Turkey Looks East

From June 26-30, Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited China, visiting the capital of Beijing, the cultural city of Xi’an, and the heart of Turkic China, Urumqi. His visit brough the signing of major bilateral business cooperation pacts worth more than a billion US dollars, involving infrastructure, power, mining, agricultural, and trade. And in Urumqi, Gul told press he was deeply impressed by the development of the region and the large-scale construction. Gul also said, “Uyghurs act like a bridge of friendship between Turkey and China. Such role will contribute to the further improvement of our relations.”

What Gul did not know at the time was that ethnic riots had broken out in southern China between Turkic Uyghur migrant workers and Han locals which would spark ethnic riots on the streets of Urumqi just days later, resulting in the death of at least 180 people.

urumqi gul
Left: Gul in Urumqi. Right: Victims of the riot.

Those riots resulted in an immediate about-face stance from Turkey with regard to China relations. The political leaders have since called for discussing the Xinjiang riots in the UN Security Council. Prime Minister Erdogan also said that Turkey would grant a visa to Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur political activist who China blames for the unrest, were she to travel to Turkey. (The day before she said that her visa to visit Turkey in 2006 and 2007 had been denied.) And Turkey then went on to call China’s acts in Xinjiang “genocide.” (On an interesting sidenote to this, you can read this article on China’s longstanding sympathy for the Kurds here, which may partially explain why Turkey’s leaders are taking the opportunity to stick it to Beijing.)

The only other fierce call was from Al Qaeda in Algeria, an independent branch that remains probably the most active cell of the network, has issued threats at Chinese interests. (While that might not sound like a big deal coming from a provincial terrorist organization, consider that there are 50,000 Chinese working in construction and energy projects in Algeria, and hundreds of thousands more across the Middle East and North Africa.)

However, the response from political leaders and media outlets in the Middle East was muted. Arab newspapers made gestures of sympathy in news reports, but none called for condemnations of China from their governments. There were no loud calls for boycotts. And the issue has since fallen off the pages of the newspapers as the event is quietly forgotten. No one in the Arab Middle East appears to want to make China out to be the new Israel.

So why is Turkey so excited? Turkey has long occupied both a cultural and geographic pivot, positioned between three key areas — Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. 21st century geopolitical thinkers such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samuel Huntington have written of Turkey’s unique position and how Ankara has the most choices of any other state in its weight class as it moves into the future. Does it look west and try to become part of Europe? Does it look south and try to lead and ally with other Sunni Muslim states? Or does it look east towards its Turkic breathren, recently freed from Russian imperial power?

Through the 1990s, it looked as if Turkey wanted to join with Europe and become a member state of the EU. The Middle East was an afterthought — Turkey has acted as a slight counterweight to Saudi Arabia, financing more moderate Turkish Cultural Centers in various parts of the globe. And in Central Asia, Turkey has financed the construction of mosques in the wake of the Soviet collapse, but otherwise has not been proactively involved in the culture or politics of the Turkic states to the east. Does Turkey’s position in Ankara signal a change? It will be interesting to see if this is just a temporary barrier to good relations, or a sign of things to come.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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11 Responses to Turkey Looks East

  1. B says:

    The Al-Qaeda angle is of concern for China, I believe. I think in the past 10 years, they have managed to get away with their resource search activities in other countries without much blow-back. It could be just AQ talk given that they might not want to take on China as well, but the Chinese are probably a much easier target than Westerners.

    I remember back during the hijack of the American boat near Somalia there was quite a lot of admiration among people in China for the way US sent in the SEAL’s to rescue the crew. One of my Mainland friends who had worked in Pakistan told me that the Chinese government rarely, if ever, looks out for the interests of individual Chinese who are abroad.

  2. Aceface says:

    Turks has always interested in expanding their influence in Tukic speaking world.
    The Turkish Embassy in Ulaanbaatar stands right infront of Russian Embassy and it’s huge.They are also spending huge budget on archaeological excavation of Turkic nomads in Mongolian steppe.

  3. Jeremiah says:

    I think you’re a key domestic reason for Ankara’s support of the Uighurs, namely ethnicity and the role of ethnic nationalism within Turkish politics. Turks are a very a very nationalistic people. This nationalism embedded within Turkish culture since the founding of the Republic is in tightly linked to ethno-nationalism. To be a citizen of Turkey is to foremost share a sense of Turkishness within a nation of Turkic people. For many Turks, diasporas of Turks in the Caucasus or Central Asia are linked to the Turkish people.

    The AKP has traditionally never been able to win over nationalistic voters. In part, this is because the AKP has a different conception on the split between citizenship and identity, similar to debates in France. Turkish nationalists are generally represented in the two opposition parties: the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). These two parties continually reference nationalism in their platforms and in their symbolism. However, all Turks are still nationalists at the end of the day and can become very nationalistic very quickly. CHP and MHP tend to attract the more militant nationalists.

