Tempted by Chinese investment, Erdoğan is silent on Uighurs

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan presents himself as a fierce defender of oppressed Muslims worldwide, but he has been muted when it comes to the Uighurs in western China.

Even while global condemnation of China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang has increased, Erdoğan has remained largely silent on the issue. His lack of support for the Uighurs is evidently down to his desire to build stronger economic ties with China as a result of Turkey’s deteriorating relationships with the United States and Europe.

“Turkey under Erdoğan has consistently stood with the Chinese oppressors,” Salih Hudayar, the founder and president of East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, told Ahval. He said this was making “Uighurs across the world lose hope, not only in Turkey, but also the Islamic world.” Other Muslim countries have also been hesitant to speak out.

The Uighurs are a Muslim people, speaking a Turkic language related to that spoken in Turkey.

“Although Erdoğan and his administration have been silent on East Turkistan,” the name Uighurs use for Xinjiang, Hudayar said, “Turkey’s people and other opposition parties like the Good party have been actively speaking out against China’s oppression of Uighurs.”

Erdoğan’s near silence on the issue of the Uighurs comes despite his alliance with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which espouses Pan-Turkism, the ideal of uniting the Turkic peoples of Anatolia and Central Asia.

“The ultra-right, pan-Turkic MHP, which is more rigid in its nationalist sentiment than the breakaway Good Party, also has a history of objecting to the Erdoğan administration’s attempts to seek closer trade ties with China, despite ongoing repression in Xinjiang,” Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey, told Ahval.

“However, since forming a coalition government with Erdoğan’s AKP, their leadership has also become less strident critics of China,” she said. “MHP members, however, continue to engage in attacks against, sometimes incorrectly, perceived Chinese targets as well as demonstrations in support of freedom for East Turkestan.”

“Turkey has toned down its criticism of China’s treatment of Uighurs intentionally because it wants to be on China’s good side,” said Soner Çağaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute and author of Erdoğan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East.

“If Turkey’s economy were to tank there are only two financial institutions or countries large enough to bail Turkey out. The first one is the IMF, for which the Turkish government would need U.S. approval for a bailout plan to be initiated, and the second one is China,” Çağaptay told Ahval.

Turkey cannot rely on China coming to its assistance, because, despite toning down its rhetoric, it remains the global centre of the Uighur diaspora, Çağaptay said.

After the communist takeover of China in 1949, many of the Uighur elite fled to Turkey. During the Cold War, “Ankara comfortably embraced this policy because China was a distant country and presented no threats to Turkey in terms of retaliation,” Çağaptay said, “but things have changed. China is now an economic power and Turkey’s economy is not in very good shape.”

China has long been concerned that Xinjiang, where more than half of the 25 million inhabitants are Muslim Uighurs, could be a hotbed for resistance to central state control.

China’s crackdown on ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslims in Xinjiang has involved detaining more than 1 million people in internment camps to undergo what leaked Chinese government documents describe as treatment for exposure to the virus of radical Islam.

As recently as February, Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned Chinese efforts to eliminate the ethnic, religious, and cultural identities of Uighurs in Xinjiang, calling the internment camps “a great shame for humanity”.

But Uighur activists were disappointed when Erdoğan failed to speak out against the Chinese policy during a visit to Beijing in July.

Erdoğan’s silence on the issue is revealing of Turkey’s desire to diversify its sources of foreign investment and its vulnerability due to its struggling economy, said John Calabrese, a professor at American University and director of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute.

“China, too, has been careful to avoid making the Uighurs such a big issue that it risks severely damaging the overall bilateral relationship,” Calabrese told Ahval. In Turkey, he said, China may see “a disaffected U.S. ally whose contentious relations with Washington could be exploited.”

There are several economic reasons why Turkey is attractive to China. It is trying to diversify its overland rail routes to European markets, which could include making Turkey an important transit country for its goods. Turkey could also provide China with a useful consumer market in its own right and offer business opportunities for Chinese construction firms.

The two countries have worked together to align Erdoğan’s Middle Corridor infrastructure strategy with China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative. The first freight train to make the Middle Corridor journey, transiting the Marmaray tunnel in Istanbul, departed the Chinese city of Xi’an for Prague in October.

Turkey’s economic challenges and disputes with the United States and Europe may be behind Erdoğan’s attempts to court Chinese investment, but the poor state of Turkey’s economy also poses challenges to the trade relationship with China.

“Last year, China's exports to Turkey were roughly seven times larger than Turkey's exports to China,” Calabrese said. “Turkey's economic woes are the main reason for the recent contraction in bilateral trade, including the sharp drop in Chinese exports.”

“Turkish officials have become more vocal about their dissatisfaction with the imbalance,” he said, but “it seems near impossible for Turkey to significantly narrow its trade deficit with China, at least in the short term.”

Erdoğan did secure, as a part of a framework agreement signed seven years ago, a $1 billion currency swap with China in the lead up to his July visit to Beijing.

Although it is not clear whether Turkey’s toned-down criticism of China’s repression of the Uighurs will help it secure beneficial Chinese investments, Erdoğan does appear to have the domestic political leeway to test out his policy of silence.

“The idea of advocating for ‘brother Turks’ and for Muslims generally enjoys broad sympathy in Turkey, but it is unlikely to fundamentally alter voter patterns. Popular support for Muslims abroad is broad, but it is also shallow,” said Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor at St. Lawrence University and non-resident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy.

“Erdoğan would, no doubt, win plaudits if he spoke out aggressively in support of the Uighurs,” he told Ahval, “but the costs of antagonising China are far greater than the potential political benefits.”