Picture courtesy: New Eastern Outlook
C3S Article no: 0071/2017
The Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), also known as East Turkestan (ET), Uyghuristan or the Chinese Turkestan[i], is China’s north-western province. It is also the largest province, making up one-sixth of the nation’s geography. It is geographically significant to China as it shares borders with eight countries – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Apart from its strategic position, Xinjiang is economically a vital province for China, as it is a valuable trade corridor with abundant natural resources such as oil, coal, natural gas, uranium and other rare earth minerals. Therefore, China views Xinjiang as an important strategic and economic asset.
Xinjiang is the only province in China with a substantial Turkic and Muslim population known by the minzu name as the ‘Uyghurs’. The majority population of Xinjiang comprise of these Uyghurs (45%), followed by the Han Chinese (40%). The Uyghurs are primarily an ethnic group who had migrated from eastern Turkey to Xinjiang in 742 A.D. This ethnic connection that the Uyghurs have with Turkey and the neighbouring countries are present till date.
The Uyghurs, who had previously been the only dominant ethnic group in the region, have been at loggerheads with the successive Chinese governments ever since Xinjiang was annexed by China in the 18th century. The root cause of this ongoing conflict between the Uyghurs and the Chinese government is the pent up anger over the social inequality, ethnic discrimination and religious repression that the ethnic group have been facing in the recent past. The resulting discontent was met with repressive measures by the Chinese government, forcing the Uyghurs to adopt extreme measures which included violent protests.
Subsequently, the Uyghur separatists formed terror outfits such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to establish an autonomous East Turkestan (ET). These groups are believed to have begun to adopt the tactics of other regional and global Islamist organisations. Some of these radical groups have even joined and received support from the Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, ISIS and Taliban.
Given the common ethnic background, a political outcome in Turkey can tend to influence the conflict in China’s Xinjiang. The latest Turkish referendum held on April 16th, 2017, that gives Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sweeping powers in Turkey has caused concerns in China. The Chinese government believe that this would result in the rise of pan-Turkism in Xinjiang. [ii] These concerns emanate from the past Turkish support to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The referendum and Erdogan’s victory also questions the future of China-Turkey relations.
China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative proposed in 2013 is an important factor in the Xinjiang conflict. It has the potential to change the nature of the conflict or slowly dissolve it.
The violent events in Xinjiang suggest that China’s long-standing problem with Uyghur terrorism is metastasizing beyond the confines of its restive north-western province of Xinjiang.[iii] It has the potential to result in far-reaching consequences for not just China and its rise as a global power but also for the region surrounding Xinjiang, particularly Turkey, Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and even India.
This research strives to answer the following questions to understand China’s Xinjiang issue:
What is the background of the Turkey-Xinjiang linkage?
How does Erdogan’s victory in the Turkish referendum influence the Xinjiang conflict?
How can China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative influence the nature of the conflict?
How is China cooperating with the countries neighbouring Xinjiang where the conflict is a cause of concern?
The Sino-Turkish Connection
The Chinese government have accused Turkey of supporting Uyghur radicalism.[iv] China has also been claiming that the Uyghur separatist groups like the ETIM are receiving terrorist training abroad from certain terrorist outfits in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries. The Turkey-based Organization for Turkestan Freedom, for example, claimed responsibility for the bombing of a bus in Beijing on March 7, 1997, injuring 30 people. [v] The Chinese government also suspects this organisation for the attacks on the Chinese embassy in Ankara and the Chinese consulate in Istanbul that same year[vi]. Supporting China’s stance on ETIM, USA and UN have blacklisted the ETIM as a terrorist organisation.[vii] China is worried that Turkey would continue to sympathise with the Uyghurs and support their separatist movement, namely for an autonomous ‘East Turkestan’.
Turkey has always been worried about the Chinese persecution of their Muslim and Turkic kin (Uyghurs) in Xinjiang. The historical linkage of the Turkish support to the Uyghurs dates back to the past. In 742 A.D, a predominantly Turko-Mongolian steppe nomadic tribe known today as the Uyghurs migrated eastward from eastern Turkey towards the oases of modern-day Xinjiang province of China. Since then, the Uyghurs have remained in the region for more than 1,268 years. [viii]
Turkey’s support for the Uyghurs stems from several reasons. One of the basic reasons is that the Uyghur Muslims have never perceived themselves as Chinese. They identify themselves as part of Central Asia given the ethnoreligious links they share with the Central Asians. This is primarily because of the forceful assimilation of the Uyghurs into the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
From the 1950s onwards, the communist regime encouraged the settlement of Han population centres in order to secure, control and exploit the region, which is rich in hydrocarbons, mineral resources and virgin agricultural land.[ix] The Han Chinese took away the job opportunities and other means of livelihood of the Uyghurs making them economically marginalised. This economic inequality and increase in Han population from 6% to 41% created an environment of tension between the Chinese state, Han Chinese and the native Uyghurs in Xinjiang, thereby aggravating Sino-Turkish relations.