    The CHP and MHP would both gladly use a lack of a strong reaction from Erdoğan paint the AKP as a party that doesn’t care about fellow Turkic people; the Uighurs have close historical, linguistic, and religio-cultural ties with Turkish people. At a time when the AKP is in a very precarious political position, mounting pressure from the CHP and MHP and the public forced Erdoğan to take a strong stand in this case.

    Now, as far as your overall question about the direction of Turkish foreign policy, I would say that yes, this represents a change from Ankara. This isn’t a sudden change though, it’s been happening for the last 7-8 years since the AKP came to party. Turkish foreign policy in the 1990′s was the same as it had been since the founding of the Turkish Republic; non-interventionist, the preeminence of hard power, and a generally passive foreign policy. This has changed since the election of the AKP. The AKP has made Turkish foreign policy more proactive, multidimensional, and placed more emphasis on soft power.

    I do not agree with your idea that Turkey must ‘pick’ a region to go forward with. Turkey has always been tightly couple with both Europe and America. The AKP came to power, in part, on a platform to greater increase Turkish ties with the European Union, implementing major reforms that lead to the opening of Turkish ascension talks to the European Union. Since then, there has been a recognized cooling of relations between the EU and Turkey. As a result, Turkey’s foreign policy orientation has shifted away from Europe, as you mentioned, towards the Caucasus’s, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

    I do not, however, see this as a sign of Turkey picking to move away from Europe. Turkey is strenghtening its relationships with these other regions in order to make its perceived value within the eyes of the EU increase. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu encapsulates this view perfectly when he says that “If Turkey does not have a solid stance in Asia, it would have very limited chances with the EU.”

  4. Curzon says:

    “I do not agree with your idea that Turkey must ‘pick’ a region to go forward with.”

    Brzezinski’s words, not mine.

    Sure, Ankara will continue to reach out to all sides, but as the course of human events progresses, I think that Turkey will get drawn more towards one region over the others. Until recently, most people would have said Europe, what with the planned EU membership/integration. Now I’m not so sure.

  5. Oliver says:

    The Turks are many, poor and Muslim. It is very likely that there will always be at least one major EU member state ready to block Turkey’s membership.
    Nor have the Arabs forgotten the Ottoman Empire. Turkey has less of a choice than you think.

  6. s says:

    “I think that Turkey will get drawn more towards one region over the others. Until recently, most people would have said Europe,”

    well…the turks may say “pushed away”, instead of “drawn to”….

    regardless, IMHO the xinjiang position is likely an issue perpendicular to the geographic gravitation issues. as others have said, this is more or less purely ethnic, which is also echoed by aceface’s observation in mongolia.

  7. Carl says:

    “And Turkey then went on to call China’s acts in Xinjiang ‘genocide’.”

    Pot. Kettle. Black.

  8. M-Bone says:

    “Pot. Kettle. Black.”

    Sucks, sure. But, scale aside, the 3 weeks ago vs. 80 years ago question is a legit one (unless you are talking about Kurds….)

    I think that this situation goes to show that if China continues to give a universal FU on its minority problems, that there will be backlash (and from people who can be a whole lot less polite than the French).

  9. ElamBend says:

    “The Turks are many, poor and Muslim.”
    Thus may be true, but only when not taken into context of their surroundings. To the south they have a much poorer region in the Arab world with essentially an un- or under-developed economy. Turkey is no Europe, sure, but it’s immediate European neighbors are economic backwaters in comparison. To come from SW Europe into Istanbul is to leave barbaria and to enter civilization. To their north they have the Russosphere (Russia, Ukraine, Belorus), an economic backwards area that is suffering severe social malaise and has a shrinking population. To the South East is a traditional rival ‘Persia,’ which has much less people compared to Turkey and is undergoing a similar demographic and social malaise as the Russosphere, just 20 years behind.

    Turkey has a surprisingly diverse and sophisticated economy, a large population, and a sense of dynamism and self. Compared to a western European country, they don’t amount to too much, but compared to anyone in the neighborhood, they are dynamic. (They also are relatively less corrupt than their neighbors). They have opened many Turkic cultural centers throughout central Asia.

    Their appeal to their Turkic cousins may be partially based upon a distortion of history, but to so discount them would be a mistake.

  10. Oliver says:

    That makes Turkey a good investment opportunity.
    But applying for membership in the EU, Europe is the correct reference point. I am afraid the point stands.

  11. ElamBend says:

    Oliver,
    re-reading your original post, I believe I overly concentrated on your first sentence and missed your point. You are correct and the point stands.