Did Turkey’s FM show solidarity with Uyghurs during China visit?

Hakan Fidan’s three-day trip to China included visits to Kashgar and Urumqi [Getty]

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan‘s recent trip to China has drawn attention to his apparent display of solidarity with China’s Uyghur Muslim minority.

Fidan on Wednesday concluded his three-day visit to China, where he met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, Vice President Han Zheng and other officials.

A Turkish official said Fidan urged Chinese authorities to protect the cultural rights of minority Muslim Uyghurs in China’s western Xinjiang province and allow them to “live their values”.

He also travelled to the cities of Urumqi and Kashgar in Xinjiang province, becoming the first Turkish official to travel to the region since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited in 2012.

During his visit to Urumqi, Fidan was seen sporting a sky blue tie – a choice which observers say was a clear reference to the colour of the Uyghur or East Turkestan flag.

Turkey has cultural and ethnic ties to the Uyghurs and many members of the community, fleeing human rights violations in the region, have found sanctuary in Turkey.

China is accused of sending more than a million Uyghurs and other largely Muslim minorities into prisons and detention camps. Beijing denies human rights abuses and says the centres were for vocational training.

The Turkish government, which once vehemently criticised China’s treatment of Uyghurs, has moderated its criticism as it developed stronger economic relations with Beijing.

Fidan told Chinese officials during his meetings that Turkey respects China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the Turkish official said. But the minister added that the Turkish people and the Islamic world have “sensitivities” concerning the protection of Uyghurs’ cultural rights, according to the official.

Fidan conveyed the message that removing the concerns “would be of great benefit to everyone,” according to the official, who provided the information on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.

Video of the press conference held between Fidan and Wang also showed the Turkish diplomat hailing Urumqi and Kashgar as “ancient Turkic-Islamic cities” and “bridges” between China and Turkey and the Muslim world.

Fidan’s words and gestures may have aimed to send a message of solidarity with China’s Uyghur minority, as well as the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey, who number around 50,000.

At the same time, China is Turkey’s third-largest trading partner. An official who spoke to AP said Ankara is trying to reduce a trade imbalance that is in China’s favour by urging it to import more Turkish agricultural goods, increase investments and motivate more Chinese tourists to visit Turkey.

Despite hosting a large Uyghur population, Turkey has in the past been accused of helping extradite Uyghurs to China through third countries, including Tajikistan.

In 2020, Turkey was not among 22 UN member states that made a landmark call for human rights abuses against China’s Uyghurs to be investigated.

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