East Turkestan: Xinjiang Riots Damage Sino-Turkish Ties
“The martyrs of East Turkestan are our martyrs,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, said in 1995 as he inaugurated a park named in honour of Isa Yusuf Alptekin, the Uighur independence leader who had died in exile in Turkey.
As Turkish prime minister, Mr Erdogan had long abandoned such sentiments, which were guaranteed to anger Beijing. But last week [July 2009] Mr Erdogan created a firestorm by comparing China’s treatment of its Uighur population – Muslim Chinese of Turkic origin in the northwestern region of Xinjiang – to “genocide”.
His comments provoked a sharp response in Beijing, and sparked fears that the diplomatic row could disrupt newly forged trade ties between the two countries.
China lashed out angrily on Tuesday [14 July 2009], demanding that Mr Erdogan withdraw his remarks, which the state-owned China Daily blasted as “groundless and irresponsible”.
Turkey, which also has a powerful nationalist lobby that views “East Turkestan” as an ancestral homeland, has been more publicly critical of China’s handling of the riots in Xinjiang than other western governments.
“It is only natural we would be interested in the destiny of these people and their well being,” said Burak Ozugergin, foreign ministry spokesman.
Mr Ozugergin stressed that there was no question of Turkey – with its restive Kurdish minority – supporting separatism, but politicians have been more forthright.
Nihat Ergun, industry minister, last week [July 2009] called for a boycott of Chinese goods. And while Mr Erdogan has since retreated from that position, his initial comments displayed the same disregard for diplomatic niceties he displayed earlier this year in Davos when he berated Israel for its attacks on Gaza.
China has taken the Turkish criticism, and a threat to raise concerns in the UN Security Council, seriously. It dispatched a special envoy to Ankara, and has also warned its citizens to avoid trips to Turkey, saying their security could not be guaranteed.
While both sides are now keen to smooth over their differences, Turkish officials sources say they have “big, big worries” that the spat will hurt trade relations. Turkish President Abdullah Gul recently made a visit to China, which included a stop in Urumqi, with a business delegation that signed trade deals worth $3bn.
Chinese exports dominate the trade relationship and Chinese companies have until now invested a mere $61m in Turkey. But Mr Gul’s trip led to several deals with hydro power groups, sparking rumours that China might even help fill the gap left by European export credit agencies to fund the controversial Ilisu dam project.
Political commentators have criticised Mr Erdogan for populism in his decision to put ethnic solidarity ahead of bilateral sensitivities, but Uighurs living in Turkey have a hold over public sympathy that belies their relatively modest numbers.
Dursun Suydunllu, speaking from a Uighur community association in the central Anatolian town of Kayseri, said the prime minister’s comments “have made us very happy”. Hayrullah Efendigil at the association’s Ankara branch, acknowledged Turkey’s new commercial interests in China had cut its support for Uighur activism.
But Yitschak Shichor, who transcribed Mr Erdogan’s words from 1995 in a paper published by the East West Center, writes that in spite of its recent compliance with Beijing, “Turkey is still one of the most important shelters for Eastern Turkestan nationalism”.