ISTANBUL // Torn between feelings of solidarity for the Muslim Uighurs in China's troubled Xinjiang province and its long-term aim to nurture close political and economic ties with Beijing, Turkey's government has been struggling to find a middle way between condemning the violence and preserving its foreign policy and trade interests. Since the violence in Xinjiang began, Turkish newspapers have been full of pictures showing dead Uighurs, members of a Muslim people that Turks see as distant relatives. Turks made Anatolia their home in the 10th century after migrating west from Central Asia. According to Turkish legends, the ancient home of the Turks in Central Asia lies close to Xinjiang; although Ankara does not dispute that it is part of China, the province is referred to as "East Turkestan" in Turkish political parlance.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, is under growing pressure from parts of the public and from nationalists to take a tough line against China. But while Mr Erdogan himself and other government members have used strong language to describe events in Xinjiang, there have also been calls on the government to be careful not to burn too many bridges with Beijing. On Friday, Mr Erdogan accused the Chinese of "a kind of genocide" in Xinjiang, adding there were "atrocities, hundreds of dead and thousands of injured". Turkish media reported that there was a marked difference in tone between Mr Erdogan and the foreign ministry in Ankara, which stressed Turkey's friendship with China in a statement on the same day. "Turkey places huge importance on its relations with the People's Republic of China," the ministry said in the statement.
"I use the term [genocide] consciously and with belief," Mr Erdogan said when reporters asked him about the discrepancies. "My colleagues in the foreign ministry cannot use other terms than I use." He said "the pain suffered by the Uighur Turks is our pain", adding that Turkey would continue to do everything it could "for our relatives, for our brothers over there". Last week, Mr Erdogan said Turkey would use its role as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council to bring the Xingjian issue to that body's agenda, but China, a permanent council member with veto powers, immediately rejected the idea.
"Once again, the government gets into trouble because of statements that were not thought through and had not been discussed with the responsible departments," the Referans newspaper commented, noting that Mr Erdogan had not consulted the foreign ministry before going public with his UN plan. There have been other missteps. Turkey's trade minister Nihat Ergun called on Turks to boycott goods from China, but said this was only his private view when it emerged that his appeal did not find any followers within the government. In recent days, demonstrators in several Turkish cities have protested against the conduct of China's security forces in Xinjiang. One group burnt Chinese products in front of the Chinese consulate in Istanbul.
That outpouring of emotion should not cloud Ankara's vision for political, diplomatic and economic realities, some observers warn. Erdal Safak, a columnist writing in the Sabah daily, criticised Mr Ergun for issuing his boycott demand "without calculating which side will suffer more". After all, only a few weeks ago, contracts worth US$1.5 billion (Dh5.5bn) were signed during a visit by Turkey's president Abdullah Gul to China. That figure is equal to all Turkish exports to China last year.
"Let us react to China, by all means, but without becoming unreasonable, and without forgetting that there is no place for emotions in diplomacy," Safak wrote. But as Turkish nationalists seize on the feelings of solidarity with the Uighurs, Mr Erdogan's government finds it difficult to remain cold-blooded. Speaking one day after Mr Erdogan's "genocide" remarks, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, called on Mr Erdogan to "say 'one minute' on the China issue".
Mr Bahceli was referring to the now-famous appearance of Mr Erdogan at a panel discussion with Israel's president Shimon Peres earlier this year, when the Turkish prime minister reacted angrily after he was denied a chance to retort after a speech by Mr Peres defending a bloody military operation by Israel in the Gaza Strip. Saying "one minute" in English, Mr Erdogan tried to get permission to answer Mr Peres and stormed off the stage when he was turned down.
Now Mr Erdogan lost no time in getting back at Mr Bahceli, accusing him of staying silent on the issue of the Uighurs when he visited China as a vice-premier of a coalition government that was in power from 1999 until 2002. "Did you raise your voice then?" Mr Erdogan asked. It is not the first time that Turkey is trying to walk the fine line of giving moral support to the Uighurs without upsetting China. According to Turkish media reports, the government in Ankara decided in 2006 to no longer issue entry visas to Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent US-based Uighur exile, after a speech she gave in Turkey triggered an angry response from Beijing. But last week, Mr Erdogan announced that Ms Kadeer would receive a visa if she applied for one.