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Turkey & China improve ties despite Uighur problem

November 12, 2010

The Turkish government criticised Chinese policy harshly after ethnic clashes in Xinjiang last year. But recently Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited China, and the tone changed.

Turkish and Uighur protestors took part in a demonstration in Istanbul after deadly clashes in Xinjiang last year
Turkish and Uighur protestors took part in a demonstration in Istanbul after deadly clashes in Xinjiang last yearImage: dpa

The visit the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made at the end of October to China was very special. Later after praying in the Great Mosque of Kashgar, Davutoglu described it as moving to the members of the Turkish delegation. It was a grand gesture by the Chinese government to allow a Turkish official to visit Kashgar for the first time ever - a city deep inside the Central Asian desert, where over centuries several Turkish states existed. 

In his speech in Urumchi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Davutoglu described Xinjiang, a region to which Turkey has deep relations as special. These were clear words for those, who know that the Turks and Uigurs have common ancestors.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet DavutogluImage: AP

"One China" policy without exceptions

There was no reason for Chinese officials to protest because two days later in Beijing the same minister reassured his counterpart Yang Jiechi that Turkey still supported the "one China" policy and respected the territorial integrity of China without exceptions.

This seems to be a backddown on Ankara's part since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused China of genocide only last year, after the death of several hundred demonstrators during clashes with the police in Xinjiang.

Turkish expert Selcuk Colakoglu believes however it was not a question of Turkey backing down because but Ankara has always respected China's right to fight separatism: 

"In recent contacts we have observed a special reference to the situation of Uigur Turks. We observe that the idea to broaden the rights of the Uigurs in the region, to integrate them into the political and economic system is being spelled out at the highest level. And it is being emphasised that this would enhance Turkish-Chinese relations."

Chinese officials said that a total of 197 people died in the riots in Xinjiang in July 2009
Chinese officials said that a total of 197 people died in the riots in Xinjiang in July 2009Image: AP

A different understanding of "terrorism"

Turkish strategists believe that China could build a very strong bridge to Turkey, if Beijing solved the problems of the Uigurs and supported them inn their efforts to retain their own culture, and that China is interested in such a strong bridge to the most western part of Asia.

Turkey learnt an important lesson in the aftermath of the quarrel with China about human rights, Colakoglu believes: "Turkey was isolated in this issue. I mean, starting with the Western countries and the countries, who claim to be sensitive on human rights, there has been very little international reaction."

Since China doesn't have a democratic system, Turkey has been having difficulty in explaining to Beijing that protests like those against Chinese policy in Xinjiang are seen as normal events in a democracy like Turkey, says Colakoglu. But recently the Chinese seem to have developmed more understanding of Ankara's position, he adds, especially on terrorism, even though there is a difference in the terminology. Speaking of terrorism, Turkey means Al Qaida, but China means Uigur separatists.

Warming up relations

But the days the Uigurs were the only dimension of Turkish-Chinese relations are long gone, says Suat Kiniklioglu, a member of Foreign Relations Committee of the Turkish parliament: 

Kashgar is located in the westernmost part of China
Kashgar is located in the westernmost part of ChinaImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"We as a country, who as I said, engages now more with East, South and West, have a growing interest in how the Far East fares, as we feel that both China and India and over all the Far East is more dynamic, has more growth and that the gravity of global attention is shifting more to the East. We feel that these are areas that we can't neglect."

Turkish experts stress that in the past two years both countries had similar positions on the Middle East, North Korea and Iran and thus they worked closely in the UN Security Council. Working relations are warm and the two countries have similar views on the global economy. So experts agree that there is likely to be more progress in Turkish-Chinese strategic ties.

Author: Cem Sey
Editor: Grahame Lucas