Turkey's Uighur reversal driven by domestic politics

Turkey's rebuke of China's treatment of its Uighur minority marks a stunning policy reversal by Ankara, driven mainly by mounting pressure leading up to March local elections, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute (CACI), a think tank, reported on Wednesday.  

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Feb. 9 criticising China’s policy toward its Turkic Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang province, reversing a three-year policy of conciliation.

Ankara called China’s Uighur camps, which are said to hold more than one million people and focus on eliminating religious and cultural identities, a “great shame for humanity” and called on the international community to help shut them down.

The Chinese government quickly issued a travel advisory admonishing its citizens against travelling to Turkey, while its Turkish embassy advised Chinese nationals in Turkey to pay attention to their personal safety.  

“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,” Micha’el Tanchum, a fellow at Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, wrote for CACI’s Turkey Analyst.

Seeking to build a multi-billion-dollar overland transit corridor for China-to-Europe trade, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, China has been wary of Turkey as the centre of pan-Turkic activism that threatens Beijing’s interests in Xinjiang and Central Asia, said Tanchum. Turkey is home to the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States and 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,” wrote Tanchum. As prime minister, Erdoğan harshly condemned China's suppression of the July 2009 riots in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi, declaring China's actions “a kind of genocide".

Soon after, he attempted to mend relations with Beijing. In 2015, Erdoğan travelled to Beijing to smooth over tensions after Turkish diplomats helped Uighur refugees in Thailand obtain safe passage to Turkey.

“In May 2016, Ankara demonstrated its increasing willingness to accommodate Beijing when, in contrast to its usual practices concerning Uighur refugees, Turkey arrested 98 Uighurs en 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,” wrote Tanchum.

This conciliation seemed to pay off last July with an infusion of desperately needed foreign capital, when a leading Chinese bank provided a $3.6 billion loan package for Turkey's energy and transportation sectors, according to Tanchum.

Months later, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has partnered with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) for Turkey’s March 31 local elections, rejected a parliamentary motion calling for an investigation into human rights violation by China against the Uighurs.

The opposition nationalist Good Party, which had proposed the Uighur motion, and other minor nationalist parties began “highlighting the AKP's reluctance to speak out on Uighurs, undermining the image of the AKP among a segment of the nationalist vote”, wrote Tanchum.

In late January, the Pan-Turkic nationalist Great Union Party held a rally to protest AKP inaction over the Uighurs - the culmination of a series of events held in nationalist strongholds across Turkey. This “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”, wrote Tanchum.

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 its Belt and Road Initiative. Last year’s $3.6 billion loan package in 2018 seemed to indicate that Beijing had begun to consider greater bilateral 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,” wrote Tanchum.