BEIJING — Turkey’s top diplomat vowed Thursday to root out militants plotting against China, signaling closer cooperation against suspected Uighur militants hailing from China’s far west who have long been a sore point in bilateral relations.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters during a visit to Beijing that his government would treat threats to China’s security as threats to itself and would not allow any “anti-China activity inside Turkey or territory controlled by Turkey.”
Cavusoglu’s tough comments, which came after a meeting and warm handshakes with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, were seen as referring to China’s Uighur ethnic minority, a Turkic people who share cultural and linguistic ties with Anatolian Turks.
Turkey and China have in recent years pledged to cooperate on security and counter-terrorism efforts, though experts say such ties are also balanced by mutual suspicion. Relations between Ankara and Beijing have been strained by Turkey’s support for groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — a China ally — and its sheltering of Uighur refugees.
Human rights groups have long accused China of oppressing its roughly 10 million Uighurs with severe restrictions on language, culture and religion and inflaming a cycle of resentment and radicalization. Hundreds have died in Xinjiang in violent clashes in recent years and China now keeps the region, with a land area comparable to Iran, under a constant lockdown with massive policing and surveillance efforts that activists say are rife with abuse.
Thousands of Uighurs have fled China in recent years to seek asylum in Turkey, with many traveling on to Syria to join Islamic militant groups or simply to escape persecution and find a new home. In response, China has pressed allies including Russia and Syria to share intelligence about Uighur militants fighting in Syria and help avert their return to strike at China.
Hundreds of Uighurs, if not far more, are believed to have joined the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front while others have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group or sided with smaller militant factions in the Syrian conflict.
Cavusoglu endorsed China’s efforts on Thursday, adding that Turkey “fully appreciated all the actions China has taken” in combating the Islamic State group as well as reaching a political settlement in the Syrian War.
Turkey also agreed to designate as a terror group the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a decades-old Uighur separatist movement with links to al-Qaida. The Turkish government will also seek to restrict negative reporting about China in its media, Cavusoglu said.
Wang hailed the agreements and said that “deepening our collaboration on anti-terror and security is the most central part” of the two countries’ relationship.
Niu Song, a professor in the Middle East Studies Institute at Shanghai International Studies University, said Turkey has begun to confront Islamic militant groups – as well as respect China’s “core interest” in fighting separatists – after spending the early years of the Syrian conflict turning a blind eye to militant activities along its border with the war-torn country.
“Turkey has reconsidered its Syrian policy and Uighur policies in the last few years,” Niu said. “Since then the foreign ministers of China and Turkey have met many times and have increasingly found areas of consensus on major international issues.”
With President Xi Jinping keen to play a leadership role in global affairs, China has swiftly expanded its presence in the Middle East and offered itself as a mediator in the region’s conflicts. But it has not shied from calling for help, either.
At Beijing’s request, Egyptian police in recent weeks rounded up scores of Muslim Chinese students studying in at Al-Azhar University and deported them to China, sparking panic among Chinese living in Cairo who belong to the Uighur, Hui and Kazakh ethnic minorities.
The World Uyghur Congress, an overseas Uighur advocacy group, said it hoped China and Turkey’s vows of cooperation in the name of security would not infringe on Uighur refugees’ lawful rights.
“The Turkish foreign minister’s comments have surprised and concerned us,” said Dilxat Raxit, a spokesman for the group. “China’s goal is to use economic pressure to restrict Uighurs’ political rights but we remain hopeful that the Turkish people will continue to stand with Uighurs and give us their support.”
Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan had positioned himself as a champion of Turkic peoples and in 2009 accused Beijing of committing “genocide” toward Uighurs, attracting a flurry of headlines and infuriating Beijing. The two governments clashed again in 2015 when Turkey offered asylum to Uighur refugees detained in Thailand whom China had demanded back.
Since then, however, the China-Turkey relationship has warmed amid a broader political realignment. China, Russia and Turkey have strengthened their partnership while Erdogan has pulled away from the orbit of European governments amid disputes over human rights and other issues.
China has expressed openness toward Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security alliance comprised of Russia and several central Asian states that is seen as a counterweight to NATO.
Turkey and Russia have also backed several major Chinese initiatives – including Xi Jinping’s Belt-and-Road project to develop infrastructure spanning the Eurasian continent – that were initially shunned by Western powers.