According to Turkey’s top diplomat, relations between the two countries have weakened due to Ankara’s decision to refuse to transfer Turkic Uyghur dissidents to China.
At his end-of-year news conference on December 29 in Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu remarked that relations with China had weakened.
He said, “this is expected from China; Beijing frequently demanded the extradition of Uyghurs, including some Turkish citizens”.
He stated that the social media claims that Turkey was extraditing Uyghur dissidents to China or deporting them to other countries to extradite them to China are not true.
Cavusoglu clarified that Those rumours were “all lies, and Turkey is giving none of them.
The Uyghurs in China’s most western Xinjiang autonomous region are related to people in Turkey, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Azerbaijan on an ethnic, religious, and linguistic level. With about 50,000 people, Turkey is estimated to have the largest number of Uyghur people outside Central Asia.
At the press conference, Cavusoglu stated, “We have been on the side of our family members from the Balkans to Uyghur Turks, Crimean Tatars, Iraqi and Syrian Turkmens, to the Turks of western Thrace to Meskhetian Turks” (in Georgia).
Due to his desire to maintain good relations with Beijing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan found it beneficial to remain silent on China’s treatment of Uyghurs.
Over the past ten years, China has greatly boosted its financing and investment in Turkey. Turkey expects more opportunities for cooperation, including Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects like high-speed rail lines, nuclear power plants, and a shipping canal that would serve as a parallel alternative to the Bosporus Strait for access to the Black Sea.
Former Turkish Foreign Ministry director general for international security affairs Alper Coskun advised not to hurry to conclusions and said that Minister Cavusoglu’s words are in reaction to a question at a year-end press conference and cannot be understood as an attempt to boost Turkey’s tone on the Uyghur problem in a hostile manner.
Coskun also highlighted that he is currently a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He noted that it seems more like Cavusoglu took advantage of the press conference to counter criticism from the opposition about Turkey’s ties to China and its alleged inaction regarding the struggles of the Uyghurs.
Coskun emphasised that despite the results of the elections, scheduled to be held by June, Turkey’s approach to the Uyghur issue and its foreign policy toward China will remain unchanged.
The Turkish populace widely shares the suffering of Uyghurs. In an effort to increase awareness of the Organization of Turkic States, formerly known as the Turkic Council, Erdogan has recently increased talks of a unified Turkic world.
In light of polls that indicate the Justice and Development Party is losing ground, leveraging Muslim and Turkic kinfolk may be a winning tactic. But if Turkey shifts its position on the Uyghur issue, this could result in a serious problem for China.
According to a report by Michael Tanchum, a non-resident fellow in the Middle East Institute’s department on economics and energy, China is concerned about Turkey’s potential to lead a movement of pan-Turkic unity that would include the Turkic Uyghurs.
According to a 2021 article by Tanchum, “As China’s gateway to Central Asia, Xinjiang is a crucial starting point for Beijing to construct an overland transit corridor for China-to-Europe trade.”
In the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which Azerbaijan decisively won with Turkish drones, Tanchum stated that Turkey’s help to fellow Turkic country Azerbaijan had secured Turkey’s presence in Azerbaijan and boosted Ankara’s ability to extend its influence in Central Asia.
Tanchum anticipated that Turkey would strengthen its efforts to boost its level of economic and security cooperation with the Turkic states of Central Asia to take advantage of its new position and prestige.
By doing so, Turkey may succeed in holding the balance of power in the Eurasian architecture between Russia and China and might decide to change its existing tolerance to China’s Xinjiang policies from such a position of increased geopolitical strength and put pressure on Beijing.
Such a situation would affect the rivalry between the United States and China. During the news conference, Cavusoglu stated that Turkey does not have an anti-China attitude, indicating that Ankara is careful to avoid getting stuck between Washington and Beijing.
The foreign minister highlighted a September report from the UN Human Rights Council on Xinjiang and said, “China finds it disturbing that we are defending the rights of Uyghurs within the international community, but this is a humanitarian concern. The report lists every infraction. Cavusoglu highlighted that we must respond now.
Turkey and China reached an extradition agreement in 2017, and the Turkish parliament approved it in 2019. China signed the treaty at the National People’s Congress, a rubber-stamp parliament, at the end of 2020, just before the first batches of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Turkey. This increased pressure on Turkey to do the same.
According to Ilyas Dogan, a law professor at Ankara Haci Bayram Veli University, the unpopular pact cannot be adopted in the Turkish parliament because of the possibility of public backlash.
He added that decisions on extradition and deportation might be challenged in Turkish courts even if they are accepted; Turkey is also bound by earlier European Court of Human Rights decisions that prohibit extradition to China.
Dogan, who represents numerous Uyghurs as an attorney, claimed Turkey is juggling China. According to him, Turkey has reduced the number of Uyghurs kept in immigration facilities. He called this strategy of capture and release in which Turkey holds some Uyghurs in deportation facilities to show that it is complying with Beijing’s demands and later release them.
Cavusoglu also urged Muslim and Turkic nations to support the Uyghurs. He said, “Even our friendly nations do not provide the necessary help to Uyghur Turks. There is no logic. We must build this Islamic worldwide cooperation and togetherness. These issues are both political and humanitarian”.