Turkey, China and the Uighurs

In a WPR Briefing yesterday, Joshua Kucera mentioned in passing Turkey’s response to the Xinjiang riots. Yigal Schleifer has more today.

The keywords for Turkey are Turkic Uighurs, leading to both public outpourings of sympathy, but also official declarations of concern and a promise to bring the matter before the UNSC, where Turkey is currently a non-permanent member. But the other keywords are ethnic separatists, leading to a bit of sheepish self-consciousness, given Turkey’s stance towards separatists among its own Kurdish minority.

All this at a time when Turkey is actively courting China. President Abdullah Gul recently paid a state visit, including a stop in Urumqi, where he lauded the Uighurs as a “friendship bridge” between the two countries. So for now, the response is one of restraint.

Still, the whole issue brings into focus something I’ve been thinking about Turkey for a while now. Under the Erdogan-Davutoglu foreign policy braintrust, Ankara has done a great job of navigating the dangerous rapids of statecraft, often maintaining solid relationships with capitals on both sides of a conflict. What seems to give Ankara a harder time is navigating crises involving ethnic or religious identity.

That could be due to the very strong emphasis on Turkey as the protector of “peoples,” as opposed to the protector of a territory. The “one people, two nations” relationship with Azerbaijan, for instance, is something you don’t see too often elsewhere. It’s almost as if Turkey has an easier time maintaining its composure in the nation-state arena because, in many ways, its geopolitical approach is still rooted in a farflung, ethno-sectarian imperial mindset. I’m beginning to think there might be something to the accusation of neo-Ottomanism, after all.