Ankara’s support for Uyghurs irks Beijing

China is widely accused by human rights organizations of oppressing Uyghurs, one of the country’s largest predominantly Muslim minorities. Those including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have accused Beijing of incarcerating tens of thousands of Uyghurs in “camps” in Xinjiang and resorting to other means in blatant violation of international laws in a bid to strip off the minority from its Muslim identity.

In September 2022, the UN released a report on alleged violations of the human rights of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China. The report found that mass detentions in China’s Xinjiang region from 2017 to 2019 were marked by credible documentation of torture, sexual violence, and forced labour, as well as forced abortions and sterilisations. The 48-page report concluded that “serious human rights violations” were committed by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs and other Muslims under China’s policies to fight terrorism and extremism.

Taking a cue from the above report, Turkey publicly criticized China for the first time over Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. It is worth noting that Turkey has been one of the most hospitable countries to Uyghurs, with whom Turks share ethnic, religious and linguistic connections. Roughly 50,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey, forming the largest Uyghur Diaspora outside Central Asia.

At a press briefing on December 29, 2022 Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu stated, “Our defending the rights of the Turkic Uyghurs in the international arena disturbs China. But this is a humanitarian issue”. He told reporters that Beijing was irked by Ankara’s refusal to grant extradition requests for Uyghurs who were Turkish citizens and settled down in Turkey.

The Foreign Minister further emphasizedthat Turkey wanted to cooperate with China in a transparent manner but Chinese authorities did not allow the Ambassador in Beijing to freely visit the region where Uyghurs reside instead they wanted him to follow a “programme that they provided”. He reminded Beijing about the commitment made by Chinese President Xi Jinping five years ago of allowing a humanitarian delegation from Turkeyto visit and examine Xinjiang region and questioned Chinese authorities for impeding the visit.

Though Turkey’s public criticism of China is a rare happening, there have been instances in the past where Ankara has taken on Beijing for ill-treatment of Uyghurs. In 2019, Turkey had brought up the minority’s plight at the United Nations, condemning Beijing of “torturing” more than a million people. The condemnation had prompted the Chinese Ambassador in Ankara to openly warn the Turkish government against publicly criticizing Beijing by saying that it could have commercial and economic consequences. Beijing followed the warning by suddenly announcing temporary closure of its consulate in Turkey’s Aegean province of Izmir, which is planned to be the last port in China’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure project One Belt, One Road initiative, linking Asia and Europe.

In another spat, in 2021, the Chinese Embassy in Ankara directly targeted Turkish opposition leaders for commemorating the deaths of the Uyghurs. At that time the Chinese embassy had said, “The Chinese side reserves its legitimate right to respond” prompting the Turkish foreign minister to summon the Chinese ambassador.

Besides the confrontation on Uyghur issue, tensions have also cropped upin economic cooperation field. Recently, Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, threatened its Turkish partner telecom operator Turkcell over a defence tender. Huawei allegedly warned Turkcell with freezing its contracted operations when the latter refused to bow to pull down the bid in the defense tender, citing cost effectiveness concerns, according to a report by France-based Intelligence Online website. The company’s aggressive competitiveness “damaged its good relations” in Turkey, the report noted.

Despite this tension, trade and infrastructure investments have not been affected between Turkey and China. According to figures by the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the trade volume between the two countries reached nearly $40 billion in 2021. It will be interesting to watch whether Ankara will stand firm against Beijing over Uyghur issue or succumb to Beijing’s pressure in the wake of economic problems that the country is currently facing.