Turkey broke its silence on China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims on February 9, issuing a stern statement denouncing Beijing’s “Signification of all Religions and Beliefs” policy. Calling it “a great cause of shame for humanity,” the official statement warned that China’s violations of the fundamental human rights of the Uyghur Turks and other Muslim communities have worsened during the last two years. Turkey called on the international community and the Secretary General of the United Nations to bring an end to this human tragedy in Xinjiang.

Turkey is now one of the few countries in the world to openly criticize China’s abuse of Uyghur human rights.

Turkey is now one of the few countries in the world to openly criticize China’s abuse of Uyghur human rights. Turkey’s statement triggered a harsh reaction from China. The Chinese authorities accused Turkish officials of “ignoring the facts” about Xinjiang and issuing irresponsible and “nasty” remarks. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman linked the Uyghur issue with “countering terrorism and de-radicalization efforts” and claimed that Turkey has a “hidden agenda.” Furthermore, China temporarily shut down its Izmir General-Consulate. Its top diplomat in Ankara threatened Turkey with economic consequences if it continued to criticize Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur Muslims.

Some analysts linked Ankara’s sudden move to Turkey’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) domestic calculations to gain more votes from nationalists in upcoming local elections. Others explained it with Turkey’s regional ambitions and perceived role as a leader of the broader Muslim World. Although such explanations might prove right, they totally ignore the historic background of the issue.

Uyghurs are the indigenous group from East Turkestan in the north-western part of today’s China. Historically and culturally, East Turkestan is considered to be a part of Central Asia. Its people –the Uyghur– are Muslims of Turkic ethnicity, not Han-Chinese. The Uyghur have their own Turkic language and have been using the Arabic alphabet for centuries.

In 1884, the Manchurian Empire of China invaded and annexed East Turkestan. After the invasion, Chinese authorities named these landsXinjiang” which means “New Frontier.” In modern history, the Uyghurs revolted several times against the Chinese authorities. In 1933, they managed to establish the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan, but it didn’t last long. Later the Uyghurs successfully established a second state in 1944, but an invasion by communist China ended its independence in 1949.

When both Chinese and Ottoman empires collapsed in 1912 and 1922 respectively, the new states that inherited the two empires found themselves in two opposing camps. In 1950, Turkey entered the Korean War on the side of the Western allies which put Ankara and Beijing virtually at war. Although in 1971, Turkey recognized the People’s Republic of China, relations remained cold until the 1990s, but Ankara had the upper hand in its relations with Beijing.

Turkey supported the Uyghur, sheltered many of them, hosted their leaders, and helped them deliver their message to the world. When the Soviet Union fell, Ankara sought to play a leading role in the resurrected Turkic World in central Asia, and this had positive impact on the Uyghurs. However, Turkey’s failed initiative, the death of the most prominent Uyghur leader, Isa Alptekin, in Istanbul in 1995, and the rise of China in the 2000s hindered Turkey’s support for the Uyghur.

Nevertheless, when China violently suppressed the Uyghur in 2009, Turkish officials reacted harshly. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan described it as “nearly genocide” and even threatened to use Ankara’s capacity as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to raise the issue internationally. Turkey’s rising soft power in the Muslim world and good relations with the West served to expose China’s human rights violations and disrupted Chinese relations in the international arena.  

Chinese officials had to engage in damage control policies with their Turkish counterparts. One year later, the two parties reestablished diplomatic relations, precipitating several high-level official visits between the two countries. Erdogan visited China in 2012 (the first visit of a Turkish PM to China in 27 years) and then again in 2015.

Then the tide changed in Beijing’s favor. China was able to neutralize Turkey’s role in the Uyghuri issue for three main reasons. First, Turkey’s relations with the West worsened. Second, the rise of ISIS and the global need to counter its threat allowed China to link the Uygur matter to its counter terrorism policies. Third, the economic dimension of Turkish-Chinese relations changed dramatically—from about a $257 million surplus in favor of Turkey in 1993, to around a $17.8 billion deficit in favor of China in 2018.

Turkey stopped criticizing China as much as it had done before. In 2018, Turkey’s troubled economy played directly into China’s hands. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China provided a $3.6 billion loan to Turkey in July 2018. In December, the AKP also rejected a parliamentary motion brought by an opposition party to investigate the human rights violations perpetrated by China against the Uyghurs.

The fact that Turkey has suddenly now made a U-turn and decided to criticize China after keeping quiet for a couple of years raises the question: why now?

The fact that Turkey has suddenly now made a U-turn and decided to criticize China after keeping quiet for a couple of years raises the question: why now?

There is a good chance that Ankara might have overplayed its hand with China when it thought that the EU, the U.S., and the international community would swiftly support its position, shielding Turkey from attack by China. However, that did not happen. Instead, the Chinese threat to play the economic card against Turkey will probably put Ankara between a rock and a hard place. Regardless of whether Turkey’s decision to criticize China over its treatment of the Uyghurs stems from its temporary domestic calculations or reflects Ankara’s historic position, it is clear that the rift will limit political and economic cooperation between Turkey and China in the future and will fuel distrust.

On the other hand, the growing Chinese intolerance for criticism of its crackdowns, and its swift threat of playing its economic card, is an alarming indicator of China’s growing aggressiveness on the international level. The fact that China has the upper hand in its economic and trade relations with the majority of countries in the world means that other nations which dare to criticize Beijing may well face the same fate as Turkey.