Can the U.S. save the Uighurs?

Tensions between the U.S. and China are rapidly intensifying. With the coronavirus pandemic ravaging America’s south and west, President Donald Trump is turning to his favorite pastime – scapegoating – to distract from his government’s failures. After months of trying to lay blame for the spread of the virus at China’s doorstep, Trump has now turned to its treatment of its minority Uighur population, imposing sanctions on Chinese officials linked to human rights violations committed against them. But our chief political scientist warns that the U.S. apparent support for the Uighurs is cynically self-serving, and will not last.

Adnan R. Khan: What is behind this latest round of sanctions?

Ilter Turan: The U.S.-China relationship is turning more and more competitive and the Trump administration appears to be increasingly interested in rendering relations with China into a major election issue. That’s the lens through which we should see this recent U.S. interest in the Uighurs. The interesting thing is that U.S. foreign policy, particularly Trump, has not demonstrated much interest in the preservation of basic human rights or democratic liberties. In fact, it has been quite willing to cooperate with governments whose record on human rights is not particularly impressive. It appears that, in this instance, the U.S. has chosen to sympathize with the Uighurs not as the natural outcome of a policy built on conviction but as a sort of political resource it can mobilize against China. In fact, there have been reports that, in a past conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump had actually indicated that the Uighurs were not a major issue for the U.S. The sincerity of American concern for the Uighurs is under question. But that should not lead us to overlook the fact that the Uighurs are being treated very harshly by the Chinese government. Its goal, it appears, is to destroy their culture and simply render them into ordinary Chinese with no distinct ethnic and religious identity as Uighurs.

Adnan R. Khan: Why has the response of other Muslim-majority countries been so muted?

Ilter Turan: Many countries tend to base their policies with China on matters of economic interest. China seems to be the big exporter of capital to the less developed world these days. To many countries, it is a major source of credit. It is engaged in extensive trade. Countries base their relations with China not on its treatment of Uighurs but on what economic benefits they may hope to get.

In Turkey’s case, in addition to the fact that Uighurs are Muslims, they are a Turkic people. In fact, the Turkish they speak is said to be much closer to the Turkish we speak here than many other versions of Turkic languages spoken in Central Asia. So, there has been an historical interest in them. But despite the fact that the current government has a governing partner that is particularly sensitive to pan-Turkic questions (the MHP), it has been notably reticent in letting China know that they do not approve of the policies they are implementing. On an earlier occasion Turkey actually registered its displeasure about China’s treatment of the Uighurs but the Chinese reaction was so strong that Turkey decided not to push the matter further. It chose to behave like other countries, putting its economic interests ahead of its concerns about the Uighurs.

There is maybe one consolation: Outside of China, Turkey has the largest Uighur population in the world. Turkey has become a second center of Uighur culture, Uighur opposition, Uighur publications, communications, etc. Uighurs have a home in Turkey and are well-received here. But in terms of helping the Uighurs that live in Xinjiang province, Turkey has behaved like others countries.

Adnan R. Khan: Can Turkey achieve both: somehow achieve its interests and also stand up for these people?

Ilter Turan: I think it could. First and foremost, we have to recognize that the Turkish government is responsible for ensuring Turkey’s security and the economic well-being of Turkey’s population. But in doing that, it may express its displeasure as to the Chinese government in diplomatic ways and try ensure that a greater recognition is extended to the identity and the traditions and, in fact, the existence of the Uighur people.

Adnan R. Khan: Should it try to work together with the U.S. to put pressure on China?

Ilter Turan: Turkey should be working with other partners in the international community. I’m not persuaded the U.S. is the best candidate, however, because its choice of the Uighur issue is simply a part of its overall struggle for global superiority rather than a genuine concern for the preservation of human rights. If the U.S. were to reach some kind of a modus vivendi with the Chinese, I would expect it to immediately drop its concern for the Uighurs.

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