Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy has failed not only where it was expected but also in relations with countries Turkey had lots of common interests with. Turkey had scarcely improved its relations with Israel when it faced a problem with Russia and then Germany recognized the Armenian Genocide. With the United States and the European Union, the Turks are beginning to use blackmail policy, which cannot but annoy its western partners. Besides “situational” problems, Turkey has chronic problems and one of them concerns China.
During a forum in Astana in 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping presented the concept of Silk Road Economic Belt, a route that is supposed to connect China through Central Asia with the Middle East and Europe. One of the key obstacles to it, according to experts, is the conflict in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Chinese classify it as a fight with terrorism, extremism and separatism, while the Uyghurs consider it as a struggle for self-determination. The other problem is the occupation of the north of Iraq and Syria by ISIL.
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was formed in 1949 and covers the territory of East Turkestan. It is the biggest region in China (1,625,000 sq km) or 1/6 of whole China. On the other hand, it is one of the least populated areas in China. According to the last census, it was home to 21.8 million people, of whom only 45.8% were Uyghurs. The percentage of Chinese was 40.4% against just 6% some 60 years ago. The remaining 11% are Kazakhs and Chinese Muslims. Except the Chinese, all the other ethnic groups in the region are Muslims. Uyghurs are a Turkic nation but they also have Aryan roots.
East Turkestan was annexed by the Chinese Manchurian dynasty in 1769 and has been in constant conflict with Beijing since then. In 1862-1876, 1933-1936 and 1944-1949, the region broke away from China but once Beijing proclaimed the People’s Republic of China, it destroyed the Uyghur’s East Turkestan Republic and renamed the region into Xinjiang (“new border” in Chinese). The Uyghurs restarted their fight for liberty in the 1990s but this time their weapon was terrorism and their target was Chinese police and immigrants.
After Sept 11, 2011, China announced that its activities in Xinjiang were a fight against global terrorism. As a result, in 2002 the United States classified the East Turkestan Liberation Organization (later renamed into East Turkestan Islamic Movement) as a terrorist group.
The Uyghur conflict is one of the key problems in Chinese-Turkish relations. The Uyghurs are a Turkic Muslim nation. Many in Turkey even regard them as “forefathers” of Turkism and East Turkestan as ancestral home of Turks. The Chinese have always said that their relations with the Turks depend on their attitude towards the Uyghur problem. They keep demanding that the Turks stop the activities of Uyghur centers in their territory. The Turks in their turn say that they just want to protect the rights of Uyghur civilians and to foster a dialogue between the conflicting parties. So, Turkey is facing a dilemma: on the one hand, Uyghurs are Turks, on the other hand, they don’t want to spoil their relations with China.
In the 1990s, Turkey launched a campaign for a single Turkic homeland in Central Asia, which received a very negative response from China.
In 2009, disorders in Urumqi and some other Uyghur cities claimed as many as 200 lives. Turkey was the only Islamic nation to condemn China’s actions. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then was prime minister, even called the event a “genocide” of Uyghurs. The most recent major incident occurred in June 2013, when Uyghur extremists attacked civilians and policemen, with 27 people killed as a result.
The Uyghur problem has given rise to anti-Chinese protests in Turkey. Local nationalists urge their government to do more for the 300,000 Uyghurs living in Turkey. The Turks continue receiving Uyghur refugees. The Chinese are concerned that many of them may be given fake passports and be sent to the Middle East to fight for ISIL. China has grounds for such concerns even though the spokesman of the Turkish Foreign Ministry called them ridiculous.
For Central Asian and Caucasian Muslims wishing to join ISIL, Turkey is a transit country. The Chinese are afraid that after Syria the Uyghur fighters will go back home and will encourage local separatists into even stronger resistance. And this is one of the key reasons why Turkish-Chinese relations are not based on mutual confidence.
Arab mass media report that lots of Uyghur families are moving from Turkey to Syria and are settling down in the villages abandoned by Syrian refugees. Those Uyghurs are said to be joining ISIL to fight against Bashar al-Assad. Some Arab sources warn that Turkey is trying to change the demography of Northern Syria. As many as 5,000 Uyghurs are reported to be fighting for ISIL. Chinese mass media add that the Turkish intelligence is actively supporting those fighters. Some sources say that Saudi Arabia also has a hand in this.
In China, many experts warn that Turkey is trying to unite the so-called Turkic world. So, the Chinese demand that the Turks stop the inflow of Uyghurs into their territory. The Turks will hardly do it but, on the other hand, they should be careful with Uyghur separatism as they have own separatists, Kurds, and the Chinese may counteract by playing this card.
Turkey is also seeking to build more transportation routes. The Turks are actively involved in the project to lay a cargo route from China via Central Asia and the Caspian Sea to Europe as its southern route is supposed to run through their territory. Once they finish the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad, they will be able to connect to transportation routes involving Central Asia and China. In fact, they are creating substitutes for the Silk Road Economic Belt, alternatives that are focused on the interests of Turkic partners.
They in Ankara believe that active economic and cultural contacts with the Turkic CIS states will help them to revive the pan-Turkic project. The basic principle of the Turks’ foreign policy is “ethnic solidarity.” But the problem is that they have no resources for their pan-Turkic ambitions.
China will hardly endure this and will be very tough if Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar try to cause instability in Xinjiang.
Today, it is obvious that Turkey does not have enough resources for achieving its ambitious goals. So, it is for the Turkish people to decide how to act.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau