Celebrating one of the hundreds of international fighters fighting alongside the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria was not entirely exceptional. These fighters often display photos documenting their daily lives on the frontlines on the battlefield, and these images were often picked up by Western media. To commend the fighters of the pro-Western Kurdish group. But the strange thing this time is that the celebration came by Chinese media that dealt with the story of a twenty-three-year-old British-Chinese fighter named “Huang Li”, using a picture of him on the battlefronts that he posted on his account on the “Sina Weibo” website (microblogging site). Chinese Twitter-like) in order to document his presence in the Syrian war in 2015. Not only did Huang Lei’s heroism be bragged, but the Chinese media himself rushed to praise the international fighters who helped Kurdish forces in their war against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The official Chinese media has long been known to refrain from addressing controversial issues of other countries, especially those that go against the People’s Republic of China’s political approach, which is to refrain from supporting separatist tendencies in any country.
Therefore, this time represented a stark exception, but it was not the first appearance of China in the Kurdish file.
There have been many Chinese positions in support of the Kurds, as Beijing has expressed its condemnation of the Turkish moves against them in international forums.
Behind the controversial Chinese position were several motives, most notably Beijing’s desire to send messages to Ankara, which has repeatedly angered China with its customary support for the Uighurs, the Muslim minority speaking a Turkic language in East Turkestan or Xinjiang in western China, and public sympathy for the plight they are experiencing due to the Chinese government’s repression .
Uyghurs..between China and Turkey
Over recent decades, Turkish-Chinese relations have witnessed waves of ups and downs, but what caused the most cracks in that relationship is the dispute over the Uyghur issue, a dispute that began since Turkey offered asylum to the Uyghurs who fled Xinjiang after the Chinese Communists assumed the seat of power in the country in the middle of the last century.
Since then, Ankara has been accustomed to granting them temporary or permanent residence, and has continued to defend them in international forums, especially in light of its close alliance with the United States during the Cold War, and its interest in extending its influence through Central Asian countries with strong cultural, linguistic and ethnic ties to Turkey.
Uyghurs protest during an anti-China protest near the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul
The Turkish interest in the Uyghurs provoked the indignation of Beijing, which considered this issue one of the most sensitive internal issues for it. Accordingly, relations between the two countries soured during the 1990s, which witnessed the peak of Turkey’s interest in Asia. But with the AKP coming to power in Turkey, bilateral relations between Ankara and Beijing gained new momentum, and the two countries signed economic, cultural and educational agreements, and by 2018, the number of Chinese companies operating in Turkey had exceeded a thousand.
In line with his country’s position on the Uyghur issue despite its openness to China, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Xinjiang in 2012 as part of an official visit to China, in an attempt to use Turkish soft power and instill confidence with Chinese officials regarding Turkey’s interest in that region, and that he did not It comes to undermine Chinese sovereignty, and most of that is that Ankara is interested in developing the region under Beijing’s authority, which may contribute to strengthening stability in China rather than undermining it.
However, with increasing talk of millions of Uighurs being held in Chinese concentration camps and subjected to ethnic cleansing and genocide since 2014, Turkey could not stand without a reaction, as it was one of the first countries to show its solidarity.
Then tension returned in 2019, when news spread about the death of the famous Uyghur poet “Abdul Rahim Heit” in a Chinese detention camp. Turkey hastened to condemn the incident, and Beijing responded with a video denying the fact of his death and strongly criticizing Turkey.
Although relations were quickly returning to their “default” status after each wave of tension, China maintained reservations about Turkish positions, which it considered meddling in its affairs, including what happened on October 22 of this year, when 43 countries, including Turkey, urged China to “ensure full respect for the rule of law in relation to the Uyghur Muslim community in Xinjiang.”
Turkey’s support for the Uyghurs has always been a rope game, and the question in this case has always been about how far Ankara can go on this issue without completely spoiling its relations with China, or before Chinese pressure reaches a point that the Turks cannot bear. As a result, doubts about the future of the Uyghurs in Turkey are rising today, especially after a series of arrests by Turkish security in their ranks on allegations of terrorism, with fears that they could be extradited to China, especially with the signing of an extradition treaty between the two countries. The Turkish government denies that it intends to extradite any of the Uyghurs on its soil, which has not actually happened so far.
The arrest of Abdurrahim Emin Baraş, who was detained last year by two Turkish policemen in civilian clothes while he was eating in an Istanbul restaurant, is the most controversial in this file to date. The man said that the Turkish police tried to force him to sign a statement implicating him in terrorist acts during his detention, before deporting him to a prison. In the end, Barash was released after three months without explanation, and told not to speak out against China, so the man who has lived in Turkey for more than five years after fleeing Xinjiang believes that China is behind his arrest, due to the publication of a book of poetry describing the persecution of China for the Uyghurs. Barash tells NPR:I’m not sure if China is putting direct pressure on the Turkish government to control the Uyghurs here, or if it was Chinese agents who infiltrated Turkish society to portray us as terrorists.”
