Turkiye sacrifices its Uyghur affinity at the altar of ‘strategic partnership’ with China

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After the visit of Turkiye’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan to Xinjiang (Urumqi and Kashgar) in the first week of June 2024, where he met Uyghurs and shared pleasantries with them, it is crystal clear that the Uyghur issue is no more a “factor” in the China-Turkiye relationship. The issue is eventually “belittled” amidst “a comprehensive, deep and high-level” strategic partnership, about which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had boasted during his meeting with his Turkish counterpart. This visit signifies two things: While it fulfils the Chinese design to mobilise the global community against the Uyghurs, it tactfully reduces Turkiye’s tacit support for Uyghurs.

It is important to note herewith that Turkiye is believed (by many, including China) to be one of the strongest supporters of the Uyghurs in contemporary times. The people of Turkey and Uyghurs have had ethno-cultural bonding, language affinity and emotional connection for centuries. This author was reminded by Turkish locals during his visits to the tomb of Eretna in Kayseri city of Turkiye in June 2011 and July 2017 about the age-old historical-cultural linkage between Turkish and Uyghur people, which had flourished during the Kingdom of Eretna in the 7th-8th century AD.

Turkiye had been among the strongest supporters of the Uyghurs from the 1950s onwards. It patronised the Uyghurs and provided them the much needed moral and material support. For example, Turkiye made all efforts to settle a group of nearly 200 families from Xinjiang, who fled to India (Kashmir) after the communist takeover of China in 1949. Even though there is no official data from the Turkiye government at present concerning the Uyghur population in its territory, roughly between 55,000 and 75,000 Uyghurs are currently living in Turkiye, mostly in Istanbul, Ankara, Kayseri, Izmir and Manisa. The single largest factor for this bonhomie was Isa Yusuf Aleptkin, one of the Uyghur leaders who fled Xinjiang for fear of persecution at the hands of the Chinese and later settled down in Turkiye in the early 1950s.

Isa’s son Erkin Aleptkin, who spearheaded the Uyghur movement after his father’s death and was instrumental in establishing Uyghur’s global diaspora organisation in Munich (Germany), the World Uyghur Congress, vividly described during an interaction with this author the arduous journey from Xinjiang to Kashmir then to Pakistan and finally to Turkiye. To him, his father Isa not only developed a personal rapport with many Turkish leaders (both parties in power and the opposition) but also raised the Uyghur issues in global fora with the help of Turkiye. Isa was so popular that several parks and streets in Turkiye were named after him. Even his tomb was built just next to the Blue Mosque at the heart of Istanbul. One important incident needs to be mentioned here. The present President of Turkiye, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the Mayor of Istanbul when Isa Aleptkin passed away in 1995. Erdogan had ordered a huge procession in Istanbul in honour of the departed Uyghur leader and even took part in it.

Erdogan was so enamoured with the Uyghurs that he described the Urumqi riot that occurred 15 years ago on 5 July 2009 as “genocide” because of death of several Uyghurs. He threatened China to raise the same in the UN General Assembly a few days later. However, Erdogan’s roars fizzled out when the Chinese rejected his call and played the dirty tricks subsequently. An opposition parliamentarian from Turkiye (name withheld on request) told this author on the sidelines of a conference in Brussels in 2013 about Erdogan’s deafening silence on Uyghurs. To him, at the instructions of the Chinese government, the Chinese traders threatened their Turkish counterparts, who were funding Erdogan’s party AKP (The Justice and Development Party). These Turkish traders, who had billions of dollars of trade with the Chinese, threatened to stop funding the AKP. Erdogan had no option but to give in to the Chinese pressure, he added.

Erdogan has been to China nearly half a dozen times in the last one decade on official visits. In April 2012, as the Prime Minister of the country, Erdogan visited Xinjiang, the first by Turkiye’s head of government in 27 years, along with a delegation of high-profile officials and nearly 300 businessmen. Even when the entire world was criticising China for its “crimes” against Uyghurs, the Erdogan government kept mum. Turkiye did not have any official position on the incarceration of millions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Since 1995, the political dispensations in Turkiye— from Suleyman Demirel to Recep Tayyip Erdogan — have preferred to build solid political, diplomatic, economic and defence ties with China. Since the “Strategic Partnership” between China and Turkiye was inked in 2010, the country heads of Turkiye, including Erdogan, have given priority to their national interests instead of their filial and emotional linkage with Uyghurs. Besides, China’s “veiled threat” of patronising the Kurdish Workers’s Party (PKK) in case Turkiye continues its support to the Uyghurs seems to have worked for China. Currently, when both China and Turkiye have a common adversary in the United States, besides valuable stakes in bilateral, regional and global affairs, their relationship has known no bounds. The Uyghurs are the first and foremost casualty of the growing China-Turkiye relationship.

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