Anger China or defend Uighurs? Turkey walks fine line.
Beijing urged Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to retract his statement that China is committing "genocide" against its Muslim minority.
Istanbul — Developments in China's restive Xinjiang Province and the attacks against the minority Muslim Uighurs there may not have led to vocal protests in most of the Muslim world. But in Turkey, the events in western China have led to large protests in the streets and strong words from Turkish officials.
The comment raising the loudest outcry has been Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's accusation last week that China is committing "genocide" against the Uighurs, a statement that Beijing is now pressuring him to retract.
Experts say that taking its criticism of China too far could backfire on Ankara, which has been working to improve both its diplomatic and trade relations with Beijing.
An estimated 184 people have died in the recent violent clashes between Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Chinese officials have claimed that most of those killed have been Han.
Turkey's minister of industry and trade, Nihat Ergun, last week called for a boycott of Chinese goods, while Mr. Erdogan, speaking on television last Friday, said: "The incidents in China are, simply put, tantamount to genocide. There's no point in interpreting this otherwise."
Uighurs as 'brothers'
"There is a lot of sensitivity among the Turkish public about the Uighurs. They consider them as real brothers," says Sami Kohen, a political affairs columnist for Milliyet, a Turkish daily.
The Turkish president's official flag, for example, has 16 stars on it, representing "Turkish states" established throughout history. One of the stars commemorates the Uighur state that existed around the 8th century.
Adds Mr. Kohen: "There is quite a large Uighur community in Turkey, and they are quite strong. They have a lobby and they have been quite strong in defending their cause."
Turkey raises its global profile
Turkey has, in recent years, been working to raise its foreign policy profile and establish itself as a regional political and economic power. Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul, actually visited Urumqi as part of a recent state visit shortly before the violence broke out there. Turkey signed a reported $1.5 billion worth of trade deals during the visit.
But analysts say Ankara's criticism could lead to a rupture with Beijing.
"The Turks really have a tough decision to make, whether they keep this going or back off. This is a major test for Turkey's new foreign policy," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "This is a serious problem for the Turks from every angle."
Ankara now also needs to decide if it will grant a possible request to visit Turkey by Rebiya Kadeer, a Uighur diaspora activist based in the United States whom China has accused of being behind the violence in Xinjiang.
"All hell is going to break loose if she shows up in Turkey, especially after the comment that Erdogan made," Mr. Aliriza says.
Take it back, China says
The Chinese government now appears to be pushing back against Turkey. A Tuesday editorial in the government-controlled English-language China Daily urged Erdogan to "take back his remarks ... which constitute interference in China's internal affairs."
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, in a phone conversation with his Turkish counterpart, blamed the violence in Xinjiang on "three evil forces," state news agency Xinhua said, referring to "extremism, separatism, and terrorism."
For Turkey, which has had its share of domestic violence and terrorism, both from Islamic extremists and Kurdish separatists, these are not meaningless words.