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A crisis PM Erdoğan could have done without

Developments in China’s restive region of Xinjiang are causing a stir in Turkey, where pressure is mounting on the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan to do something about Beijing’s brutal suppression of the Uighurs; a close relative of the Turks who speak a language close to Turkish.

The pressure is understandable given that many Uighurs fleeing from Chinese oppression have taken refuge in Turkey over the years and that these refugees are in close touch with ultra-nationalist and Pan-Turkic groups capable of creating serious political unrest the country.

Already, demonstrators earlier this week scuffled with police outside the Chinese embassy, and such public outpourings of sympathy can be expected to continue in the coming days and weeks depending on how the situation unfolds. Chinese brutality is of course well known around the world, particularly after the events that transpired in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago, when government tanks were sent to crush unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, most of them young students.

China’s record in Tibet is also a known fact. That particular problem also made international news headlines again not so long ago during the Beijing Olympics. Now it is the Uighurs that have come in the international spotlight following the recent bloody events in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region.

It seems that rather than try and prevent further violence between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese, Beijing is throwing its weight behind the Chinese, and thus stoking further ethnic hatred and harming its own international reputation. Given the pressure from the public and the opposition --which as usual sees a golden opportunity here to strike a blow against the government-- Prime Minister Erdoğan said on Wednesday that Turkey would ask the UN Security Council to discuss the events in Xinjiang. Turkey is presently a non-permanent member of the Security Council.

In the meantime, the Chinese Charge d’Affaires was earlier this week called to the foreign ministry to provide the Turkish side with information concerning the events. However, a statement issued after the meeting indicates that no formal protest was lodged by Ankara.

Many question just how far Ankara will go, given that there is an economic giant and a potential, if not actual, superpower at the other end of the dispute here, namely China. It is also interesting to note that Russia has come out in support of Beijing, accusing "separatists" Ğ meaning the Uighurs Ğ of sparking the events, and saying that this is "China’s domestic issue," a warning to outsiders not to interfere.

Moscow’s position is understandable, given the fact that it too has restive regions that are predominantly Islamic and therefore amenable to "outside interference." With Russia and China as permanent members of the Security Council, it is unlikely that any Turkish initiative, if it embarks on one, will result in a condemnation of China. It is still unclear as to how the violence in Xinjiang started, despite a history of Chinese oppression in the region. Reports suggest that the ethnic violence left scores of innocent people dead on both sides, inflaming calls for vengeance the ethnic communities.

There is also the fact that China is using the terms "separatism" and "fundamentalism" as cornerstones for its explanation of the events in Xinjiang. If Turkey were to go beyond calls to respect human rights in the region, and appear to be supporting Uighur separatism, it is clear that this will rebound with China referring to the Kurdish issue and minority rights in this country.

Then there is the growing Turkish-Chinese common interest, especially in the economics, and this was exemplified by President Gül’s high profile official visit to that country recently. Another factor affectig how much anger the government can inject into its rhetoric in support of the Uighurs.

It is noteworthy in this context that Ankara apparently recently twice refused to issue a visa to Uighur activistand US resident, Rabia Kader, who is seen by Beijing as the person behind all the trouble.Kader herself confirmed the view to broadcaster NTV.

Clearly Ankara was not prepared to upset China in the past and if Kader is, however, issued a visa now, China will likely see it as an act of defiance. The question is if Ankara is ready for such an act of defiance at this time.

Given the conditions, Turkey will likely remain in the "We are deeply concerned and call for restraint" mode, rather than embark on an all out diplomatic campaign against China.

The government, however, will have to ward off widespread domestic criticism given that opponents of the Justice and Development Part, or AKP, are already using the issue with great relish. Whatever happened to spark the start of the events in Xinjiang, it is clear that Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party could have done without this crisis at an already difficult time in terms of domestic politics.