Tuesday, July 28, 2015

US “Honest Broker” Zombie Ready for Its Dirt Nap…”Anti-Submarine Warrior” Primps for Its Close-Up

Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel spoke at the CSIS South China Sea Conference on July 20, 2015.  He made news by declaring that the United States is not neutral in some issues pertaining to the South China Sea.

The money quote came in reply to a question from Wu Shicun, the PRC representative at the conference:

On the first issue of neutrality, I appreciate the opportunity to clear up what seems to be an almost ineradicable perception of the Chinese.  We are not neutral when it comes to adherence to international law.  We will come down forcefully on the side of the rules.  

Cue the triumphant hooting from the China hawks, who were well represented at the conference and urging the United States to “draw a line in the sea”.  And squealing from the PRC that the United States had abandoned its “honest broker” stance, which dated back to the Potsdam Declaration and presented US military force in Asia as the only viable peacekeeping alternative to Japanese re-militarization.

Although the tottering “honest broker” zombie took another hit at the hands of Assistant Secretary Russel, it had been staggering to its grave ever since President Obama and Hillary Clinton opted for “PRC rollback” after the strategic drift and distraction of the George W. Bush years, and received its death blow as the US and Shinzo Abe repositioned Japan’s military away from self-defense and toward a power projection role in Asia as America’s ally.

The US FP commentariat is optimistic that the Philippine arbitration case against the Nine Dash Line will succeed, the PRC’s outsized claims in the SCS will be declared illegal, and the 200 nautical mile EEZs of the various claimants will govern who can fish and drill where.  Shedding the 9DL incubus is of particular importance to the Philippines, since exploitation of the Reed (Recto) Bank gas field inside the claimed Philippine EEZ (and inside the 9DL) is seen as a matter of near-existential economic and fiscal importance.

UNCLOS has no enforcement mechanism.  So if the PRC tries to obstruct Philippine operations at Reed Bank and the Philippines lacks the military muscle to protect its rigs and vessels, somebody’s got to step up.

That somebody, Russel indicated, is the United States.  China hawks hope this means something like interposing US naval vessels to block whatever ships the PRC sends to Reed Bank make trouble.

For fans of World War III, a few of whom I suspect reside in the Pentagon and Washington think tanks, well, it just came a step closer.  

For China-bashing realists, the day when the PRC, that salami-slicing paper tiger, is finally directly confronted by the US Navy and forced to slink away in humiliation is drawing near.

For anti-imperialists of the China-hugging persuasion, it looks like the PRC got its tit caught pretty tightly in the SCS wringer and the process of extraction will be neither easy, pleasant, nor consequence-free.

The SCS conference set the narrative that the US wishes to impose on the situation: everything was going great until the PRC upset the status quo by doing its island reclamation.  Now PRC presence and inferred intentions in the SCS have become so alarming that the US, as the guarantor of peace and prosperity in Asia, has to step in and enforce the international rules.

One panelist was relegated from my personal “expert” premier league table to the dreaded “journo-pundit” category for eagerly promoting the “shipping lane lifeline” canard, not only to explain American attention but to justify Japan’s injection into the issue.  He stated that Japan needs a tanker coming through the South China Sea “every six hours” “to keep the lights on” and this “killer fact” refuted challenges to Japan’s standing in the crisis.

Killer fact?  Just kill me.  Or better yet, read my various takedowns of this myth, including one at Asia Times and another from my blog, presciently titled, “What Should Be the Last Word on Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea…But Won’t Be.”

However, the US SCS campaign does not draw all its energy from empty political kabuki.

Below the surface—heh, heh--I would hazard that the driving theme of the US civilian & particularly Pentagon planning (and privileged backgrounding) focuses less on the “SCS = global trade aorta” unmitigated bullsh*t and more on the US preoccupation with the threat from the PRC’s strategic submarine fleet on Hainan and the desirability of detecting, tracking, bottling up, and destroying those subs as needed.

I am not a big fan of strategic nuclear submarines.  They are unpredictable and destabilizing to adversaries, and expensive and problematic to their operators.  

But I suppose the point is that the United States is adamant about not renouncing its nuclear first strike privileges, the PRC feels it needs a sea-based second-strike capability if Taiwan blows up and the US-PRC confrontation goes nuclear, the PLAN is entranced with the deterrent and ego-enhancing potential of nuclear missiles on submarines, and away we go.

The PRC already operated a strategic nuclear submarine base near Qingdao at Jianggezhuang.  It built a bigger and better one—in that it would be able to handle newer, bigger, subs that presumably could eventually be armed with missiles capable of striking the US mainland from afar—on Hainan Island near Yulin.

So the United States, in line with its national security imperatives, feels it has to cover the SCS like, well, like white on rice.  The modern era of US-PRC conflict in the South China Sea begins in 2009 with PRC harassment of the USNS Impeccable, a survey ship that plods through the PRC EEZ off Hainan mapping the submarine topography and/or listening for PLAN submarines.  US concern with military freedom of the seas in the SCS (softened to “freedom of navigation” to soothe the tender sensibilities of surrounding states—like Vietnam and the Philippines, that still hold some reservations concerning foreign military activities inside their EEZs) appears to underpin the SCS posture of the Obama administration over the last six years.

