says: "All hell is going to break loose if she shows up in Turkey, especially after the comment that Erdogan made."

China's sensitivity over Rebiya Kadeer is clear in the formulaic comment of Qin Gang, China's foreign-ministry spokesman: "We resolutely oppose any foreign country providing a platform for her anti-Chinese, splittist activities."

The pressure on Turkey could escalate. China squeezed the French nuclear and aircraft industries in the wake of the Tibet controversy in 2008, and citizens' boycotts of French goods targeted Carrefour department-stores. France refused to make the unilateral apology China demanded, but the two sides did agree a joint communiqué on 1 April  2009 in which both sides "(reiterated) their commitment to the principle of non-interference" and France affirmed its (objection) to all support for Tibet's independence in any form whatsoever." The question now arises: does Turkey have the economic and political leverage to demand a politically face-saving joint communiqué, or will it too have to yield to making a unilateral apology?

Turkey might already be looking for ways to compromise. A group of Turkish parliamentarians plans to visit Xinjiang, and intend (according to the Turkish media and the head of parliament's human-rights committee) to be "careful" - neither interfering in China's internal affairs nor harming Sino-Turkish economic relations. A Turkish media delegation that has already been allowed to visit Urumqi (representing mainly the state-run media outlets) was instructed to make conciliatory noises. There were no problems between Turkey and China, one member of the delegation was quoted as saying. 

Ankara's isolation

There are three strong reasons for Turkey to avoid embracing too zealous a nationalistic or even outright pan-Turkist stance over the Xinjiang events. First, it risks isolation. The international community - including the United States - is in no mood to annoy the Chinese leadership at a time when it needs China's cooperation over managing the global financial crisis and addressing climate change. Most powerful states are preoccupied more with China's stability than seeing it progress toward democracy and inter-ethnic harmony.

China in any case has already dismissed Erdogan's proposal to discuss the crisis at the UN Security Council, saying the incident was of no concern to the outside parties, a position backed at the Yekaterinburg summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation on 12 July (in which China plays a leading role together with Russia).

Second, Turkey itself is open to severe criticism over how it deals with ethnic and national minorities on its territory. A Turkish analyst argues: "If Turkey were to go beyond calls to respect human rights in the (Xinjiang) region and appear to be supporting Uyghur separatism, it is clear that this will rebound - with China referring to the Kurdish issue and minority rights in this country."

Third, any Turkish sponsorship of the Uyghurs may actually hurt the Turkic population in Xinjiang; for this could make them "more of a target in China" and even "lend credence to Chinese paranoia over foreign plots."

It is indeed striking that Ankara appears to have found itself diplomatically isolated, globally and even regionally, in its pro-Uyghur position. The prominent foreign-policy analyst Cengiz Candar noted that "we don't see any Turkic republics or a single Muslim country or a single western ally standing beside Turkey." This state of isolation, Candar warns, makes Ankara vulnerable to possible "fierce" retaliation by China.

A volatile region

It might appear that in the brutal calculus of modern geopolitics, Ankara has made tactical mistakes over the Xinjiang violence. But in a broader historicalcontext, the tensions provoked by the incidents in Urumqi are near-inevitable: rooted in the political, cultural, and national faultlines of the larger region.

The territories of greater central Asia were divided between the Chinese (Qing) and the Russian (Romanov) empire in the 19th century. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of five independent "Stans" in what used to be Russian-ruled Turkestan released 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, in the wake of the Soviet Union's unravelling, Ankara's interest in the "Turkic world" - an interest that lay dormant since the time of the Young Turks and Enver Pasha's (and the historian Ziya Gökalp's) fantasies of Turkish central-Asian empire - has undergone a certain revival.  

These lands are a mosaic of utmost social, cultural and ethnic complexity. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have sizable Uyghur populations - there are 50,000 in Kyrgyzstan and 300,000 in Kazakhstan (including the country's prime minister, Karim Masimov). The pattern works the other way, with an estimated 1 million ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang. The "Stans" today live in the shadow of China's rising power, mindful of their own vulnerability, and keen to partake in Beijing's financial largesse; these considerations to a great extent undercut any particular interest in promoting the Uyghur independence cause.

Amid these regional complexities, Turkey is trying to position itself as a rising regional (even global) power - making a degree of tension with China natural, even if there are many contingencies in the current situation. Ankara's policy elite sees its ethnic, cultural and religious ties to the Turkic world as valuable strategic capital; and its ability successfully to mediate in the security and political crises that punctuate the region as a sure way to enhance Ankara's international stature.

So long as the lands of historic Turkestan remain volatile and their geopolitical status uncertain, the outside powers' competition for influence in the region - often quiet, occasionally sharp and vocal - will continue. It seems that Turkey intends to press its claim 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 again collide over "greater Turkestan". 

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