Turkey’s anti-China stance an opportunity for the Kurds

China-Turkey relation is deteriorating in a tug-of-war of sovereignty over Xinjiang’s Uyghurs.

Prompted by Turkey foreign minister Cavusoglu’s statement on 29 June condemning China for banning fasting during Ramadan as being anti-Muslim, anti-China protests erupted and has continued unabated after more than a week across Turkey.

The protests are increasingly violent—attacking random tourists simply because they look Asian, including attacking a group of South Korean tourists by mistake as well as harassing Chinese tourists; vandalizing a Chinese restaurant that ironically employs a Uyghur cook who is now out of a job; and ransacking the Thai embassy for repatriating 100 Chinese Uyghurs to Beijing.

As a result, East Asians are increasingly fearful for their safety in Turkey, with the Chinese government issuing travel warnings for its citizens and the Thai government closing its embassy in Turkey.

Asians from South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and elsewhere are also nervously watching the situation in Turkey, and their governments are not assured that attacks against Asians won’t happen again.

All Asians look alike

Rather than apologizing, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Behceli, whose party could be the junior coalition partner in Turkey’s next government, defended his party’s youth wing for attacking the South Koreans by mistake.

“What feature differentiates a Korean from a Chinese? They see that they both have slanted eyes. How can they tell the difference?” Bahceli told Hurriyet newspaper on Wednesday.

If Asian racial features were the criteria for violent attacks in Turkey, South Korean and Japanese governments would likely also issue travel warnings.

Sadly, this is not the first time Turks attacked the Koreans “by mistake.”

During the Korean War, mistaking them for Chinese, on 26 November 1950 the Turkish brigade attacked a column of 200 South Korean soldiers of the ROK 6th and 7th Infantry Divisions fleeing from Tokchon. Many Korean were killed and the Turks took 125 of these allied soldiers as prisoner.

Unfortunately, this recent spout of violence is reinforcing Chinese perception of Turkey as an increasingly Islamicizing and racist country.

Pan Zhiping from Xinjiang Academy of Social Science  said Turkey’s ultra-nationalist party’s goal is to create a Greater Turkestan empire that includes Xinjiang, not unlike ISIS that also claims Xinjiang as part of its aspirant caliphate.

Chinese Communist mouthpiece Global Times also noted “the rampant Islamic extreme forces in Turkey” in reference to the anti-Chinese attacks, and criticized “the Turkish government has also failed to play an active role in fighting against the Islamic State.”

Beijing is increasingly distrustful of Ankara providing visas and safe havens to Uyghurs since as Turkish blogger Firdevs Robinson observes, many travel via Turkey to join ISIS jihadists in Syria.

This distrust is furthered fueled by the fact that in the March 2014 Kunming terrorist attack whereby 35 people were killed and 141 were wounded; when the terrorists were caught in Indonesia they were carrying Turkish passports.

And even while Turkey is condemning China over Uyghur rights, it is clamping down on the Kurds. Given Ankara is seen as being on the wrong side supporting problematic Uyghur militants/Syrian jiahdists while Kurds are fighting the terrorists, Beijing is increasingly supportive of the Kurds.

China increasingly supports Kurds

Recently a China-born militia member with the YPG in Syria, with his Sina Weibo account (twitter equivalent) documenting the Syrian frontlines, is the latest hero garnering much ballyhoo in China.

China-born volunteer Huang Lei, centre, pictured with fellow volunteers and Kurdish women fighters. Photo: Weibo
China-born volunteer Huang Lei, centre, pictured with fellow volunteers and Kurdish women fighters. Photo: Weibo

Chinese media Global Times and People’s Daily have featured his story and praises for the brave Kurdish warriors battling ISIS, prompting many Chinese to enquire how they can also join the Kurds in Syria.

The British-Chinese, Huang Lei, wrote in one selfie “I definitely will not let China’s terrorists return to China and threaten Chinese,” a sentiment that is likely growing in the country.

Faced with the threat of Syria turning into a Salafist statelet with Turkey-Qatar-Saudi backed Army of Conquest exporting Uyghur jihadists to China, similar to Afghanistan exporting al Qaeda to the US, the Middle Kingdom is slowly being drawn into Damascus as the forward front in their fight against the three evils of “terrorism, extremism, and separatism” in Xinjiang.

In the Kurds China finds a reliable regional ally, as a bulwark against a potential Salafist Syria and a stable economic and energy-rich partner in Iraq.

Already in Syria and Iraq China is unofficially arming the Kurds with the Chinese HJ-8 ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) similar to the American TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided), widely available through the international black market for arms.

Moreover, if Turkey continues its anti-China stance to fan Xinjiang separatism while backing the Army of Conquest to eventually provide a Syrian safe haven for Uyghur militants, perhaps reinforced by Turkey setting up a buffer zone, this may force the hand of China to arm the Kurds with additional weapons as a counter balance.

In Libya when NATO turned the UN resolution of Responsibility to Protect into a bombing campaign of regime change, the Chinese in turn offered Gaddafi the QW-18 surface to air missile similar to the US stinger to bring down military aircrafts.

Finally, China is increasingly backing an independent Kurdistan.

Since 2009 when Sinopec acquired Addax Petroelum that is developing the Taq Taq oil field in Iraqi Kurdistan, Chinese investment has been rising rapidly. Despite China’s official stance of not supporting separatism, what makes Kurdistan different from Kosovo and other separatist movements is that China has strong energy and economic stakes there.

As Anit Panda assessed in The Diplomat, “depending on how the current conflict with ISIS plays out, Beijing may find that its national interest is best served by backing an independent Kurdistan.”

Ironically, Turkey’s support for “East Turkestan” may thus turn out to be a godsend for an independent “Kurdistan.”

About the Author
Dr. Christina Lin is a California-based academic and consultant specializing in China-Mediterranean/Middle East relations. She has extensive US government experience working on China security issues, including policy planning at the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and National Security Council--where she also worked on CFIUS cases.
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