The US has devoted considerable military and diplomatic effort to improving its capabilities to monitor current and potential submarine operations out of Yulin.   For good reason.

The South China Sea is an interesting and problematic arena for anti-submarine operations because of its complex topography.  Therefore I must, in the most deferential manner, question Howard French’s recent statement in the Guardian that PRC island building at Fiery Cross Reef is scary “because of the depths of its surrounding waters, which afford Chinese submarines far greater stealth in evading acoustic and other forms of active tracking by the US military.”

If the Federation of American Scientists’ report is correct, the situation is pretty much the opposite:

Of course, if the water is so shallow the submarine can’t submerge fully it will limit operations, but deep water is – contrary to popular perception – not necessarily an advantage. Military submarines generally are not designed to dive deeper than 400-600 meters, so great ocean depth may be of little value. The U.S. navy has several decades of experience in trailing Soviet SSBNs in the open oceans; shallow waters are much more challenging. And the South China Sea is a busy area for U.S. attack submarines, which have unconstrained access to the waters off Hainan Island.

So there you have it, folks.  A dodgy neighborhood with lots of hidey-holes and shallow waters and thermal layers that complicate the sonar ping-ping and depth-charge bang-bang and also, potentially, offering “home court advantage” to the PRC as it develops island bases to enhance and extend its own search (and, in case of war, destroy) operations—intensive mapping and monitoring, maritime sweeps, surveillance flights, buoy drops, big, permanent, passive arrays, what have you—throughout the SCS against US attack submarines attempting to track down the PRC “boomers”.

So maybe the PRC—which presumably picked up a few tips from ex-Soviet submariners—decided to put its new base in Hainan for a good reason.

The strategic nuclear submarine issue has considerably greater existential zing and persuasive power in explaining US SCS policy than the stated US obsession with sustaining the rules-based order or even using the SCS issue to d*ck with the PRC and create a favorable environment for the pivot/rebalancing.

In the corridors of American power “PLAN subs will nuke us” carries more weight—and shuts up more doubters and critics—than logically bankrupt arguments about cargo ships, anxiety over  coral polyps, or fond notions about the sanctity of international treaties that the US hasn’t signed or hydrocarbon rights that the Philippines hope to enjoy.

And the concern that PRC island-building activity will hobble US ASW measures automatically becomes a critical geostrategic issue.

And it seems obvious that’s the argument that carried the day in the last few months.

I find it interesting that reams of Western journalism are devoted to imputing division and disorganization within the opaque CCP bureaucracy on the SCS issue even as a major purge of the China policy apparatus occurred within the US Department of Defense just a few months ago under our noses.

For a fuller accounting, please see my South China Sea ultimate backgrounder.  But the short version is, China hawks saw Chuck Hagel as wobbly on the China threat and Admiral Locklear too understanding concerning the PLAN’s interpretation of its regional prerogatives.  By early 2015, the China hawks had prevailed, Hagel was gone, replaced by Ash Carter, Locklear was gone, replaced by Admiral Harris, the US committed fully to the Japanese alliance and the “China’s nuclear sub threat in the South China Sea must be contained” became an overt and irrefutable justification for an escalating US military presence in the SCS, opposing PRC efforts to turn it into a primarily PRC (and PLAN) preserve, and the context for the US elevating this economically insignificant stretch of sea to a big, big deal.

However, the “strategic anxiety” knife cuts both ways.  

If, as I think is pretty clearly the case, the PRC sees the US interest in the SCS as not only mischievous and downright hostile to the PRC, but also a key element in its full-spectrum effort to neutralize the PRC’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, the PRC will happily accept heightened local tensions as a cost of its national security business.

In a case of exquisite and almost perfect symbolism, Assistant Secretary Russel misunderstood, either inadvertently or by design, the key question for the PRC in the South China Sea, at least from the military security point of view: would the US try to stop the PRC island buildout, an activity which bolsters the PRC's ASW capability and which, it is absolutely clear--at least to people who listened to the question--the PRC has no intention of stopping?

Wu Shicun: As I know China won’t, you know, stop construction work in those island… reclaimend [sic] islands …What would be US actions if China won’t follow US requirement as you just mentioned to stop construction works…and does US State Department share the same status in this regard with the Pentagon?

Daniel Russel: You raise a very important second question.  Which is, what if China agreed that in the interests of regional stability and harmony it would enter into a reciprocal freeze, a moratorium where neither China nor Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, any claimant undertook large-scale construction, upgrades, or certainly militarization.  What would our reaction be, what would we do?

I can think of few other steps that China could take that would do more to create a conducive…an atmosphere in the United States conducive to progress in the US-China relationships.  I think the concerns generated by the tensions and the disputes and the behavior in the South China Sea have raised real concerns and real questions in the minds of so many American citizens.  These are questions that would be answered in a very reassuring and persuasive way if China in this sensitive area of the South China Sea exercised the forbearance, the generosity of spirit and the good strategic judgment, show restraint and created the space for and time both for a code of conduct that I think we all would like to see completed before the end of this year and a process that would lead to the end of the underlying disputes.

