A recent Reuters report highlights what has become a thorny issue in China-Turkey relations: evidence that Turkish diplomats in Southeast Asia are providing travel documents to Chinese Uyghurs, facilitating their journeys to Turkey over Chinese objections. The issue threatens to overshadow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Beijing this week.
A number of Uyghurs currently living in Istanbul told Reuters that they had been given travel documents by Turkish embassy workers based in Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia. China is adamant that Uyghurs who leave China illegally must be returned to the country; Turkish diplomats helping them would be a major scandal in China-Turkey relationship. Making matters more complicated, Uyghurs detained in Southeast Asian countries often claim to be from Turkey to avoid being deported to China.
A separate story published earlier this month by China’s Xinhua tells a similar tale: a Uyghur is smuggled out of China and told to claim to be Turkish if arrested. Upon reaching the Turkish embassy in Malaysia, he and other are given identification documents from the embassy, which allowed them to travel to Turkey.
Adding what China will view as a grave insult to the existing injury, one of the travel documents viewed by Reuters listed a Uyghur child’s nationality as “East Turkestan,” a name used by Uyghur activists to refer to their homeland as a separate state. In China, the name is associated not only with separatism but with terrorism—as in, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
The dark side of the Uyghur documents scandal, as the China Matters blog noted, is what happens to the migrants after they arrive in Turkey. Some then travel to Syria to join the fighting, including linking up with Islamic State. China claims to have arrested Uyghurs trained abroad who then returned to China with the intention of carrying out terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, anti-China sentiments in Turkey reveal the forces that may be driving Turkish diplomats to provide travel documents to Uyghurs. In early July, Istanbul saw anti-China protests outside the Chinese consulate. Demonstrators carried the blue flag representing East Turkestan and burned a Chinese flag. The protests spilled over into violence, including an attack on a Chinese restaurant in Istanbul and harassment of Chinese tourists. China’s Foreign Ministry warned its citizens traveling in Turkey to be careful.
The protests were motivated by Turkish anger over reports that China’s government was restricting Uyghur observations of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month. The Turkish foreign ministry issued a statement in early July remarking that reports of Uyghurs “banned from fasting and fulfilling other acts of worship have been received with sadness by the Turkish public opinion.” Turkey’s foreign ministry expressed its “deep concern” to the Chinese ambassador; in return, China’s foreign ministry “expressed concern” over Turkey’s concern.
More anger boiled over after the news emerged that Thailand had deported nearly 100 Uyghurs back to China. Thailand was forced to close both its embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul due to protests. The Istanbul consulate was even stormed by protestors, who tore down the Thai flag, destroyed furniture, and smashed windows.
Erdogan attempted to smooth the situation by calling on Turkish citizens not to be misled by the reports. He suggested that the negative reports were an attempt by unnamed forces to undermine his upcoming trip to China, calling the timing suspect. “[C]laims about China’s pressure on our siblings in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region lead to sensitivity in our public,” Erdogan said in a speech on July 9. “However, to a great extent the images and reports circulating in the media have made this sensibility prone to exploitation, deliberately or not.” He urged people “not to rise to the bait of provocateurs,” saying incidents like the ones in Istanbul “neither suit our hospitality nor are they a remedy for the troubles of our Uyghur siblings.”
China has also made some attempts to limit the fallout to the local diplomats responsible. In the story in Reuters, a Chinese official tries to draw a line between local embassies and the central Turkish government. “The general attitude of the Turkish government has been not bad,” says Tong Bishan, a senior Chinese police officer dealing with the case of illegal Uyghur immigrants. “But what we have seen is that employees at Turkish embassies have been providing help.”
The attempts on both sides to smooth things over—though mostly futile—indicate that China and Turkey alike were hoping for a productive visit from Erdogan. For China, Turkey is a crucial link in the Silk Road Economic Belt, the connection between Europe and the Middle East on the main artery of the overland route. Turkey and China officially agreed to cooperate on the Silk Road project in October 2013 (just after the idea was unveiled), but there’s been little concrete progress thus far, despite Turkey’s stated wish for increased Chinese investment.
Defense cooperation has also been a case of one step forward, two steps back. In September 2013, Turkey announced that a Chinese company had won the contract to produce a surface-to-air missile system that can be used for missile defense. In 2014, however, Turkey backtracked, saying it would still consider other bids — likely a result of Western pressure meant to keep a NATO member from importing Chinese technology (Erdogan, however, cited disagreements on joint production, a key requirement for Turkey). China would be eager to get the deal back on track.
It will be doubly difficult now to focus on cooperative projects, however, with both countries holding charged sentiments over the Uyghur issue.