Turkey has in the past, responded to these repressive policies of the Chinese government on the Uyghurs. Ankara has directly voiced out concerns regarding the plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang on several occasions. In 2009, Erdogan had accused China of conducting genocide in Xinjiang.[x] In 2015, when the Chinese government imposed a ban on fasting during Ramadan, Turkey’s citizens responded by conducting anti-China protests. Erdogan had even attempted to take up the Uyghur issue to the U.N Security Council after the 2009 riots in Xinjiang.[xi] In addition to this, Turkey has offered sanctuary to Uyghur refugees and provided moral and material support to East Turkestan movements, organisations and activities.[xii] The recent ban in China on certain Islamic names for newborns, forbidding beards, headscarves, restrictions on foreign travel, and other repressive policies have strengthened Erdogan’s resolve to aid the Uyghurs.
From Ankara to Beijing
“The martyrs of East Turkestan are our martyrs”
-Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a strong supporter of the religious freedom for the Uyghurs, Turkey’s closest ethnolinguistic kin. He once described East Turkistan as “the cradle of Turkic history, civilisation and culture”.[xiii] The recent Turkish referendum that gives the President extensive powers in Turkey has caused concerns in China. The Chinese believe that this would result in the rise of pan-Turkism in Xinjiang.[xiv] Being published in the Global Times, the mouthpiece of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), this reveals that China is worried that Erdogan’s victory in the Turkish referendum will further aggravate the Xinjiang-Uyghur issue.
The Turkish constitutional referendum held this year on April 16th 2017will transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential republic, giving the President new and increased powers. Ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has been a constitutionally secular and democratic country. But now, Erdogan and his fundamentalist Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are aiming to move Turkey towards an Islamic order and away from Ataturk’s secularism.
Erdogan’s victory in the referendum raises the question of whether Turkey will now sympathise and increase its support for the Uyghur separatists, namely the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Erdogan’s desire is to promote a pan-Islamic/Turkic agenda.[xv] This agenda would make it difficult for the Chinese government to control the Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang. This referendum could also lead to challenges in China-Turkey relations.
However, one could discount this move as a mere political display by Erdogan to establish a political position as evoking a spirit of nationalism has always proven to win the support of the people. Erdogan cannot afford to ignore Turkey’s economic dependence on China.
Turkey’s economy and China’s OBOR
The Xinjiang issue has been a thorn in China-Turkey relations. Despite this, China and Turkey have been close trading partners. China has been expanding its sphere of influence with its economic might including towards Turkey. China hopes such efforts will tone down Turkish support to the Uyghur separatist movement.
Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2016 was $857,429 million. China is Turkey’s third-largest trading partner, with trade amounting to USD 28 billion.[xvi] However, the trade between the two countries is lopsided. In other words, Turkey has a negative trade balance with China.
China has begun efforts to reinvent the ancient Silk route through its One Belt One Road (OBOR) project which is an infrastructure and transportation network that connects China to Europe. By being a bridge between Europe and Central Asia, Turkey is strategically important for this trillion dollar project. In fact, the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which is a land network passes through Turkey. It’s a win-win situation for both the countries. While China will gain access to Central & West Asian and European markets and be a centre for trade, Turkey will be one of the most important stops on this circle.
Erdogan’s two-day visit to Beijing on 14th -15th 2017 for a “Belt and Road forum” was followed by a tweet by him saying, “I believe that the Belt and Road Forum, which will revive the ancient Silk Road, will make its mark in the future by connecting continents.”[xvii]
The China-Turkish relations gained prominence in the 1990s when the major powers of the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) limited the supply of arms to Turkey due to Kurdish conflict, thereby prompting Turkey to look for alternative suppliers. Turkey considered China as a cheap alternative to the West for the supply of arms.[xviii] In recent years, the members of the alliance have been critical of Erdogan’s authoritative nature. In light of these factors, Erdogan’s Turkey is facing the threat of being expelled from the NATO alliance. Therefore, while Turkey has been seeking out other powers, China tries to fill in the vacuums created.
