All eyes on Turkey-China ties after Uighur criticism

All eyes on Turkey-China ties after Uighur criticism

Uighur worshipers at the Kashgar Idgah mosque in Xinjiang province. (Reuters)

On Saturday, Turkey did something extraordinary. Ankara called out Beijing for its treatment of the Uighurs, a Muslim minority community that has long suffered from discrimination in China. In recent months, large numbers of Uighurs have reportedly been put in detention camps in Xinjiang province. According to the UN, nearly a million Uighurs and other minorities have been herded in to these camps.

In a statement, Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy described these camps and the treatment of Uighurs as “a great cause of shame for humanity.”

China’s troubling policies toward Uighurs have generated extensive international media coverage. Additionally, some Western governments, along with the UN and human rights organizations, have excoriated Beijing. And yet the Muslim world, until recently, maintained a studied silence. And that’s what makes Ankara’s criticism so extraordinary.

Muslim-majority states from Pakistan to Indonesia routinely deplore the tragic treatment of Kashmiri, Palestinian, Syrian, and Rohingya Muslims, and for good reason. But, when it comes to Uighurs, their silence has been deafening.

The reason is simple: These countries’ governments believe their interests are best served by not antagonizing the Chinese. Beijing has the potential to provide perks and benefits on levels that few countries can. From foreign direct investment to the reputational advantage of friendship with what might prove to be the world’s next superpower, there are simply too many opportunities — and they’re not worth squandering by calling out Beijing for its mistreatment of Uighurs.

Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with its promise of new infrastructure support and power generation, offers a whole new layer of opportunity — and another big incentive not to rock the boat by castigating China.

And so that’s why, until Ankara’s recent statements, Muslim-majority countries didn’t intervene. Instead, they effectively ignored the issue and, when confronted, they sought to dance around it. In some of these nations, public outcries arose, but governments remained quiet.

Pakistan provides one of the more striking examples. Beijing is one of Islamabad’s closest allies, and there’s a lot at stake for Pakistan with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Pakistani dimension of the BRI. CPEC is intended to develop a warm-water port in southern Pakistan, build new roads, and get enough new electricity on the grid to end the country’s longstanding and crippling energy shortages.

In recent months, in a Pakistan-administered region of Gilgit-Baltistan, a group of men who claimed to have Uighur wives detained in Xinjiang went public with their concerns and called on the Pakistani government to take up the issue with Beijing. Islamabad didn’t budge. In December, it alleged that foreign media were “sensationalizing” the plight of the Uighurs.

So why did Turkey decide to break the silence of the Muslim world about the plight of the Uighurs? It’s not as if Turkey was at odds with China. The relationship was generally cordial; in 2017, Ankara pledged to assist Beijing in apprehending Uighur extremists — in effect, playing right into Beijing’s tough rhetoric about the Uighurs, which it often uses to justify its mass detentions of the community.

The answer is likely attributable to two factors. One is that Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking people, have linguistic and religious ties to Turkey. These links have prompted some parts of the Turkish public, along with opposition parties, to call for Ankara to take up the issue. Significantly, Turkish local elections are just weeks away. Tellingly, the Foreign Ministry statement criticizing Beijing for its treatment of Uighurs referred to them as “Uighur Turks.”

For Erdogan, Turkey’s upbraiding of Beijing helps solidify his reputation as an outspoken leader within the Muslim world — and his government’s criticism may help him at the polls, too.

Michael Kugelman

The other factor that likely accounts for Ankara’s criticism is Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who projects himself as a strong leader within the Muslim world. He has actually called out Beijing before — back in 2009, when he dared to describe a Chinese crackdown on Uighurs as “genocide.” Beijing was not pleased.

For Erdogan, Turkey’s upbraiding of Beijing helps solidify his reputation as an outspoken leader within the Muslim world — and his government’s criticism may help him at the polls, too.

Make no mistake: Ankara’s move is a gamble, and it could well backfire. This is especially the case because Beijing rejected the Turkish claim, included in the statement, that a famous Uighur poet, Abdurehim Heyit, had recently died in a prison. China broadcast a video allegedly depicting Heyit alive.

Predictably, Beijing didn’t take well to Ankara’s criticism, calling it “vile.”

Other countries will likely be watching China-Turkey relations in the coming days. Will they weather the tensions sparked by Ankara’s criticism, or will this be a drawn-out spat with damaging implications for Turkey and its interests?

If the former, additional denunciations from the Muslim world could be forthcoming. If the latter, Muslim-majority nations could conclude that their decision to remain silent has been validated — and more silence could follow.

  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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