Consider Professor Wu’s question unanswered.  Or maybe not.

With the United States and its allies promising a military envelopment of the South China Sea, I don’t think the PRC is going to take Russel’s unctuous suggestion of a freeze seriously as a US negotiating point.  More likely, Russel’s dodging the island-building ultimatum question indicates to the PRC that, no, the United States is not currently prepared to wipe these islands off the map, yes, the PRC can keep building, and the military cat-and-mouse in the South China Sea will continue indefinitely.

In fact, a scenario that hasn’t received a lot of airing anywhere as far as I can tell is the possibility that the PRC, on the grounds of its national security interest, will withdraw from UNCLOS if the arbitration doesn’t go its way.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the withdrawal threat has been discretely brandished before the arbitrators, to encourage them to think twice about the consequences to the universality and validity of the UNCLOS regime itself if they are too eager to claim jurisdiction and get into China’s grill.

In that case, the US would be placed in the somewhat difficult position of excoriating the PRC for exercising a cherished US prerogative: opting out of inconvenient international obligations, not just UNCLOS, which it signed but never ratified, but also the International Criminal Court, which it signed, ratified, and then withdrew from under President G.W. Bush.

Based on precedent, the PRC might be loath to formally withdraw from the treaty and flirt with the international pariah status it occupied from 1949 until the 1970s; but I think it’s quite likely that, even if the PRC stays in UNCLOS, it will be increasingly inclined to honor the treaty’s obligations “in the breach” and assert the right to interpret its spirit as it sees fit.

Just like the US does.

Which means, perhaps, that the PRC will declare that Japan’s dramatic island building and EEZ grab at Okinotorishima is more of a guiding precedent for Chinese claims for Fiery Cross than whatever the handwringers at the UNCLOS arbitration panel seek to impose.

And if the United States proves especially sedulous in supporting the Philippines’ efforts to drill at Reed Bank without PRC buy-in and participation, expect the PRC island campaign—and the headaches for US anti-submarine-warfare strategy—to increase.

Below the break: my transcript of the exchange between Russel & Wu, with a link to the relevant video.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Another Shoe Drops in the Turkish “Passports for Uyghurs” Case

Evidence keeps accummulating that a clandestine Turkish government program to enable Uyghur emigration from the PRC--for motives either noble, sinister, or both--has turned into a major security cock-up, embarrassment for Turkey, and a serious issue in PRC-Turkish relations.

I wrote this on July 11 on the occasion of the forcible repatriation of over one hundred Uyghur men from Thailand to the PRC amid PRC allegations that the Turkish government, in addition to providing diplomatic and consular support to the Uyghurs, had crossed a line by providing fake travel documents:

Please note that the PRC Foreign Ministry, as well as Global Times, were already raising the passport issue at the beginning of 2015.  First the PRC employed the polite fiction that some profit-minded freelancers were selling Turkish passports to Uyghurs; then it was “consulates and embassies of unnamed countries” were dishing out documents; now, unambiguously, the PRC is pointed the finger at the Turkish government.
The only remaining grey area is whether all the Uyghur men who end up in Syria are simply hapless “cannon fodder” recruited by jihadis, or whether the Turkish security services identify some particularly capable Uyghur militants, provide documents, and enable travel, training, and battlefield experience in Syria in order to cultivate Turkey-friendly assets in Syria or potentially in AfPak/Central Asia.  Might never get to the bottom of that one, unless the PRC decides to crank up the evidentiary apparatus another notch in order to make sure Western journos finally get the point.

The PRC is busy fleshing out this story, and added the new wrinkle that the Turkish scheme had facilitated terrorist activities within the PRC.

The PRC has embarked on a major push to justify its insistence on what the West has condemned as the refoulement of Uyghur refugees, to allege that the Uyghurs who left the country were not political refugees protected by the principle of non-refoulement; instead, they were illegal emigrants, candidate militants seeking participation in jihad.

The implications for Turkey are embarrassing, since a central allegation of the PRC’s case is that the Uyghurs it wants back from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia etc. were militants recruited and exfiltrated from the PRC by jihadi networks with the collusion of…


...with the assistance of Turkish embassies and consulates in South Asia…

…and the PRC alleges that some of the refugees were not recruited just to fight against the Assad regime in Syria; they were trained and facilitated to return to the PRC to conduct terror attacks inside China.

That’s a nasty, toxic brew.

The only shoe that hasn’t dropped yet is an open PRC accusation that the passport mischief was organized by the Turkish government in Istanbul, either by its security apparatus as part of its jihadi-related scheming or with knowledge of the government leadership, and not a spontaneous initiative simultaneously kicked off by several Turkish consular offices in South Asia and miraculously complemented by Turkish border police at the airport in Istanbul.

On July 18, Xinhua offered case studies of three Uyghur “illegal immigants” repatriated back to China.  Here are some excerpts:

Memetaili, 25, was the only son in his family. When he was a freshman in a medical school in Urumqi, Xinjiang's regional capital, some people approached him in the name of imparting "religious knowledge." The "textbooks" they used were audio and video materials made by overseas terrorist groups, according to the CCTV report.

