Intel: How China just struck back at Turkey over its criticism of Uighur Muslims

al-monitor Ethnic Uighur demonstrators hold East Turkestan and Turkish flags during a demonstration against China in Istanbul, Turkey, Feb. 23, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas.

Mar 1, 2019

Beijing’s sudden decision to temporarily close its consulate in Izmir is widely seen as a warning to Turkey to back off its criticism of China’s treatment of its Muslim minority.

Why it matters: Izmir is poised to be the last port on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, serving as a bridge between Asia and Europe. The consulate’s closure, announced by the Chinese Embassy in Turkey late Thursday, immediately drew strong reaction from the Aegean province’s business circles.

The embassy did not refer to tensions between Beijing and Ankara in its statement, limiting its explanation to “different factors such as working efficiency.” But in an interview with Reuters on Thursday, Chinese Ambassador Deng Li made clear Turkey would pay a price if it continues to criticize China’s treatment of its ethnic Uighurs.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has styled himself as a champion of Muslims, and the Uighur issue resonates with his base ahead of municipal elections right around the corner. Last month Turkey’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement accusing Beijing of having tortured and “politically brainwashed” more than a million Uighurs in “concentration camps.” 

“There may be disagreements or misunderstandings between friends but we should solve them through dialogue. Criticizing your friend publicly everywhere is not a constructive approach,” Deng told the wire service. “If you choose a non-constructive path, it will negatively affect mutual trust and understanding and will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.”

Money talks: A group of business foundations based in Izmir today issued a joint statement calling on China not to close the consulate.

Ender Yorgancilar, chairman of the Aegean Region Chamber of Industry, told a local magazine that Izmir accounts for $850 million of the $23 billion in annual trade between Turkey and China. “In the context of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, Izmir is the last port before the European Union,” Jak Eskinazi of the Aegean Exporters’ Associations told the magazine.

Turkey’s stance stands in sharp contrast to other regional powers that share an interest in being seen as a champion for Muslims. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was deafeningly quiet on the Uighur matter during a visit to China last week during which he bagged a $10 billion oil deal.

What’s next: The Turkish Foreign Ministry has yet to comment on the matter. Turkey’s attempts to diffuse tensions over the past week have so far failed to produce results.

Tensions escalated when Turkey brought the Uighur matter up at the UN Human Rights Council’s meeting in Geneva on Feb. 25. Two days later, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted Ankara remains committed to cooperating with China on the One Belt, One Road initiative.

“The fact that we have a problem with China on an issue should not necessarily hinder our cooperation on other matters,” Cavusoglu said at a conference in Ankara. “We may link China’s One Belt One Road initiative with our own Middle Corridor Initiative so that a direct line between London and Beijing could be set up.”

Know more: Semih Idiz explains why Turkey has broken its silence over the treatment of Uighurs here. For more background on the matter, read Metin Gurcan’s Sept. 14 piece here and Fehim Tastekin on what it means for Syria here.