A Turkish Primer on Engaging Beijing
  • Thu, 04/19/2012 - 00:00


Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to China last week was bound to be notable, since this was the first visit by a Turkish head of government in 27 years. It was particularly high profile, however, because his first stop was Urumqi, capital of the restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region that Uighurs call East Turkistan.

The Turkic people of that region greeted Mr. Erdogan like a rock star, and little wonder. While trade and investment, renewable energy, Syria and a nuclear summit with Iran were high on the agenda, showing support and sympathy for the Uighur people appeared to be equally important to the prime minister. They rarely enjoy such vocal support from foreign leaders.

Mr. Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made a point of embracing Uighurs like long-lost brothers. The delegation of 300 visited a market and a mosque, and even though Beijing reportedly tried to keep Mr. Edrogan's schedule under wraps, Uighurs lined up in the streets to catch a glimpse. Turkish commentator Fatih Altayli said he had never seen this level of love and affection for the prime minister in any other ethnically Turkic country.

The outpouring of affection stems from the fact that Uighurs have historical, linguistic and cultural ties to the people of Turkey, and enjoy strong support from Turkey's ruling and opposition parties, as well as the Turkish public. Mr. Erdogan harshly criticized China for its brutal handling of unrest in Urumqi in 2009, likening the events of July 5 that year to a genocide and urging Beijing to address Uighurs' legitimate demands for human rights.

Such pressure appears to be producing progress. Turkey has been able to reach agreements with Beijing on a number of Uighur-related issues, including the establishment of a "trade zone" in Urumqi, the restoration of the tomb of the 11th century Turkic scholar Mahmut Kasghari and the sponsorship of Uighur religious scholars studies in Turkey. These are modest but significant steps that benefit all parties.

This makes Turkey a case study in how to successfully press Beijing for progress on rights issues. What is the secret of Ankara's success?

In some ways, Ankara's pro-Uighur efforts have benefited from broader trends. Beijing recognizes both Turkey's influence in the Muslim world and China's own increased strategic and economic interests in Islamic countries. Thus, while Mr. Erdogan's statements and Turkey's stance on the Uighur issue have inevitably complicated Sino-Turkish relations, Beijing can't afford to cut off dialogue with Ankara, and is even willing to tolerate visits by Turkish officials to Xinjiang as the price of summits in Beijing.

But that advantage wouldn't automatically translate into influence for Ankara, and Mr. Erdogan deserves credit for playing his hand well. Turkey's stance has been both coherent and clear: Uighurs should act as a bridge in Turkey's relationship with China. The protection of their economic, social and cultural rights is important to Turkey's interests. Ankara has repeatedly conveyed this message to Beijing.

Now the challenge is for Ankara to find ways to expand on its successes to date. One useful step would be to appoint a special envoy to monitor Uighur human rights while continuing dialogue with China on the existing and proposed policy initiatives that were intended to improve Uighur socio-economic conditions. This way Ankara can guard against backsliding by Beijing on its commitments.

Unfortunately, so far Turkey has been the only Turkic country pursuing such an agenda to support the Uighurs. Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Beijing has successfully discouraged Central Asian governments from helping the Uighurs to achieve the political and cultural rights guaranteed under China's own laws. China has even managed to export its repression, encouraging its neighbors to deny refuge to Uighurs and to restrict the rights of their own Uighur populations.

To counteract this trend—a result of China leveraging its investments and military influence—Turkey should focus on reshaping Central Asian states' Uighur policies. Turkey could seek full membership or observer status in the SCO, which would give Ankara a voice in decision-making on cross-border Uighur issues. Ankara should also use its close relationship with presidents of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to encourage greater independence from Beijing. While these governments face intense pressure from Beijing, those states may be more active if they see a long-term commitment from Ankara and safety in numbers.

Ankara can also lead in rallying democracies further afield to press for improvements in Xinjiang. As a longstanding ally of the U.S. and a neighbor of Europe, Turkey is uniquely well-situated to do this. An an initial step, Foreign Minister Davutoglu should organize a "friends of Uighurs" conference with democratic allies—similar to the ones organized for Libya and Syria—discussing Ankara's vision and policy objectives with respect to the Uighur people in China.

The key is to keep up the pressure, despite Beijing's predictable irritation. Mr. Erdogan's visit demonstrates that it is possible to do business with China while addressing Uighur demands for cultural rights, political freedoms and economic equality. Turkey's actions provide a model for other democratic countries on how to approach minority issues in China.

Mr. Turkel is an attorney in Washington, D.C. and a former president of the Uighur American Association.