The Uyghur Dilemma

By THO Nonresident Fellow, Altan Atamer

In January 2021, the US government declared that the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of their ethnic Uyghur citizens in the Western provinces of China amounted to a genocide (Fearnow 2021). Since then, the governments of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands have all followed suit in denouncing the Chinese repression of Uyghurs in similar terms (Smith-Spark and Griffiths 2021). Acting in tandem with one another, the US, EU, and the UK have even imposed sanctions against various Chinese officials and government institutions (Al Jazeera 2021). While economic sanctions are certainly not a silver bullet, Turkey has remained relatively inactive when it comes to the Uyghur crisis. On the contrary, while demonstrations against the Chinese embassy are a fairly frequent site in major Turkish cities, the Turkish state has even arrested some Uyghur protestors (Kashgarian and Sahinkaya 2021). In other words, Turkey, which shares some of the closest linguistic and ethnic ties to Uyghurs and is home to one of the largest Uyghur communities outside of China, is unwilling to confront the Chinese government on issues pertaining to its treatment of Uyghurs, while countries like the Netherlands or the US, who share little to no cultural or linguistic affiliation with the Uyghurs, denounce China in the harshest of terms (ibid). Why, then, does a country which shares extremely close cultural and linguistic ties to the Uyghurs remained relatively silent when compared to other foreign countries who have more to lose from challenging China’s persecution of its Uyghur minority?

A look at the developments of Turkish – US and Turkish – Chinese relations, and the respective foreign policies of these countries, could point to an answer. In 2009, when Erdoğan was a fierce critic of the Chinese mistreatment of its Uyghur population, the Turkish – US relation was blossoming. The Obama administration had just come into power and, in what was a telling commitment to the strengthening of Turkish – US ties, then President Obama made sure that one of his administration’s first foreign visits, and the first among Muslim Majority countries, would be to Turkey (Shipman 2009). Influential US figures like Hillary Clinton also emphasized the Turkish – US friendship (Guardian 2009), and both countries cooperated in a range of topics from defense to economics (CNN 2009). While other events certainly contributed to the, now, deteriorating Turkish – US relationship, the Chinese government’s new “belt and road initiative” provided some respite for Turkey. 

Launched in 2013, the “belt and road initiative” greatly expanded Chinese influence across Asia, and Europe through various infrastructure projects and foreign direct investment (Chatzky and McBride 2020). At the crossroads between Asia and Europe, Turkey was a naturally alluring target for the Chinese government. Gao Tian, the manager of the China-Germany Railway project even described Turkey as “the very center of the Belt and Road Initiative rail and infrastructure project connecting East and West” (Lerner 2020). By the end of 2019, new railway links cut the travel time of trains between Turkey and China from one month to twelve days (Işık 2020). Trains now frequently travel between the two countries for trade and Turkey’s railway system provides a crucial European access link for China. Furthermore, the Chinese government has not limited its investment in Turkey to just infrastructure projects. On the contrary, Chinese investment in Turkey has intensified significantly and across a diverse array of economic sectors (Lerner 2020). By 2017, China had become the number one exporter to the Turkish market and accounts for a third of Turkey’s entire trade deficit (Cetingulec 2019). While trade between the US and Turkey has certainly been more balanced in comparison to Turkish – Chinese trade, US investment in Turkey has nevertheless decreased 14.6 percent since 2018 (Office of the United States Trade Representative 2019).

While these figures do not suggest that growing Chinese influence in Turkey will, at any time, displace the importance of Turkish – US ties, it does amplify a problem for the Uyghur crisis. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have sanctioned Chinese officials and government institutions (Gregorian and Williams 2021). Yet, these purely economic sanctions have been unable to elicit any type of substantial change in terms of the of the Chinese government’s mistreatment of Uyghurs. On the contrary, Uyghur birth rates have more than halved as a result of forced sterilization programs, and Chinese “re-education camps” continue to target Uyghurs both in and outside of China (The Associated Press 2020; Davidson 2021). For this reason, Turkey’s declining role in the fight against Uyghur repression has been particularly disappointing. In 1952, Turkey was one of the first countries to offer asylum to Uyghur refugees following various Chinese ethnic cleansing campaigns. Now Turkey has signed extradition agreements with China and censors or arrests Uyghur activists (Kakissis 2020; Altay 2021). Due to Chinese economic coercion, it seems, then, that the US has lost a critical partner in the fight against the genocide of Uyghurs. 

The Biden administration has frequently stipulated that their reengagement with human rights and multilateralism is a marked turn from the previous Trump administration’s apparent neglect of these issues (Brennan 2021). In this context, US sanctions are often the preferred weapon against offending countries. However, it is worth nothing that while American sanctions can manipulate the behaviors of certain countries their effects are not all felt equally. From economic sanctions due to Turkey’s detention of Pastor Brunson, to the more recent CAATSA sanctions, it is safe to say that the crumbling Turkey – US relationship has contributed to the worsening of Turkey’s economy, and an opportunity that the Chinese government exploited to the detriment of the Uyghurs. Economic sanctions against the Chinese government, on the other hand, are not just ineffective but highlight the lack of direction and inarticulate use of American sanctions. In essence, the application of US sanctions against NATO ally Turkey suggest that the Turkish government’s detention of a single pastor or their purchase of Russian made military weapons elicits the same US response as Chinese crimes against humanity. If the Biden administration is actually serious about engaging with human rights and marking a departure from the Trump presidency, then it should recognize the effect of sanctions on Turkey and what that means for its own commitment to the human rights of Uyghurs. After all, Turkey is, and will always be, their “second home” (Kakissis 2020).


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