Therefore, the introduction of China’s OBOR project may be the best time for better bilateral trade relations between the two countries.
In the wake of economic development and warming ties, China has managed to initiate some level of cooperation in countering terrorism in Xinjiang.
China’s Regional Responses
The violent events in Xinjiang have been occurring in areas that border eight countries with a substantial Uyghur population. China has begun to realise that the Xinjiang conflict can no longer be regarded purely as a domestic affair. These events suggest that China’s long-standing problem with Uyghur terrorism is metastasizing beyond the confines of its restive far north-western province of Xinjiang.[xix] It could lead to potential cross-border implications in China’s neighbourhood, particularly in Central Asia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and even India. The actions of ethnic separatists, religious extremists and the threat of transnational crime, terrorism and regional conflict are mutual concerns that these countries face.[xx] Therefore, to fight against terrorism and stabilise the Xinjiang region, China has been working on improving its international counter-terrorism cooperation with other nations in the region. China has also set up military and security alliances in the surrounding regions of Central Asia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The need for cooperation has developed urgency, especially since this year, for the first time the Islamic State (IS) has released a video of Chinese Uighur Muslims threatening to return home and “shed blood like rivers”.[xxi] The PRC has not failed to recognise this as a direct threat to the Chinese government. Furthermore, the ETIM is believed to have links with global Islamist organisations like the Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra Front, Taliban and ISIS. Hence, these developments give further impetus for China to cooperate in the region and weaken the ETIM network. Besides, Xinjiang is linked to economic concerns of China as well.
In specific, Xinjiang being the starting point of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), it poses a strategic security concern for China. In 2016, Pakistan Army chief General Raheel Sharif had assured China of cracking down on terrorist forces like the ETIM and provide security to CPEC[xxii]. The SREB component of the BRI proposed by China faces crucial security concerns for China and the other countries involved in the project. The rise of Islamic terrorism in the region could topple any hope of further advancement of this mega project. Therefore, it is the joint responsibility of all those involved to step up and cooperate to build a strong security framework.
China’s first counter-terrorism law was passed by the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in 2015. It permits the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to take part in counterterrorism operations abroad.
While traditionally reticent to coordinate its anti-terrorism agenda in multilateral forums, in recent years, Beijing has become more willing to engage in and even set up multilateral frameworks to respond to terrorism.[xxiii] The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) founded in 2001, is the main multilateral organisation responsible for China’s fight against terrorism. It was originally created by China to forge cooperation with its neighbouring states in maintaining stability in the restive XUAR.[xxiv]
Turkey’s strategic position is important for the security framework of the Central Asian region. Therefore, Turkey’s position as a dialogue partner of SCO is an important development in terms of counterterrorism cooperation.
China has also been advancing its military presence in the region by supplying military equipment, security force training, and intelligence information and conducting joint military anti-terrorist exercises termed as “Peace Missions”. In addition to the Peace Missions, the SCO also has a permanent institution hosted in Tashkent called the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), which facilitates intelligence sharing among SCO members.[xxv] China conducted its first joint Internet Anti-Terror Exercise, “Xiamen 2015,” with the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).[xxvi]
In order to protect its strategic and economic interests, China needs to have a secure and stable neighbourhood. For example, China has been involved in the Istanbul Process, which seeks to create conditions for a politically stable Afghanistan.[xxvii] China has signed several agreements and participated in a number of bilateral counterterrorism dialogues. China and Afghanistan agreed to a “strategic and cooperative partnership” agreement in June 2012 to combat the three evil forces- terrorism, separatism and extremism. In 2016, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, and Tajikistan established a Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) to counter-terrorism and maintain regional peace and stability. China had also built border guard posts and a border guard training centre along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. Several anti-terror bilateral drills were deployed to prevent infiltration.
Therefore, the main objectives of China’s regional anti-terrorism cooperation include: reducing instability in the neighbouring states, preventing its citizens from joining international terrorist organisations, enhancing the counterterrorism capabilities of its security forces, protecting the security of its growing expatriate population and repatriating individuals suspected of terrorism.[xxviii]
China’s involvement and investment in Central Asia have been motivated not just by the increasing security concerns but also by the increasing energy demands and economic ambitions of China. Being the gateway to Central Asia, Xinjiang is essential for China’s expansionary interests. At the same time, the region surrounding Xinjiang views this as an economic opportunity and gain access to Chinese ports.