After watching the material, Memetaili felt the urge to "sacrifice" for his religious beliefs. The group then introduced him to a "fellow countryman" abroad, who asked Memetaili to join him.

He was soon transferred to southwest China and was not allowed to take anything indicating his Chinese nationality with him during the trip.

"I was required to dispose of my clothes that had Chinese on them, my ID card, and even socks," he said.

"They told us if we were arrested in Thailand, we should say we were from Turkey," he said, adding local police could not repatriate them because they had no identification on them.

In Malaysia, Memetaili and other migrants were taken to the Turkish embassy.

"We told the people in the embassy that we were illegal migrants and could not go back, or we would be arrested. They agreed to help us, sent a letter to the Malaysian government and issued identifying papers based on our real names," he said.

With the identification from the Turkish embassy and counterfeit passports they made themselves, they were able to buy air tickets to go to Turkey.

"If we were arrested at the airport, officials from the Turkish embassy would admit that we were their nationals, even though the passports were crudely made," he said.

In Turkey, Memetaili found that several different groups, including the World Uygur Congress and the U.N.-listed terrorist group of Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), were competing to manipulate them.

"Some of us were sent to Syria. If you wanted to join ISIS, some other people would take you there," he said.

[It’s unclear what happened to Memetaili after he became disillusioned with IS in Syria.]

[Another case history]

Chinese police arrested several terrorists who sneaked into China and prepared to commit terror and violence in 2015.

Ekber is one of them. He received training from the ETIM in Syria and was sent back to China to conduct terrorist attacks.
Ekber first came to Turkey and then Syria, where he received military training for three months. During that period, he learned how to use guns and create explosives.

Instigated by "Aili," Ekber went back to China in early 2015 and planned to conduct a terrorist attack in Shijiazhuang, capital city of Hebei Province, which neighbors Beijing.

Ekber was arrested before carrying out the plan.

As a sidebar, I should point out that an important objective of these articles is for the PRC to assert that returned Uyghurs not regarded as guilty of crimes against the PRC are being generously reintegrated into local society, not imprisoned and mistreated, in order to blunt refoulement-related criticism.  Not an unexpected development, at least to China Matters readers, since I wrote this on July 11:

I would expect the central government would arrange for the ostentatious pampering of these refouled Uyghurs (rather than the standard brutal treatment at the hands of the local security outfits in Xinjiang) in order to reconcile neighboring nations to the PRC’s demands.

Alright, enough patting myself on the back.

Meanwhile, the most interesting Uyghur/Turkish passport case continues to provide entertainment and enlightenment in Indonesia.

This case involves four Uyghurs whose passports, unlike Memetaili’s, were so impeccable that the Indonesian police—apparently with no useful assistance from Turkey—have been unable to refute their authenticity.

Three of the Uyghurs were recently convicted in Indonesian court on terrorism charges.

They were suspected of journeying to a remote Indonesian island to attempt to hook up with a notorious Indonesian militant whose organization has reportedly declared fealty to ISIS; and the PRC claims they are implicated in the horrific attack at the Kunming railroad station that left over 30 dead and over 100 wounded.

It is safe to say that nobody is going to try to invoke the principle of refoulement for these guys.

However, possibly to protect the rather tattered secrecy of the passport scheme, the Turkish government is still loathe to withdraw its protection.

Here is the report from BenarNews which, in contrast to pretty much every major outlet, has assiduously followed and reported this most interesting case:

A lawyer for three Uyghur men found guilty of trying to join an Indonesian terrorist group is appealing the verdict, BenarNews has learned.

The appeal was filed Wednesday after consultations with Turkish officials in Jakarta, according to defense attorney Asludin Hatjani.

“The embassy of Turkey sent staff to talk with the four defendants at Brimob Headquarters a day after the verdict. They agreed to appeal and I lodged the appeal yesterday after the talks,” Asludin told BenarNews on Thursday, referring to the police’s Mobile Brigade unit (Brimob).

“Currently we are waiting for a memorandum of appeal from the High Court.”

Turkey’s involvement corroborates that his clients are Turkish, he said.

“I can confirm they are citizens of Turkey, because their documents themselves are still recognized by the embassy and the police. Even the court itself stated their nationality is Turkish,” Asludin said.

During their trial at North Jakarta District Court, the men last month could not sing the Turkish national anthem or name its title when prosecutor Nana Riana challenged them to do so.

“How is it that a citizen doesn’t know the national anthem of his own country? I’m Indonesian. My national anthem is ‘Indonesia Raya,’” Nana said in court on June10.

The men’s citizenship could determine where they are sent once the trial is over, she later told BenarNews.

“Going forward, their citizenship status may influence the extradition agreement between Indonesian officials and the government of Turkey or China,” Nana said.

“If they are not Turkish citizens, possibly the court will destroy their passports.”

Earlier, the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) indicated that the four Uyghurs could be extradited to China after their trials.
The four are believed to have entered Indonesia using false Turkish passports via Malaysia. During an earlier court session they described taking a motorboat from Malaysia to Pekanbaru, Riau Province, on Sumatra island.

They flew to Jakarta, and visited Bogor and Bandung in Java before flying on to Makassar, in Sulawesi.

