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    Greater China
     Apr 21, 2012

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Turkey: The odd man in
By Peter Lee

In 2009, on the occasion of the Han-Uighur riots in Xinjiang, Erdogan had infuriated Beijing by characterizing the government crackdown as "a kind of genocide". [5]

He also stated that he would issue a visa to Rebiya Kadeer - head of the World Uighur Congress and perpetual thorn in Beijing's side. (Kadeer apparently did not apply for the visa, perhaps much to the relief of the Turkish government).

On his visit to China - the first by a Turkish prime minister in 27 years - Erdogan was keen not to upset the apple cart.

He scored the political coup of visiting Urumqi - actually, his first


stop on entering China, before he continued onward to Beijing - but did not antagonize his hosts by posturing as the protector of Xinjiang's Uighurs.

As Emre Kizilkaya, foreign affairs editor of Turkey's Hurriyet Daily, observed dyspeptically on his blog, Erdogan promised Beijing he was "not going [to Xinjiang] to itch the problem".

The most remarkable thing Erdogan did in Urumuqi was apparently allowing himself to be photographed in gaudy Uighur costume carving up a roasted lamb under the solicitous gaze of some local functionaries.

Kizilkaya took Erdogan to task for using the China visit to harp on Syria, instead of succoring Turkey's Uighur brethren:
OK, China was a world power, but why did you go to Xinjiang if you would remain silent about the inhumane repression against Uyghurs? [6]
It is worth noting how powerfully Turkish nationalism - the legacy that Kamal Attaturk bequeathed to his country through intensive indoctrination in schools and media - shapes Turkish attitudes, and limits Turkey's efforts to bestride the world stage.

Kizilkaya fulminates about the oppression of Turkic people thousands of kilometers away in China, while his country struggles with an intractable Kurdish problem at home, exacerbated by the fact that the non-Turkic Kurds are viewed as fundamentally alien to the body politic.

Add to that the fact that in 2009 Erdogan felt comfortable employing the incendiary term "genocide" to characterize the Chinese security operation in Xinjiang, even as his government fights a pitched public relations battle to deny its application to the Turkish nation in the deaths of over one million Christian Armenians through execution, massacre, and death marches in 1915.

Overall, it paints the picture of a country whose international role, at least in non-Turkic sectors, is limited by a profound and institutionalized ethnic chauvinism.

Turkey's natural allies reside in the Turkic stans of Central Asia. In the Middle East, it stands alone.

When Turkey becomes assertive, many of the other nations of the region respond with dislike and mistrust.

Turkey is on the outs with almost every one of its neighbors, with the exceptions of Georgia and Bulgaria: Greece, Syria, Iran and Armenia all have long-standing or recent grudges with Ankara. Add the Shi'ite power Iraq to the list - Turkey recently decided to host the fugitive Sunni Vice President of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashemi.

Kurdish distaste for the extensive, ongoing, and, in the Western press, virtually unreported, Turkish government crackdown against Kurd separatists, activists, and journalists go a long way in explaining why Syria's put-upon Kurds have not joined the anti-Assad rebellion.

Although Erdogan made an unscheduled trip to Saudi Arabia directly from Beijing - presumably to confirm the GCC's continued resolve to push Assad to the wall - he is unlikely to find sincere friends among the Gulf autocracies.

The sclerotic, oil-exporting, Arab, and theocratic/conservative Gulf states are unlikely to welcome upstart Turkey's claim to regional leadership on the basis of democracy, free-market economics, a balance between secular and religious authority, and a professed faith in the validity of popular Arab Spring uprisings against out-of-touch autocrats.

Turkish nationalism is matched in Europe by broad, barely disguised racism and hostility. One of the many reasons that Turkey's application to the European Union has stalled has been a feeling, from Pope Benedict on down to the right-wing chauvinist parties that have sprung up like weeds across Europe, that Turkey is too "non-European" to integrate into the union. [7]

As for the United States, Turkey has emerged as a key asset.

It is the yearned-for moderate Islamic state (now that Egypt is teetering into populism and/or radicalism) that will serve as Israel's regional interlocutor, and the obliging host that will undercut Russia's monopoly in the supply of natural gas to Europe by allowing the Nabucco pipeline or some variant thereof to be built across its territory.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to forget the contemptuous words of an unnamed US administration official in 2003, when Erdogan unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a $25 billion payment in return for allowing 40,000 US troops to deploy into Iraq from Turkey:
The Turks seem to think that we'll keep the bazaar open all night. [8]
The United States seems to be gleefully egging on Turkey in its Assad-bashing, since the sound and fury of Turkish indignation helps obscure the reality of a do-nothing Western policy on Syria.

Erdogan, for his part, seems to be trapped in a frontline confrontation with Syria without genuine geopolitical backup, and doesn't know how to extract Turkey from the situation without losing face-or starting a war that will leave the region in tatters.

Instead of relieving tensions, Ankara is exacerbating them; and instead of acting as the even-handed middle-man in regional negotiations, Turkey is drifting into the role of Western poodle.

The Economist, which detects imperial rumblings in Erdogan's foreign policy, reported:
"It was this ability to talk to all sides that made Turkey an effective player," says Nikolaos van Dam, a former Dutch ambassador to Turkey. But "now it has chosen sides." [9]
It is a remarkable and melancholy comment on Middle Eastern politics that Turkey has, over the past 12 months, forfeited its primary regional diplomatic asset - its status as the "honest broker" - and China, of all countries, because of its close economic ties to both Saudi Arabia and Iran, is stepping in to try to assume the role.

1. Erdogan meets Jiabao on milestone China trip, Hurriyet, Apr 10, 2012.
2. Change of heart in Moscow and Beijing will unlock Syrian crisis, Today's Zaman, Apr 15, 2012.
3. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Liu Weimin's Remarks, Chinese foreign Ministry, Apr 12, 2012.
4. Turkey's Role in Iran Nuclear Talks Could Diminish, VOA, Apr 16, 2012.
5. Turkey attacks China 'genocide', BBC, Jul 10, 2009.
6. Erdogan's China Trip Raise New Questions About Turkey's Foreign Policy, The Istanbulian, Apr 9, 2012.
7. Pope Benedict and the Buddhism/Masturbation Controversy, China Matters, Sep 20, 2006.
8. Statement of Gene Rossides, American Hellenic Institute general counsel, AHI, Apr 23, 2003.
9. Growing less mild, The Economist, Apr 14, 2012.

Peter Lee writes on East and South Asian affairs and their intersection with US foreign policy.

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