The degree of effectiveness of cooperation between China and the countries neighbouring Xinjiang is unclear to an extent. Since the Xinjiang region shares ethnolinguistic commonalities with most of the Central Asian countries, these measures might turn out to be counterproductive to what the Chinese were hoping to achieve. This brings into question the cultural and economic relationship that is at play here. On one hand, the countries will support the Uyghurs, thereby conforming to public pressure. On the other hand, these countries could seek to maximise the economic benefits that can be accomplished through these bilateral and multilateral cooperation measures.
In reality, it is a combination of both. Increased economic and trade relations with a rising economy like China will always be in the best interest of these countries. At the same time, they cannot completely ignore their ethnocultural extended family. Hence, from a Chinese perspective, China needs to play smart and work on increasing its economic presence in these countries. The Uyghurs, on the other hand, must not be completely blinded by the countries claiming to support them as this could merely be a political rhetoric to please their own citizens.
Despite these contradictions, China cannot ignore that an unstable neighbourhood could prove to transform into a safe haven for Uyghur militancy. Hence, in order to maintain a stable neighbourhood, China has been providing economic support to the countries bordering Xinjiang. In addition, China is using its economic diplomacy to win their trust and establish joint military cooperation and at the same time, boost its own economic growth.
Xinjiang has made China one of the most vulnerable and insecure countries in terms of security. Hardly a month after the victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Turkish referendum, Chinese President Xi Jinping told his Turkish counterpart that the two countries must deepen counter-terrorism cooperation.[xxix] This indicates that China is worried about terrorism in Xinjiang and the link to developments in Turkey. Domestic political stability as a prerequisite for economic development has always been China’s top priority. Therefore, China has always had a no compromise policy for anything that is a threat to this stability.
Turkey faces a dilemma between developing economic ties with China and dealing with the pressures at home from the Pan-Turkic nationalists. While Ankara recognises the need to form good trade relations with China, its self-assigned role as the protector of “oppressed Muslims” has, so far, trapped Turkey between realpolitik and the purism of ideology.[xxx] On the other hand, this could just be a rhetorical support by Erdogan to establish his political position.
China’s increased use of economic diplomacy to attain cooperation with the countries neighbouring Xinjiang might change the nature of the conflict. The success or failure of the OBOR will point out the direction of China- Turkey relations and Turkish support to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The conflict may continue but the nature of the conflict can change over time depending on the factors mentioned. For instance, if China wins the cooperation of Turkey in cracking down the terrorists, it raises the question of where these groups will take refuge.
The Chinese describe Xinjiang as a part of the motherland. Therefore, if China fails to contain Xinjiang, it will become a matter of losing face. Moreover, giving in to the Uyghurs’ demand for autonomy might lead to a spill-over effect in Tibet, and in other disputed regions facing similar problems of separatist elements. However, it is unlikely for China to lose control over Xinjiang. At the same time, one cannot predict the nature and course that Islamic terrorism might take in the years to come. If separatism succeeds in Xinjiang, it might even result in the breaking up of China.
[i] Susan W. K. Wong-Tworek, “ China’s economic development plan in Xinjiang and how it affects ethnic instability” (Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, California,2015)
[ii] Zhang Yi, “Turkey’s referendum may affect future of Islamic world,” Global Times, April 16, 2017 http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1042719.shtml
[iii] Michael Clarke, “How Terrorism Could Derail China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’”, The National Interest, March 5, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-terrorism-could-derail-chinas-one-belt-one-road-19660
[iv] James M. Dorsey, “Anti-Chinese Protests in Turkey: Relations with China Under Test”, Huffpost, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-dorsey/anti-chinese-protests-in_b_7799346.html
[v] Chien-peng Chung, “China’s “War on Terror”: September 11 and Uighur Separatism” , Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Jul. – Aug., 2002), pp. 8-12, Council on Foreign Relations, Accessed: 31-03-2017 http://www.jstor.o
