Uighurs face uncertain future in Turkey-China rapprochement 

There is a rapprochement going on between Turkey and China, but it is hard to foresee how relations between these two countries will evolve in the future.

One of the factors that shape Turkish-Chinese relations is the Turkic Uighur minority in China's Xinjiang province. The province is more than twice the size of Turkey, but most of its territory is made up of the Taklamakan Desert. Hence population density there is very low. Chinese officials say the Uighurs number some 11 million. Recently the Chinese government started investing in the area for land reclamation. These investments are attracting the Han Chinese to the region, which until recently was populated mostly by the indigenous ethnic Uighurs. Consequently, without any forcible measure, constant change is taking place in the ethnic composition of the region to the detriment of the Uighurs.

Although Xinjiang is far from Turkey, the Uighur dialect -- the language of the Uighurs -- is close to Anatolian Turkish, since both originate from the Chagatai branch of Turkic languages. 

While the Uighurs still represent the majority in Xinjiang, it is unavoidable that the Han Chinese, who number about 1.4 billion, will dominate in the long run. This could be avoided only if the Chinese government were to decide not to allow any Han Chinese to settle in Xingjiang. But it is not realistic to expect any government to take such a decision.

Another issue that shapes Turkey-China relations is the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is fighting in Syria on the side of the extremist opposition. The group is estimated to have between six and ten thousand fighters and is, at present, among the armed opposition groups stuck in Idlib. 

On 11 October 2016, the East Turkistan News Agency's website 'turkistanhaber' reported that a book entitled ‘White Minaret’ was published. According to the Agency, the book describes the bravery of the TIP fighters in Syria. In 2016, the Syrian ambassador to Beijing, probably based on the news article, accused Turkey of facilitating the arrival of Uighur militants into the country.

A report published in pro-government Syrian newspaper Al Vatan in August this year said that the Chinese ambassador to Damascus expressed his government's willingness to join the Idlib operation. If true, this proves that China is willing to help deal with TIP in Idlib.

In September this year, Turkey and Russia reached an agreement foreseeing the withdrawal of the armed opposition to the south of Idlib by November 15. Turkey was hoping to convince various militant organisations, and Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in particular, to voluntarily lay down their arms by that date. However, even though many did so, Tahrir al-Sham did not. Russia, despite being appreciative of Turkey's efforts in Idlib, does not want to oppose the Syrian government's efforts to clear the region of the armed opposition; which brings up the question of the future of the TIP fighters in Syria.

If the Turkish government allows members of TIP into Turkey, that may cause problems between Ankara and Beijing, since the Chinese government will likely demand their extradition on nationality grounds. If extradited, the fighters will probably be punished severely. If Turkey refuses to extradite them, Turkish-Chinese relations could take a hit. Another option is to move the fighters to Turkish-controlled areas in Syria, but when Turkey withdraws, the Syrian regime will probably not allow the Uighur fighters to stay.

Turkey, in the past, described China's treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang as "a kind of genocide”. But recently, as the international press started criticising China for its treatment of Uighurs, Turkey has elected to remain silent because, despite this annoying situation, relations between the two countries are softening at the official level. Turkey does not want to interrupt this rapprochement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 summit in Argentina at the end of last month. Both parties described their relations as strategic in stature. For example, Turkey supports China's "Road and Belt" initiative and wants to integrate many Turkish infrastructure projects into it.

China is also looking at the financial opportunities that the economic crisis in Turkey has presented. Some criticise China for trying to buy Turkey on the cheap. However, if companies or facilities in a country become relatively inexpensive, there is nothing strange for foreigners -- including the Chinese -- to want to buy them. 

China has a lot of money and wants to invest in other countries. Turkey, equally, is in urgent need of foreign direct investment to boost economic activity. In a nutshell, both countries have a vested interest in capitalising on this opportunity.

 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.