BEIJING: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan headed for China Wednesday having secured NATO’s backing for Ankara’s fight against Islamic State militants, but facing tensions with Beijing over China’s mostly Muslim Uighur minority.
Ankara is expanding a cross-border campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, and also attacking positions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq after deadly attacks inside Turkey.
At the same time China blames Islamist separatists for violence in the Uighur homeland of Xinjiang, while Turkey has repeatedly expressed concerns about Beijing’s treatment of the minority, who speak a Turkic language.
Erdogan — who meets Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday — in 2009 accused Beijing of “genocide” in the region, and the gap between Chinese and Turkish views of the Uighurs are likely to complicate the discussions.
They engaged in a public spat this year over Uighurs who fled China to seek refuge in Thailand, with Turkey offering them shelter against Beijing’s wishes.
Bangkok said this month that it had deported about 100 Uighurs back to China, after sending more than 170 Uighur women and children to Turkey in late June.
As tensions over the refugees mounted this month, activists stormed the Thai consulate in Istanbul and burnt the Chinese flag outside Beijing’s consulate in the city. China “strongly condemned” the acts.
China’s state-run China Daily newspaper said in a Wednesday editorial that the “Uighur issue… if left unattended, may poison ties and derail cooperation.”
It suggested that Beijing would pressure Erdogan to stop Turkish officials issuing Uighurs who “illicitly left China” with travel documents.
Turkey is a NATO member and on Tuesday the alliance strongly backed Ankara’s fight against “terrorism” at an emergency meeting, although some countries expressed concerns that strikes on Kurdish fighters could torpedo peace talks with the rebels, who are bitterly opposed to the jihadists.
Turkey entered discussions in 2013 with a Chinese state-run company over an anti-missile system contract worth $3.4 billion, raising eyebrows among other NATO members.
A final deal has been elusive, with Erdogan noting “impediments” have emerged after an initial Chinese proposal, but he said the issue would be on the agenda in Beijing.
“Any offer that will enrich this appropriate proposal will be welcomed by us,” he told China’s official news agency Xinhua in an interview published Tuesday.
“I believe this visit will give more momentum to bilateral relations,” he added.
Boosting Turkish exports to China is also likely to be high on Erdogan’s agenda, with Turkey running a large trade deficit with the world’s second-largest economy, according to official Chinese statistics.