Shortly thereafter police arrested the four in Central Sulawesi province. Police said they were on their way to join the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), which is believed to be based in Poso regency in Central Sulawesi.

MIT is believed to have sworn allegiance to IS, and its leader Santoso – Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist – has welcomed foreign mujahideen to join the group, security officials say.

“We have no other intention but vacation,” Basit testified in court.

To sum up the overall “Passports for Uyghurs” affair, the preponderance of evidence indicates that Uyghurs going to Turkey with Turkish consular help is definitely a thing.  The PRC allegations that some of the Uyghurs were recruited and exfiltrated with the help of militants and some Turkish accommodation is, for me, persuasive.  

The possibility that the Turkish government is systematically playing the Uyghur militant card to increase its leverage in the Middle East and Central Asia as yet unproven.  But, motives aside,  it is difficult to entertain the idea that "passports for Uyghurs" was a local brainwave of Turkish consulates and not a decision taken somewhere high up in the Turkish government.

In any case, the Indonesian affairs indicates to me that blowback from the  reckless passport program—enabling pretty unequivocal terrorist activities--has already begun.

It is interesting to look back as recently as two years ago when Western outlets routinely downplayed evidence of Uyghur violence in order to undercut the PRC’s justification for its repressive Uyghur policies in Xinjiang.  In 2013, in covering the “SUV with Uyghur banners runs over tourists and catches fire in Tiananmen” incident, AFP ran: Uyghurs pour scorn on China Tiananmen ‘terrorist’ claim.

Think that ship has sailed.  Only question is if and how West will reconcile itself to heightened Uyghur militancy against the PRC.

Global Times, in its signature pugnacious style, pushed back against foreign criticism of a bloody security operation in Shenyang on July 13 that left three alleged Uyghur terrorists dead and sixteen detained:

The West never admits they support terrorist forces in Xinjiang. But through the mouth of the ETIM organizations, they clearly expressed their bias toward the terrorists. The terrorists in Xinjiang have been counting on Western support and believe their use of terrorism is justified.

Chinese people are clear that some Western forces are pushing the terrorist activities in Xinjiang.

"Some Western forces."  Hmmm.

Wonder if, for the purposes of PRC invective on Uyghur matters, we should take “West” as “Turkey”.  Or maybe it’s both?  This story isn’t over, so I think we’ll find out sooner or later.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Turkey's "Passports for Uyghurs" Scheme Continues Its Messy Public Unraveling

The year-long tug of war between Turkey and the PRC over several hundred Uyghur detainees in Thailand was finally resolved, Solomonic fashion, by Thailand sending 170+ women and children to Istanbul in early July in a little noticed event, and the deportation of 100+ Uyghur men to the PRC this week, which has occasioned much public ballyhoo, some nasty incidents inside Turkey, and toothless (and, I expect somewhat less than wholehearted) official execration by the US and the EU.

A most interesting sidebar to the Thailand story has been the wheels coming off the reckless Turkish passports-to-Uyghurs scheme.

To humblebrag here, I was one of the few to note and write about over the last few months, starting in February and here, and here in April, as well as my recent epic Turkey/Uyghur backgrounder.
To complement recent (well, as recent as a day or two before) public references to unnamed foreign countries providing documentation to Uyghurs, a Public Security Bureau official went on record to brief foreign journos that, yes, it is Turkey.

Hat tip to @akahnnyc for the link.  Thanks!

Please note that the PRC Foreign Ministry, as well as Global Times, were already raising the passport issue at the beginning of 2015.  First the PRC employed the polite fiction that some profit-minded freelancers were selling Turkish passports to Uyghurs; then it was “consulates and embassies of unnamed countries” were dishing out documents; now, unambiguously, the PRC is pointed the finger at the Turkish government.

In my opinion, the PRC is in a strong position.  I expect it hopes that by laying out its case it will gain the understanding of the Western media that Turkey really is doing something stupid and dangerous by enabling the flight of Uyghur malcontents who might end up fighting in Syria or worse.

Looks like Reuters might need a few repeat treatments to get the message.  It reports on the PSB backgrounder, throws in some persecuted Uyghur tropes, and completely misses the fact that the deportation of the 100 Uyghur men to the PRC by the Thai government was preceded by allowing 170 women and children among the detainees to fly to Istanbul the week before.

“Turkish embassies in Southeast Asia will give them proof of identity,” Tong Bishan, division chief of the Ministry of Public Security’s Criminal Investigation Department, told a small group of foreign reporters in Beijing on Saturday.

“They are obviously Chinese but they will give them identities as Turkish nationals.”

Tong said that hundreds of Uyghurs had been given documents by Turkish diplomats, especially in Kuala Lumpur, and then allowed into Turkey.

Neither the Turkish Foreign Ministry nor the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur were able to immediately provide comment.

The accusation is likely to further anger Ankara, already alarmed by the return of more than 100 Uyghurs to China from Thailand this week.

But upon arriving, Uyghurs have no chance of finding legal work and some end up with extremist groups, Tong said, like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing accuses of waging an insurrection campaign in Xinjiang to set up their own state.

