Whilst Turkey goes to war against both ISIS and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is on a trade mission in Asia and has recently concluded a brief visit to China, where he brought a large delegation of business leaders and Turkish ministers to principally secure trade and investment deals. Under Mr Erdoğan, Ankara’s ties with Beijing have improved substantially and China is now the second largest trading partner with Turkey, behind only Germany. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government see Turkey’s relationship with China as highly strategic and fuelled by economic, political and security interests.
Although Mr Erdoğan is highly committed to a pivot towards Asia, with China the cornerstone of this policy, he has had to manoeuvre around the sensitive Uighur issue. Since the 1950s, Turkey has had a history of involving itself in the plight of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority group that speaks a Turkic language in Western China, mainly based in Xinjiang province. Turkish nationalists, who hold pan-Turkist views, regard the Uighurs as part of a family of ethnic Turks spread across Eurasia and have lobbied for their protection. The policies of the Chinese central government have gradually curtailed the Uighur’s religious, commercial and cultural activities, such as banning Ramadan fasting in parts of Xinjiang province and forcing shops and restaurants to continue selling cigarettes and alcohol during the period or be shut down. Moreover, the Chinese state has had a heavy-handed approach to Uighur separationist groups such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and has orchestrated mass Han migration into Xinjiang, making the Uighurs a minority in Xinjiang. Successive Turkish governments have offered refuge to Uighurs fleeing Chinese rule, and have allowed Uighurs to campaign against Beijing’s harsh policies in Turkish territory, including separatist organisations such as the East Turkestan Liberation Organisation. Many in Turkey remain emotive about China’s treatment of the Uighurs and there was a spate of anti-Chinese protests in Turkey in June and July. These often violent protests are organised by nationalists, but they are egged on by the state media coverage of Uighur suffering in China
Turkey has always trumped up support for the rights of the Uighurs, but with Mr Erdoğan now courting Chinese investment and partnership, he has been facing a difficult dilemma. Both sides have recently reached agreements on energy cooperation and technology transfer agreements. In addition, China has been helping in the construction of a much sought high speed rail link between Ankara and Istanbul. Furthermore, Turkey has been considering to purchase a long-range missile defence system from China in a deal worth $3.44 billion, choosing it over bids from Eurosam and Raytheon/Lockheed Martin. Mr Erdoğan has long considered it a humiliation that Turkey does not have its own missile defence system and has wanted to increase ties with Turkey’s eastward non-NATO allies such as China. This was done despite NATO voicing serious opposition to the purchase, arguing that any Chinese-built system could not be integrated into NATO’s defence shield. The dilemma between protecting the Uighurs or improving relations with China has become even more complicated with the domestic political situation in Turkey. With the AKP losing its majority for the first time in the 2015 general election, Mr Erdoğan has been going to extreme lengths, such as bombing PKK targets, to regain support for the AKP and to hold new elections by the end of the year. If the AKP were to flag up the Uighur issue prominently on its agenda, it could bring some nationalist voters back to the AKP.
Mr Erdoğan has stood up for Uighurs before in order to burnish his nationalist credentials. In 2009, after inter-ethnic rioting left over 156 people dead in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang, the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan described the violence as “genocide”, which resulted in an angry response from Beijing. Furthermore, when Mr Erdoğan visited China in 2012, his first stop was not in Beijing, but in Xinjiang, the first such visit by a Turkish leader, where he pushed for the establishment of a Turkish industrial zone in the region. More recently, ties between Turkey and China have been strained by the allegation that Turkish diplomats in consulates across South-East Asia have been handing out Turkish travel documents to Uighurs fleeing China. Chinese authorities claim that many of these Uighurs then travel to Syria from Turkey in order to join terrorist groups such as ISIS, which has promised to train and arm Uighurs so that they may carve out an independent state in Western China.
In the most recent visit to China concluded on July 30th, Mr Erdoğan manoeuvred carefully on the Uighur issue. Whilst he confirmed to his Chinese counterparts that Turkey upheld the One-China principle and was opposed to any separatist movements against China, he also raised concerns about Beijing’s ban on fasting in Xinjiang during Ramadan, a move which led to protests across Turkey earlier this year. In a sign of China’s acknowledgement of how seriously the Turkish delegation took the Uighur issue, Chinese officials said that Mr Erdoğan was welcome to visit representatives of the Uighur community in the future.
Although Mr Erdoğan has overseen an improvement in Sino-Turkish relations during his years in power, the Uighur issue continues to plague the strategic partnership, but in many ways works to his advantage at home, considering his voter base. This delicate line between pursuing economic and security initiatives whilst establishing Turkey as a protector of the Uighur minority will continue to be the norm as long as Mr Erdoğan and his party remains in power.