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Erdogan’s Risky China Gamble

Official Turkish delegation to inspect troubled Xinjiang.

Credit: Creative Photo Corner


  • An official Turkish visit to the troubled north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang is politically charged terrain.
  • If Turkey endorses China’s assertion that it is countering extremism in Xinjiang it would be granting a significant victory to China.
  • Sending a delegation to Xinjiang is little more than Erdogan’s latest attempt to project Turkey’s influence throughout the Muslim world.
  • If Erdogan soft-pedals on Xinjiang, he would become one more Muslim leader willing to cold-shoulder his Muslim co-religionists for economic reasons.

An official Turkish visit to the troubled north-western Chinese province of Xinjiang to assess reports of a brutal crackdown on the region’s Turkic Muslims is politically charged terrain.

On the one hand, it could shape Turkey’s challenge to conservative Gulf states’ leadership of the Islamic world. In particular, Turkish assertiveness on the Uighur matter could complicate Muslim silence about the most frontal assault on their faith in recent history.

On the other hand, such assertiveness would greatly complicate Turkey’s relations with China.

An Erdogan initiative

The visit to assess the situation in Xinjiang was agreed in talks with Chinese leaders when Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the issue during a recent visit to Beijing.

Mr. Erdogan appeared to set the tone for the visit by declaring that it was possible to “find a solution to this issue that takes into consideration the sensitivities on both sides.”

Walking a fine line, Mr. Erdogan went on to say that “those who exploit the issue…by acting emotionally without thinking of the relationship that Turkey has with another country, unfortunately end up costing both the Turkish republic and their kinsman.”

Another Erdogan mediation initiative

For its part, China seemingly sought to frame the Turkish visit with state-run China Daily newspaper quoting Mr. Erdogan as telling Chinese leaders that “it is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China’s development and prosperity.”

Turkey has in the past sought unsuccessfully to mediate tensions in Xinjiang in part by agreeing with Beijing on an investment program in the Chinese region.

For Erdogan, the initiative is probably little more than the latest attempt in a series of moves to project Turkey’s influence throughout the Muslim world.

It is important to note that virtually all of them have not led to positive outcomes for either Mr. Erdogan or for Turkey. This is one more reason why the Turkish delegation’s visit to Xinjiang amounts to a risky gamble.

A risky gamble

A Turkish confirmation of the extent of the crackdown would position Mr. Erdogan as a leader willing to defend Muslim causes that other leaders have chosen to ignore — much like he attempted last year to take the lead on denouncing U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Turkey earlier this year briefly appeared to be willing to take on the Xinjiang issue when its foreign ministry harshly condemned Chinese policy, but has largely remained silent since.

In response to the criticism, China temporarily closed its consulate in the Mediterranean port city of Izmir, warned Chinese residents and travelers to Turkey to “be wary and pay attention to their personal safety,” and threatened further economic retaliation.

If Turkey, on the basis of the visit, were to endorse China’s assertion that it is countering extremism by offering voluntary vocational training to Turkic Muslims, it would be granting a significant victory to China given Turkey’s ethnic and cultural ties to the Xinjiang Muslim community.

Hero or softball?

If Mr. Erdogan soft-pedals on Xinjiang, he would become just one more Muslim leader who, for economic and commercial reasons, proves willing to cold-shoulder his Muslim co-religionists in a time of need.

An endorsement would group Mr. Erdogan with men like Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman who earlier this year during a visit to Beijing recognized China’s right to undertake “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures.

Witness as well the episodes of Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and Indonesian president Joko Widodo claiming to be unaware of the situation in Xinjiang.

Trying to balance Turkey’s position as a safe haven for Turkic Muslims while maintaining close ties to China, Turkey last month said it had granted 146,000 residence permits to members of various Turkic communities, including an estimated 35,000 Uighurs.


China’s past attempts to convince foreign diplomats even if they remained publicly silent and journalists of its version of events by taking them on guided tours of Xinjiang have largely produced moderate results at best.

How Turkey handles the visit to Xinjiang is likely to resonate in major parts of the Islamic world. After vacillating between silence and criticism, the Turkish visit is likely to determine where Turkey really stands.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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