“They are very easily controlled by certain local forces, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and other terrorist groups. They organize the youths, they brainwash them, and get them to the front line to fight. They are cannon fodder,” Tong said.

“There is competition for them. Some are sent to Iraq, some to Syria. The terrorist groups there lack people. They will snatch people away. The terrorist groups will pay, at least $2,000 a person. It’s their way of recruiting soldiers.”

That Mr. Tong knows what he’s talking about, I think.  The outlines of this story have been clear for months.  

The only remaining grey area is whether all the Uyghur men who end up in Syria are simply hapless “cannon fodder” recruited by jihadis, or whether the Turkish security services identify some particularly capable Uyghur militants, provide documents, and enable travel, training, and battlefield experience in Syria in order to cultivate Turkey-friendly assets in Syria or potentially in AfPak/Central Asia.  Might never get to the bottom of that one, unless the PRC decides to crank up the evidentiary apparatus another notch in order to make sure Western journos finally get the point.

Clearly, the PRC does not intend to yield on the issue of “refoulement” (the forcible return to nasty home countries of refugees, a humanitarian no-no, and the default US/EU stance on the handling of Uyghur refugees*) and is doing its best to reduce the political heat for Thailand and other countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, that hold Uyghur refugees and might want to get rid of them.  Per the Reuters piece.

The Bangkok-based newspaper The Nation, quoting a Thai Foreign Ministry release, reported on Friday that the Chinese government has invited Thai government officials to visit China to observe its treatment of the Uyghur migrants sent back to the country in an attempt to quash rumours that they were severely punished or killed.

The National Security Council of Thailand would consider inviting representatives of international organisations such as International Committee of the Red Cross to travel to China with the government officials.

The Thai ministry’s statement said that the Chinese government had reassured the Thai government that it would treat those people with fairness and guarantee their safety.

Moreover, care would be taken of those found not guilty and they would be returned to society. They would also be provided with farmlands, the Chinese government said.

I’m sure there’s a lot of snickering about this, but the PRC wants Uyghurs back and without hope of overseas recourse, havens, or foreign humanitarian hand-wringing.  I would expect the central government would arrange for the ostentatious pampering of these refouled Uyghurs (rather than the standard brutal treatment at the hands of the local security outfits in Xinjiang) in order to reconcile neighboring nations to the PRC’s demands.

The facts that the AKP & MHP youth wings have been harassing the Thai embassy, and the PRC has now essentially gone public with its accusations against Turkey indicate that Turkey was not completely satisfied with the partial release and the PRC is not completely happy with Turkey’s attitude.

But the fact that nobody is talking about the obvious “women & children go/men go back” deal is an indication that the mutual rancor is still contained.  (Here, by the way, is a Daily Sabah story on the 173 women and children after they arrived in Turkey. Note the line: “The rising oppression by the Chinese government and the effects of famine on Uighurs has left nearly 35 million people dead.”  There are only 11 million Uyghurs in the PRC, and the 35 million death toll looks like the China-wide count from the Great Leap Forward/Great Famine of the 1950s; it’s a rather unsettling that such a shaky grasp of the Uyghur situation in the PRC is apparently received wisdom in the mainstream Turkish media.)

There are several other difficult Uyghur refugee cases pending.

There's one, in Indonesia, that looks like pure dynamite that might blow up in Turkey's face.

Judging by reports to date, Turkey allegedly provided passports to Uyghurs implicated in the notorious Kunming railway station outrage (33 dead, 100+ wounded).  Said Uyghurs, instead of docilely flying to Turkey, surrendering their beautiful Turkish passports, and proceeding to the slums of Kayseri (the town in Turkey designated as the haven for Uyghur refugees), appear to have snuck into Indonesia via Malaysia and attempted to hook up with a notorious Muslim militant on a remote island; a militant, by the way, whose organization reportedly declared its allegiance to ISIS.  

Yes, it’s that tasty.

Four men—holding impeccable Turkish passports and insisting they are those Turkish people even though they couldn’t remember the birthdates on the passports—are currently on trial in Indonesia under these charges.  And, no, the Indonesian government is not happy, and has publicly stated it expects to ship the four back to PRC after the trial.

The Turkish embassy is busy dodging the obvious question of whether it will affirm the four as Turkish citizens despite what I expect is compelling evidence provided by the PRC that they are Uyghur citizens of the PRC known to the Public Security Bureau, or whether it’s better to throw in the towel and acknowledge that, yes, they are Uyghur militants who got Turkish passports from some Turkish embassy and started running around Asia in search of mischief.

Fact is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the brouhaha surrounding the refoulement of the 100 Uyghur men back to PRC isn’t part of a Turkish government strategy to dodge the public relations fallout from the Indonesian case.  You know, “We need to shift the frame away from ‘Turkish government irresponsibly gives undetectable travel documents to Muslim terrorists.’  Instead, let’s push ‘China persecutes innocent Uyghur brothers.  And we’ll use the deal we just made with the Chinese…to dump on the Chinese!’”  This, to me, seems like an Erdogan-type brainwave.  And the PRC response is, “Hey, Turkey’s just another crappy authoritarian regime like us.  They can’t get away with that!  Get Tong out to background the Western journos on the passport thing.”

