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.
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.