In the meantime, Turkey has maintained that its position in support of the Uyghurs has not changed, and that its security measures target specific people around whom there are suspicions, and have nothing to do with pressure from China, and that 35,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey in complete safety, without any pressures or fears, but developments The latter indicates that Ankara wants to at least soften the usual tone of criticism of China, after Beijing has emerged as a major investor and lender that the Turkish economy needs, which is facing many obstacles. With the decline of the Turkish lira in recent years, Beijing was one of the initiators in supporting the Turkish economy, as the People’s Bank of China gave Turkey one billion dollars in cash in 2019.
Beijing not only supported the Turkish lira, but also strengthened its commercial presence in Turkey, until there are more than a thousand Chinese companies active in the country, as mentioned above, including a number of smart phone manufacturers.
While Beijing puts its mark in Turkey’s modern infrastructure, as the work of the “TCIT” company in Beijing culminated with the arrival of the first train from the Chinese province of Xi’an to Istanbul in November 2019, Turkey is also opening up to Chinese shipping, especially with its interest in modernizing its naval fleet ( civil and military).
In light of the faltering relations with NATO and Russia’s delay in the field of naval power in particular compared to the West – in addition to that, Russia is Turkey’s main naval adversary in the end – Ankara sees many benefits from cooperation with China in this field.
push and pull
For its part, Beijing has long been concerned that the conflict in the Middle East may extend to Chinese territory, after thousands of Uighurs traveled to Syrian territory to train and fight against the Assad regime. Therefore, China showed great interest in Syria not turning into a jihadist center that would lead to instability in Xinjiang, and then Beijing found itself close to Russia, which supports the Assad regime, which is originally close to Beijing, but, paradoxically, it found itself converging with the United States in supporting the Kurds, who showed their efficiency in fighting the Islamic State.
China found in the Kurds an opportunity to kill “two birds with one stone,” as the vernacular says. On the one hand, Beijing seeks to strengthen anti-jihadist alliances in Syria and hedge against the return of Uyghur fighters to its lands, and on the other hand, it plans to have a strong equal card in the face of Turkey’s interest in the issue Uighurs, although supporting the separatist Kurds contradicts all that Beijing’s foreign policy calls for preserving state sovereignty and refraining from supporting the separatists.
But it seems that the situation is very different with the Kurds, and the irony is that this difference is not born today.
Since the end of the fifties, Beijing has supported the Kurdish rebellion against the Iraqi government in Baghdad, but with the end of this rebellion in 1975, the relationship with the central government of Iraq began to improve, so the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein bought Chinese weapons to fight his enemies, including the Kurds.
But after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, China realized that the Kurds would eventually be able to impose their hegemony on the main oil region in Iraq, and for that it did not hesitate to revive its relations with them, once by opening a general consulate in Erbil in December 2014, Sometimes it opens the door for investments in oil fields and infrastructure wide. However, Beijing was keen, however, to distance itself from supporting the explicit secession of Iraqi Kurdistan, in line with its position against separatist movements in general, and then stated that it supports the territorial integrity of Iraq during the announcement of a referendum for independence by the Iraqi Kurdistan government, before it was finally cancelled. Under pressure from several regional and international parties.
In general, China’s position on the Kurdish issue can be justified in view of several considerations.
First, Beijing is moving according to economic motives in Iraq, especially in Kurdistan, where the region owns land rich in oil (containing about 40% of Iraq’s oil reserves).
Second, it appears that China, which has been exerting pressure on Ankara since the mid-nineties to curb the activity of the Uyghurs in its territory, is interested in using the pro-Kurds as an important card to balance Turkey’s influence in the region and its presence in the region of Central Asia bordering it.
In this regard, Beijing has taken a number of anti-Turkey measures, such as its joining the Western coalition that condemned the attack launched by Ankara on Kurdish fighters after former US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw his forces from Syria. Keng Shuang, China’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, also accused Turkey of violating human rights in Syria, describing its actions in northeastern Syria as illegal, and said: “Since Turkey illegally invaded northeastern Syria, it has regularly cut off supply services water”.
Chuang also criticized Turkey’s air operations in Iraq before the United Nations, and claimed that civilians were killed as a result of those strikes. This was in response to a statement by Turkish President Erdogan before the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in which he criticized the situation of the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in China, calling on the organization to “show sensitivity towards the issue in line with its founding goals.” Beijing was not satisfied with Shuang’s statement, but was quick to confirm that it would “put Turkey’s actions in Iraq and Syria on its agenda.”
In the end, while Turkey remains stuck between the West and Russia on a number of strategic issues, its dilemmas may be further complicated if China crystallizes a position of support for the separatist Kurds.
As indicated by recent developments, it is not excluded that Sino-Turkish relations will enter a turbulent period in the near future, with the increase in the influence of nationalists in Turkey, and their usual interest in the issues of speakers of Turkish languages such as the Uyghurs, and in light of the gradual growing Chinese presence in the region, and China’s efforts to search for cards A force to consolidate its new presence, which seems to be more noisy than ever.