Turkish PM Visits Xinjiang: A Lesson in Diplomacy

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was in China last week, marking the first visit by a Turkish head of state in 27 years. An article from Eurasia Review analyzes the possibilities of a strategic partnership between the two countries:

Vice President of China Xi Jinping’s Turkey visit in February 2012 and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s China visit in April 2012 are clear show of a historical turning point in the bilateral relations. Those visits were the last of the top-level meetings between the two countries since 2009 and can be interpreted as a sign of huge developments in the Turkish-Chinese relations.

[...]Premier of China Wen Jiabao’s Turkey visit in October 2010 also gave a strategic meaning to the bilateral relations. Aims including the increase of the bilateral trade volume from 17 billion to 50 billion dollars within five years and using the Turkish lira and yuan for trade instead of the dollar indicate the changes in the balance of the global political economy.

These aims were reemphasized during the visit of Vice President Xi Jinping in February 2012 and then the visit of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s in April 2012. Close relations, especially in nuclear energy and railways, are projected for the two countries. Turkey is planning to set up an almost 5,000 kilometer-long rail network with Chinese firms. The project of a “modern silk road” that has been discussed for twenty years but has not been realized is highly significant for Turkey’s trade with China, the Caucasus and Central Asian countries. The route of a “silk railway” from China to Europe will both increase the level of trade and expand the economic integration between countries along the route.

After the 2009 Xinjiang protestsErdogan was vocal in his disdain for the “atrocities” Beijing afflicted on China’s Uighur population. The first stop on his trip was Urumqi, capital of China’s sensitive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The Uighur people, who make up 45% of the population in the region, are a Turkic ethnic group with strong historical, cultural, and linguistic ties to the people of Turkey (indeed, the Uighur language has been called Eastern Turkish, and the term East Turkestan is a common and politically charged toponym for Xinjiang). The Wall Street Journal reports on Erdogan’s reception in Urumqi:

The Turkic people of [the] 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.
Despite the warm welcome, Asia Times notes that Erdogan was careful not to reopen healing diplomatic wounds:

On his visit to China – the first by a Turkish prime minister in 27 years – Erdogan was keen not to upset the apple cart.

He scored the political coup of visiting Urumqi – actually, his first stop on entering China, before he continued onward to Beijing – but did not antagonize his hosts by posturing as the protector of Xinjiang’s Uighurs.

[...][Emre] Kizilkaya, [foreign affairs editor of Turkey's Hurriyet Daily] took Erdogan to task for using the China visit to harp on Syria, instead of succoring Turkey’s Uighur brethren:

OK, China was a world power, but why did you go to Xinjiang if you would remain silent about the inhumane repression against Uyghurs?

A post on Democracy Digest explains how Chinese economic interests allow greater leverage to discuss ethnic concerns, and how other Central Asian states could follow Turkey’s lead, forcing Beijing into a dialogue over minority issues:

The Turkish leader is able to take what some analysts call a dual-track approach – engaging Beijing on economic interests and retaining the right to criticize its rights record – because of a convergence of strategic interests, Turkel [former president of Uyghur American Association] argues:

“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 Uyghur  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.”

Ankara’s leverage on defending Uyghur  rights would be enhanced if other Central Asian states took a similar stance, he suggests, and it should consider joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to counter Beijing’s use of the grouping as an ‘authoritarian internationale’ forexercising its soft power and suppressing Uyghur  rights:

“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. As an initial step, Foreign Minister Davutoglu should organize a “friends of Uyghur s” conference with democratic allies—similar to the ones organized for Libya and Syria—discussing Ankara’s vision and policy objectives with respect to the Uyghur  people in China.”