Friday, July 10, 2009

Turkey's Uighur Problem

Although the recent harsh government crackdown on protestors in next door Iran received a collective yawn from Turks, the violence in China’s Xinjiang province has the country up in arms. Of course, Iran maybe a neighbor, but faraway Xinjiang (or "East Turkistan," as some call it) is home to the Turkic Uighurs. A group of Turkish merchants in the town of Denizli, for example, recently set fire to Chinese-made products, while Turkey's Industry and Trade minister, Nihat Ergun, called for a boycott of Chinese goods (something his aides were quick to point out was his personal view and not government policy). Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, promised to bring the situation in western China to the attention of the United Nations' Security Council, where Turkey is currently a non-permanent member.

But responding to the violence in Xinjiang is also proving to be problematic for Turkey. China blames the events there on "separatists" and calls it an internal issue and one of territorial integrity. For Turkey, which has not been afraid to use strong measures in dealing with its own "separatist" problem and which has its own concerns about "territorial integrity," these should sound like very familiar words. (For example, a court in southeast Turkey (or what some refer to as "Kurdistan") recently jailed a man for "terrorist" activity. His crime? Carrying a coffin draped with the PKK flag.)

Turkey is also looking at China as an important trade partner, with President Abdullah Gul and a large group of businessmen having made a recent visit there (including to Urumqi, site of the recent violent events), so it's response could be limited by that. Hurriyet's Semih Idiz looks at Turkey's dilemma in a column in today's Hurriyet Daily News:
Developments in China’s restive region of Xinjiang are causing a stir in Turkey, where pressure is mounting on the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan to do something about Beijing’s brutal suppression of the Uighurs; a close relative of the Turks who speak a language close to Turkish.

The pressure is understandable given that many Uighurs fleeing from Chinese oppression have taken refuge in Turkey over the years and that these refugees are in close touch with ultra-nationalist and Pan-Turkic groups capable of creating serious political unrest the country.

Already, demonstrators earlier this week scuffled with police outside the Chinese embassy, and such public outpourings of sympathy can be expected to continue in the coming days and weeks depending on how the situation unfolds….

….Many question just how far Ankara will go, given that there is an economic giant and a potential, if not actual, superpower at the other end of the dispute here, namely China. It is also interesting to note that Russia has come out in support of Beijing, accusing "separatists" -- meaning the Uighurs -- of sparking the events, and saying that this is "China’s domestic issue," a warning to outsiders not to interfere.

Moscow’s position is understandable, given the fact that it too has restive regions that are predominantly Islamic and therefore amenable to "outside interference." With Russia and China as permanent members of the Security Council, it is unlikely that any Turkish initiative, if it embarks on one, will result in a condemnation of China. It is still unclear as to how the violence in Xinjiang started, despite a history of Chinese oppression in the region. Reports suggest that the ethnic violence left scores of innocent people dead on both sides, inflaming calls for vengeance the ethnic communities.

There is also the fact that China is using the terms "separatism" and "fundamentalism" as cornerstones for its explanation of the events in Xinjiang. If Turkey were to go beyond calls to respect human rights in the region, and appear to be supporting Uighur separatism, it is clear that this will rebound with China referring to the Kurdish issue and minority rights in this country.

Then there is the growing Turkish-Chinese common interest, especially in the economics, and this was exemplified by President Gül’s high profile official visit to that country recently. Another factor affecting how much anger the government can inject into its rhetoric in support of the Uighurs.

It is noteworthy in this context that Ankara apparently recently twice refused to issue a visa to Uighur activistand US resident, Rabia Kader, who is seen by Beijing as the person behind all the trouble. Kader herself confirmed the view to broadcaster NTV.

Clearly Ankara was not prepared to upset China in the past and if Kader is, however, issued a visa now, China will likely see it as an act of defiance. The question is if Ankara is ready for such an act of defiance at this time.

Given the conditions, Turkey will likely remain in the "We are deeply concerned and call for restraint" mode, rather than embark on an all out diplomatic campaign against China.

The government, however, will have to ward off widespread domestic criticism given that opponents of the Justice and Development Part, or AKP, are already using the issue with great relish. Whatever happened to spark the start of the events in Xinjiang, it is clear that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party could have done without this crisis at an already difficult time in terms of domestic politics.
You can read the full column here.

Ultimately, it seems like Turkey's response will be more about placating domestic critics (and they have already started making their voices heard) than about making an impact on the international stage regarding the events in China. Taking on a superpower is not so simple. Ankara certainly feels it must say something about what's happening in Xinjiang, but how far does it want to push things with China?

1 comment:

emre said...

The veep's just making the obligatory nod to his base. The Chinese leadership should be smart enough to realize this.