On April 8, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Xinjiang (East Turkestan), the ethnically Uyghur, Turkic-speaking, and Muslim region controlled by China. It was the first time in 27 years that a Turkish head of government visited Xinjiang, which was historically linked to Turkey via the Silk Road. Erdogan brought with him a delegation of key officials and about 300 business leaders. While in Urumqi, the Turkish leader stated his desire to invest in a nascent industrial development zone in Xinjiang.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Chinese political and economic liberalization program, as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union, facilitated the gradual reemergence of traditional religious, cultural, intellectual, social, and economic linkages between Xinjiang and its Central Asian and Turkic neighbors. Beijing increasingly welcomed trade and economic investment from neighboring republics, even as it demanded guarantees that they wouldn’t support an independent East Turkestan. At the same time, Ankara optimistically began to envision a Turkish sphere of influence from the “Adriatic Sea to the Chinese Wall.”
The wellspring of Turkish sympathy toward the Uyghur people has resulted in a complicated relationship between Turkey and China. During the Uyghur riots in 2009, Erdogan referred to the events as “genocide”and urged Beijing to “address the question of human rights and do what is necessary to prosecute the guilty.”The Chinese lashed out at his remarks in a China Daily editorial. Arguing that many of the victims of violence were Han Chinese, Beijing exhorted the prime minister to retract his “irresponsible and groundless”comments, which were tantamount to “interference in China's internal affairs.”
The recent thawing of bilateral relations and Erdogan’s visit to Xinjiang thus surprised many observers. China human rights expert Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, noted that “it is very difficult for Turkish diplomats to go there.”He believes, therefore, that it “shows that in the Sino-Turkish relationship, Turkey is not in a weak position, and is even in a strong position,”particularly because China requires Turkish support for its Middle Eastern agenda.
The People’s Dailypainted the visit in rosy terms, highlighting a high-level visit between Erdogan and Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping in Beijing on April 10. The future Chinese president stated that “To respect and support each other on issues regarding core concerns is not only a manifestation of political trust between China and Turkey, but also the foundation for healthy growth of our strategic cooperative ties.”Erdogan reportedly told the vice president that he wouldn’t allow his people to engage in anti-China secessionist activity. Beijing has also pried such promises from the mouths of Indian leaders in reference to the Tibet issue, although some argue that the Indian government has generally maintained a liberal interpretation of what constitutes “anti-Chinese activities.”
It appears unlikely that the high-level Turkish visit will have any impact upon the Chinese regime's treatment of its Uyghur population. Turkey is currently facing severe international criticism regarding its own treatment of ethnic Kurds, who desire an independent state. Press freedom has also dropped precipitously. Reporters Without Borders has downgraded Turkey's ranking to 148th out of 179 countries. Instead, the visit is more a sign of increased Turkish-Chinese security and economic cooperation. The two sides reached energy cooperation and technology transfer agreements, and discussed how to deal with the ongoing crisis in Syria. Thus, even as the Turkish people continue to strengthen traditional ties with the Uyghurs, the relationship is unlikely to trump the momentum toward enhanced bilateral cooperation between Ankara and Beijing.
Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and a doctoral candidate in modern East Asian political history at Georgetown University.