[vi] Chien-peng Chung, “China’s “War on Terror”: September 11 and Uighur Separatism” , Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 4 (Jul. – Aug., 2002), pp. 8-12, Council on Foreign Relations, Accessed: 31-03-2017, http://www.jstor.o
[vii] Terrorist Groups in Xinjiang, http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat5/sub89/entry-4416.html
[viii] Shawn M. Patrick, “The Uyghur Movement China’s Insurgency in Xinjiang” (Monograph, School of Advanced Military Studies United States Army Command and General Staff College Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 2010)
[ix] Rémi Castets, “The Uyghurs in Xinjiang – The Malaise Grows”, China Perspectives [Online], 2003, Online since 17 January 2007, http://chinaperspectives.revues.org/648
[x] Ayla Jean Yackley, “Turkish leader calls Xinjiang killings “genocide””, Reuters, July 11, 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-china-sb-idUSTRE56957D20090710
[xi]Matti Nojonen and Igor Torbakov, “China-Turkey and Xinjiang: a frayed relationship”, Open Democracy, August 5, 2009, https://www.opendemocracy.net/article/china-turkey-and-xinjiang-a-frayed-relationship
[xii] Yitzhak Shichor, “Ethno diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations”, 2009, http://scholarspace.manoa.hawaii.edu/bitstream/handle/10125/10349/ps053.pdf?sequence=1
[xiii] Michael Clark, “The Impact of Ethnic Minorities on China’s Foreign Policy: The Case of Xinjiang and the Uyghur”, China Report 53 (1): 1-25, p.9
[xiv] Zhang Yi, “Turkey’s referendum may affect future of Islamic world,” Global Times, April 16, 2017, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1042719.shtml
[xv] “China: Turkey’s Interest in the Uighur Issue”, Stratfor Worldview , Jul 10, 2009, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/china-turkeys-interest-uighur-issue
[xvi] Barış Doster, “The Developing Relations between Turkey and China Since 2005”, Sociology of Islam, Volume 4, Issue 3, 2016, http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/22131418-00403006
[xvii] Adam Taylor, “ U.S. ally Turkey may have a new best friend in Beijing”, The Washington Post, May 16, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/05/16/u-s-ally-turkey-may-have-a-new-best-friend-in-beijing/?utm_term=.a05ff34bbc4e
[xviii] Adam Taylor, “ U.S. ally Turkey may have a new best friend in Beijing”, The Washington Post, May 16, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/05/16/u-s-ally-turkey-may-have-a-new-best-friend-in-beijing/?utm_term=.a05ff34bbc4e
[xix]Michael Clarke “How Terrorism Could Derail China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’”, The National Interest, March 5, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-terrorism-could-derail-chinas-one-belt-one-road-19660
[xx] Sun Zhuangz, “The Relationship between China and Central Asia” ,
[xxi] Samuel Osborne, “Isis threatens China and vows to ‘shed blood like rivers’”, The Independent, March 1, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-china-threaten-terror-attack-muslim-islamist-group-islamic-state-a7606211.html
[xxii] “Pak Army chief promises firm crackdown on Uyghur militants to protect China-Pak corridor”, Indian Express, August 5, 2016, http://defencenews.in/article/Pak-Army-chief-promises-firm-crackdown-on-Uyghur-militants-to-protect-China-Pak-corridor-7288
[xxiii] Moritz Rudolf, Marc Julienne, & Johannes Buckow, “China’s Counterterrorism Campaign Goes Global”, The Diplomat, June 03 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/06/chinas-counterterrorism-campaign-goes-global/
[xxiv] “How Will the Shanghai Cooperation Organization “Harmonize” Central Asia?”, Human Rights in China (HRIC), June 16, 2011 , http://www.hrichina.org/en/content/5380
[xxvi] Peter Wood, “China Conducts Anti-Terror Cyber Operations with SCO Partners”, China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 20, The Jamestown Foundation, October 19, 2015, https://jamestown.org/program/china-conducts-anti-terror-cyber-operations-with-sco-partners/
[xxvii] Murray Scot Tanner with James Bellacqua , “China’s Response to Terrorism”, CAN Analysis & Solutions, June 2016, https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Research/Chinas%20Response%20to%20Terrorism_CNA061616.pdf
[xxix] “China’s Xi calls for greater counter-terrorism cooperation with Turkey”, Channel News Asia 14 May 2017, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/china-s-xi-calls-for-greater-counter-terrorism-cooperation-with-turkey-8844984
[xxx] Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, “Turkey and China: Merging Realpolitik with Idealism”, Turkey Analyst (vol. 8, no. 15) https://www.turkeyanalyst.org/publications/turkey-analyst-articles/item/426-turkey-and-china-merging-realpolitik-with-idealism.html
[Maya K. is an intern with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. She is now pursuing MA International Studies at Christ University, Bengaluru. She has carried out research on identified issues on China under the guidance of the members of C3S. The views expressed in this article however are of the author. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]