The Uyghur project is obviously important to Turkey politically and, potentially, as a geopolitical play in Central Asia.  Whether the Turkish government is going to suck it up, repudiate the passport program, and leave the Uyghurs to the untender mercies of the PRC government remains to be seen.

But Turkey is playing with fire here.  And I expect the PRC will be relentless in its pursuit of, at least, Uyghur men detained in Asian countries in order to forestall their passage to Turkey.

* In an interesting sidelight, does anybody remember the Uyghurs at Guantanamo?  It’s important because the United States committed itself to the principle of non-refoulement of Uyghur refugees even as the US tacitly green-lit harsh PRC measures in Xinjiang—with the implication that Uyghur dissent was terrorism--as GWOT-justified responses.

The Bush administration harbored sympathies for Uyghur aspirations even as it scooped up Uyghurs for detention and interrogation at Guantanmo.  The Uyghurs were quickly judged to be no threat to the United States even though some of them had received some training in AQ camps in Afghanistan, under the logic that, if they were terrorists, they were anti-PRC terrorists a.k.a. “non-enemy combatants”.  So it was decided they could not be sent back to the PRC because of the fear of torture.  

So the Uyghurs became “non-enemy combatants" and "refugees protected by the principle of non-refoulement".  Which apparently did not protect them from interrogation by PRC security officers after the Guantanamo administration had obligingly softened them up with some sleep deprivation (a technique apparently learned from the experience of US POWs interrogated by the PRC during the Korean War!).  

President Bush tried to release the Uyghur detainees to other countries, but ran into ferocious PRC pressure on any country that dared considered receiving them.  So the Uyghurs were assigned for indefinite detention in low-security facilities at Gitmo. President Obama considered the Uyghur detainees to be the low-hanging fruit of his close-Guantanamo campaign.  But, when he tried to release some of them into the United States (a prerequisite required by other countries to take some Uyghur detainees themselves), he ran into a carefully-constructed and extremely hypocritical and dishonest Republican buzzsaw.  Full facts--including the eruption of Newt Gingrich s the enthusiastic pointman for the sabotage operation-- only at China Matters, natch.   Most if not all of the Uyghur detainees have now been released, I believe.

The PRC has tacitly accepted the principle of non-refoulement as it pertains to Tibetan refugees, who get to continue on to Dharmsala if they "touch base" at a safe harbor in Katmandu, Nepal (This unpublicized deal is the key "canary in the coal mine" for US-PRC engagement on Tibet, especially as the PRC gets less cooperative with the US and more assertive with Nepal.)

But the PRC isn't going to accept a similar arrangement for Uyghur refugees as it, rather understandably, deems the security risks unacceptable.

Below the fold, an update I posted the day before, when the first shoe dropped on the passport issue, courtesy of Global Times.  And, hey, if you want to understand the role of the Uyghur issue in Turkish politics and regional strategy—and the Uyghur element in Erdogan’s gonzo medieval cosplay honor guard—I suggest, humblebragging again, that you read my long, in-depth piece from July 1.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Uyghurs Edge Closer to Center of Turkish Diplomacy, Politics, and Geopolitical Strategy

Me on Twitter on July 1:

IMO most important development in PRC security is mainstreaming of support for Uyghurs in TK national politics. Way more serious than SCS.

Turkish anti-PRC furor was fueled by reports of the PRC campaign against Ramadan.  

In Daily Sabah, the English-language version of Sabah, a Turkish daily closely associated with Erdogan’s AKP party, Kilic Kanat, a professor at Penn State’s Erie campus with a strong interest in Uyghur issues and something of a China hawk, wrote a highly critical piece, China’s war on Ramadan, on the PRC’s campaign against Ramadan observance and, indeed the entire PRC system:

Instead of gaining legitimacy from and the loyalty of its citizens through political reform, participation and pluralism, the government seems to increase the sophistication of its repressive methods… These fears and concerns have reached paranoia in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwest China. One more time the Chinese government is adapting tragicomic methods and mechanisms to soothe its fear of being destroyed by the ethnic Turkic Uighur minority.

Criticism of the PRC quickly moved beyond the opinion columns, as can be seen from a few days’ snips from Twitter:

Turkey says it is concerned over China’s Ramadan bans on Uighurs - DIPLOMACY 
China Ramadan Ban: Turkey Protesters Target Chinese Restaurant In Istanbul During Holy Month Of Fasting ibtimes.com/china-ramadan- [with the requisite irony, it turned out the offending restaurant’s only “Chinese” employee was the Uyghur cook-PL]

Turkish Footballer #AlparslanÖztürk to donate 10% of his salary to Uyghur #Muslims

Arda Turan'dan 'Doğu Türkistan' mesajı - Hürriyet Futbol http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/29415391.asp … via @hurriyet [an internationally known Turkish footballer playing for Madrid asked for prayers for East Turkestan on his social media feed]

A popular Turkish comedian, Şahan Gökbakar, posted a picture on his facebook page showing the PRC flag as a bloody blotch on the East Turkestan flag:

A campaign against China started in Turkish social media today with the hashtag #StopTerorismInChina today. [These tweets are mostly in English and include atrocity photos, some of which are apparently bogus, such as a picture of a woman who hung herself in a well with her two children in India, but was attributed incorrectly to Xinjiang--PL]

