Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan’s visit to China on June 3-5 will probably be remembered mainly for its BRICS+ headline. When Fidan signaled Turkey’s interest in becoming a member of this expanding Global South club — a loose grouping of major developing countries (originally Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) — he refueled the old debate on Turkey’s “axis shift.” Ten years ago, the main subject of that discussion was the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and the question then was whether or not Turkey’s eagerness to join it compromised the country’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although BRICS has a much softer tone — if not more ambiguous aims — than the security-oriented SCO, the underlying issue remains the same today: Why does Turkey want to join an alternative country club run by China and Russia?

While Western audiences were occupied with this question, the Turkish public seemed more interested in the Xinjiang leg of Minister Fidan’s trip, as he was the first high-level Turkish official in more than a decade allowed to visit China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The issue of the treatment of ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang (commonly referred to in Turkey as “East Turkestan”) used to be the biggest thorn in Sino-Turkish relations, with then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s “almost genocide” remark in 2009 leading to an all-time low in bilateral diplomacy. Since then, China’s continued rise to great power status and Turkey’s growing disappointment with the West has changed everything drastically. Aside from the burgeoning appeal of Chinese investment and loans, Ankara also started viewing Beijing as a necessary counterweight to the United States’ hegemony. Unlike many of its NATO allies, Turkey still views China more as a partner than a rival, security challenge, or existential threat.

Given the country’s dire economic crisis, Turkey badly needs investment from China for its key infrastructure projects, including those in the fields of transportation and nuclear energy. Ankara also seeks collaborations with Chinese companies in the technology sphere, exemplified by Türk Telekom’s preliminary 5G deal with Huawei, which seemingly has not raised any security or privacy concerns in Turkey. Beijing and Ankara are both uncomfortable with Western governments dictating the rules of the game, including international norms and values. During Fidan’s recent visit, his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, emphasized how China disliked foreign countries interfering in its domestic affairs in the name of democracy promotion and human rights. The subtitles of the Chinese foreign minister’s remarks may thus easily have read “Xinjiang,” but Fidan’s China visit also overlapped with the anniversary of Tiananmen Square. Since the Chinese Communist Party’s suppression of the 1989 democracy movement in China never struck a chord with a large Turkish audience, this coincidence did not bother anyone in Turkey. Anatolia does not host much of a Han Chinese dissident community (excluding a few Fa Lun Gong members scattered around Istanbul), so there is no one to remind the Turkish public of this tragic event. What Turkey has, instead, is a sizeable Uyghur community, which expects the Turkish government to pressure Beijing and help its own members reach out to their long-lost family members in Xinjiang. Fidan’s silent diplomacy did not seem to have delivered much on that account.

In all fairness, the Turkish delegation did not endorse China’s “counter-terrorism” measures in the Xinjiang autonomous region — similarly to previous visitors from Palestine, Pakistan, or the Arab League. But the Turkish government still has to answer to its own constituents, i.e., the conservative and nationalist groups voting for the ruling Justice and Development Party and its coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party. These voters embrace China’s Uyghur minority for its Islamic identity and Turkic cultural-linguistic heritage. Not surprisingly, Fidan’s reference to the Xinjiang cities of Kashgar and Urumqi as offshoots of the “Turko-Islamic” civilization was music to their ears. In the absence of explicit remarks regarding China’s human rights record, however, Turkey’s pro-government circles and mainstream media had to interpret Fidan’s visit via metaphoric gestures and subtle cues. What Hakan Fidan actually said to the Chinese side was deciphered via his clothing rather than his words. Did anyone notice, for instance, that the tie Fidan wore during his Xinjiang trip was “East Turkestan blue”? Others were so pleased to see a Turkish official at the Yanghang Mosque and the International Grand Bazaar in Urumqi that they reposted a “mashup” of his videos from Xinjiang set to a soundtrack of traditional Central Asian songs. Another subtitle to Fidan’s implicit wording came from a member of his own delegation, who anonymously vouched for the minister’s assertive stance on the Uyghur issue while in China. The Chinese side, of course, maintained a completely different story.

For Beijing, Fidan’s visit was important to showcase the two countries’ mutual stance on the Gaza issue — against that of Israel and the US. Turkey’s “Muslim” and “Middle Eastern” identity was highlighted by the Chinese media to emphasize the relevance of Beijing’s regional diplomacy. Likewise, the news items that promoted China’s peace plans in Ukraine displayed a Turkish flag in their background. A Chinese newspaper quoted Turkey’s top diplomat praising Xinjiang’s “well-developed urban facilities, social prosperity, and good protection of various ethnic cultures and languages” and CCTV covered his remarks on Ankara’s strong commitment to China’s territorial integrity and “One China” policy. Fidan’s subtle references to the Turkic and Islamic credentials of Xinjiang may have gotten lost in translation for the Chinese.

Whether Hakan Fidan’s China visit will warm up Sino-Turkish relations is a question for the future. But the long story of the bilateral relationship has few plot twists. The asymmetrical nature of their trade goes back at least two decades. There is also nothing new about Turkish officials talking about boosting exports to China and hoping that Turkish agricultural products alone will do the trick, although the current trade deficit runs to $40 billion. Likewise, the Middle Corridor initiative has been on the Sino-Turkish negotiation table at least since 2015. Hence, the most defining — and perhaps the least subtle — sign of this relationship is the need for Turkey to find economic or geopolitical leverage to attain some semblance of equality with China. This is the only way to remove the subtitles from Turkey’s muffled dialogue with China over Xinjiang and many other thorny issues.


Dr. Çağdaş Üngör is a professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Marmara University in Istanbul as well as a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Turkish Studies Program.

Photo by Murat Gok/Anadolu via Getty Images

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