Despite always fighting for the rights of the Uyghurs, Ankara at present is being very careful not to upset trade relations with China
For outside observers of Turkish-Chinese relations there is an interesting and quite confusing pattern with respect to the effect of the Uyghur issue on the behavior of the two sides in their interaction with each other. Whenever Turkey criticizes China’s handling of the Uyghurs, this immediately draws a counter-reaction by the Chinese, after which there is a quick thaw in relations, wherein not only a crisis is avoided, but the relationships receives a further boost, mostly in the form of economic goods.
This is what happened in 2009, when following the Urumqi riots, where more than two hundred people lost their lives, Turkey’s then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remarked that the events unfolding in the region amounted to “almost genocide”. Soon after this episode Turkey and China elevated the status of their relationship to strategic partnership. Similarly, in 2015, reports circulating in the Turkish media regarding an alleged ban of Ramadan fasting in the Xinjiang region have not only led to protests by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also to anti-Chinese demonstrations in Turkey’s major cities. Only a few weeks later, President Erdogan was in Beijing to discuss Turkey’s possible role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s president Xi Jinping then visited Turkey and the two sides signed a number of bilateral deals, including an agreement to harmonize Turkey’s regional connectivity projects with the BRI.
The same pattern is again unfolding. In February earlier this year, responding to a question in a press conference, the spokesperson of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that “the policy of systematic assimilation against the Uyghur Turks carried out by the authorities of China is a great shame for humanity,” and invited the Chinese authorities “to respect the fundamental human rights of Uyghur Turks and to close the internment camps.” Relations between Ankara and Beijing soured immediately. “Criticizing your friend publicly everywhere is not a constructive approach,” said China’s ambassador in Ankara: “If you choose a non-constructive path, it will negatively affect mutual trust and understanding, and this will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.”
Things, however, took a different turn very fast. Only a few days after these mutual statements, the same Chinese ambassador announced at a meeting with business executives that his country is willing to further improve economic ties with Turkey, as China would “double the amount of its imports from Turkey, double the amount of its direct investments into Turkey, and double the amount of Chinese tourists visiting Turkey by the year 2021.” A couple of months later, President Erdogan was back in Beijing, warning against “those who exploit the (Uyghur) issue, those who try to gain something from the issue, by acting emotionally without thinking of the relationship that Turkey has with another country.” In the meantime, Turkey refrained from signing the letter issued by 18 European countries, as well as Japan, Australia, Canada and New Zealand urging Beijing to stop the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Ankara finds itself in a three-sided conundrum with respect to the Uyghur issues. On one side of the situation, the Turkish government feels obliged to be vocal in its criticism with respect to the situation of the Uyghurs. Turkish people, regardless of political or ideological persuasion, have great sympathy towards the Uyghurs, who are a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim ethnic group, whom the above mentioned official foreign ministry statement referred to as “our kinsmen.” Any negative development with respect to the Uyghurs can draw significant publicity in Turkey, as it has been the case recently in the central Anatolian town of Kayseri, where rumors spread about Uyghurs being evicted from their apartments. As protests from the locals escalated, the provincial government had to step in and convince the people that the Uyghurs had to be resettled because their apartments were under earthquake damage risk: they were given temporary housing and their rents are paid for by the government. Ankara cannot turn a blind eye to the Uyghurs, not only because the Turks are sensitive to this issue (thus making it an issue in domestic politics as well) but also because the Turkish government and especially President Erdogan himself position themselves as protectors of oppressed Muslims around the world, and therefore cannot afford to ignore the situation of the Uyghurs.
This is, however, only one side of the story, and there are two more. For one, Turkey also realizes since as early as the 1990s that nothing can be gained either for its own benefit or for those of the Uyghurs by confronting China and contradicting Beijing’s interests. There has to exist some form of understanding between Ankara and Beijing on the issue, and this is why the Turkish government is frequently emphasizing its support for China’s struggle against terrorism and separatism as well its respect for the sanctity of its territorial integrity.
The third side of Turkey’s trilateral Uyghur conundrum is the economic one. While the Turks feel the need to be critical of China’s handling of their brethren there are also economic benefits that cannot be jeopardized. At the moment, Turkey has a large trade deficit with China, as for every USD worth of Turkish goods that are exported to China, between 7 and 8 USD worth of Chinese products are imported back to Turkey. Moreover, receiving more foreign direct investment is crucial for Turkey’s ailing economy but China’s current share in the foreign investment stock in Turkey is only around 1%.
Turkey has nevertheless great economic expectations from China, for two reasons: first, Turkey remains economically anchored in the West, particularly Europe which receives half of Turkey’s exports and sources three quarters of the foreign investment inside Turkey; however, given the political ups and downs it is experiencing, Turkey sees a benefit in diversifying its partners and avoiding excessive dependence on anyone. Being a leading actor in the global economy, China is a natural choice for Turkey in this respect. Second, Turkey needs to place its economy on a sustainable development path, and this requires structural advancement. In this framework, Turkey has to increase its productivity by increasing its technological capabilities, improve its physical structure, and reduce its dependence on imported energy. China is seen by Turks as a potential contributor in all these areas, and this is why in recent years the two governments have signed a number of agreements, which cover joint projects for transportation infrastructure, cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy, research in telecommunication technologies, among others.
The BRI is providing a useful vehicle for Turkey’s objective of receiving more value-creating investment from China. But BRI’s function in this picture is greater than that. It is also making China more dependent on Turkey, a country which offers the most feasible connection route between Europe and Asia, and a gateway into the Middle East, which will increase further in importance when the post-conflict reconstruction in Turkey’s neighbor Syria begins in earnest.
Turkey is willing to improve its relations with China, especially in the economic realm, but the Uyghur conundrum is real and profound. This is why Ankara has to maintain a delicate balance here. It has to speak up for Uyghurs’ rights, but at the same time it has to comply with China’s concerns, or at least make genuine efforts to that end. The fact that China is increasingly depending on Turkey for the progress of the BRI can certainly help keeping this balance and avoiding the Uyghur conundrum from spiraling into a full blown crisis between the two countries that would serve nobody’s interests.
This article is also published in the September/October issue of eastwest.