A political/electoral component marked protests on June 28, as reported by Today’s Zaman:

In Ankara, the Ülkü Ocakları, a youth organization affiliated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), prayed at a funeral procession for those killed in East Turkestan, at the Mustafa Asım Köksal Mosque in Keçiören. Speaking after the prayer, Olcay Kılavuz, the head of the youth movement, gave a press statement where he declared that the red flag of Turkey and the blue flag of East Turkestan were equal.  [emphasis added]

Kılavuz also said that members of Ülkü Ocakları would resume their struggle in favor of their brothers in East Turkestan, until their last breath. He added that the government was keeping silent about the killings and ongoing oppression in East Turkestan.

Associate Professor Savaş Eğilmez from the history department of Atatürk University in Erzurum joined other academics in criticizing the current ban against Uyghur citizens fasting in East Turkestan, according to the Anadolu news agency. "We must do all that we can for this oppression to stop," he said.

Another political punctuation point in the campaign occurred on July 1.

In Daily Sabah, illustrated with a picture of a crowd holding up an effigy of a bloody baby, with a weeping woman and the blue East Turkestan flag, appeared the headline:

Protests broke out overnight all over Turkey with thousands of people taking to the streets to demand that China stop its alleged discrimination against Muslims.

Demonstrators gathered in Istanbul, İzmir, Trabzon, Samsun, Bursa, and 20 other locations late Wednesday to chant and shout for justice for an East Turkistan.
In Tarabya district of Istanbul - the home of the Chinese Consulate, and the largest protest - hundreds of members of the youth branch of the country's dominant political force, the AK Party, gathered outside the building where they broke fast with water and Turkish bagels.

Slogans such as "Long live hell for torturers", "Silence is consent, wake up and raise your voice" and "We stand with East Turkistan" were shouted.
The "concern" expressed Wednesday night is reflective of the sentiment that many Turks have with regard to the Uighur issue.

Many Turks refer to China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region - home to many ethnic minority groups, including Turkic Uighur people -- as East Turkestan.

They believe that Uighur are among a number of Turkic tribes that inhabit the region, and consider it to be part of Central Asia, not China. [emphasis added]

The PRC government hasn’t responded to the demonstrations yet (though it did ask for “clarification” of the Turkish government’s Ramadan criticisms); but it undoubtedly noted 1) the organizational role of the AKP youth wing 2) the East Turkestan flags/slogans in addition to Uyghur friendly-rhetoric in a government affiliated demo and 3) favorable coverage of the demonstrations by the AKP-friendly Daily Sabah. 
They may also find it interesting that, at least in Daily Sabah’s coverage, the presence of ethnic Uyghurs—who, one would think would certainly attend such a demo—was not reported.

And as context for the demonstrations, we find that President Erdogan wants to demonstrate the depth of his support for Uyghurs, either out of conviction, geopolitical calculation, or the need to protect his nationalist political flank against the more stridently nationalistic MHP party (whose youth wing had provided the rhetoric at the funeral procession for Uyghur dead on June 28):

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli have clashed over which of them has actually displayed solidarity with the Muslim Uyghur minority in China’s northwestern East Turkistan (Xinjiang) region.

Messages that Bahçeli posted on his Twitter account late on June 27 fueled the row, as he suggested that nobody was even talking about the plight of Uyghur Turks, while everybody has been obsessed with the developments in the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobane on the Turkish border with Syria, which has been the scene of deadly clashes between Kurdish forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters.

“From Nişantaşı to Yüksekova, everybody is concerned about the fight between two terrorist groups in Kobane. Nobody is speaking about China’s brutality in East Turkestan, not even mentioning it,” Bahçeli said.

Violent attacks and unrest have been on the rise in recent years both across China and in East Turkistan (Xinjiang). Beijing has blamed what it describes as “terrorist” incidents on violent separatists from the vast, resource-rich region, where information is often difficult to verify inde-pendently. Rights groups accuse China’s government of cultural and religious repression that they say fuels unrest in East Turkistan (Xinjiang).

Erdoğan appeared to have taken the criticism from Bahçeli personally when he delivered a speech at a fast-breaking dinner a few hours later in the same day.

“Now, some politicians emerge and supposedly refer to me. What do they say? ‘Those who solely deal with Arabs and solely with those in Kobane and Tal Abyad are forgetting Uyghur Turks.’ I am telling that person: ‘Have you ever travelled to the place where Uyghur Turks live?’ But Tayyip Erdoğan went,” Erdoğan said, without citing Bahçeli’s name.

Media outlets revealed in their archives that almost exactly one year ago, in the run-up to the presidential election in August 2014 when he was elected to his current post, Erdoğan suggested that Bahçeli had never been to the region in his life.

At the time, Bahçeli responded to Erdoğan with photographs posted to his Twitter account. Photos showed Bahçeli with Uyghur Turks in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) and Kashgar during a visit to China in 2001 in his capacity as the deputy prime minister of the time.

Amid the sound and fury, a most important development went almost unnoticed.

In what is huge news for the Uyghur diaspora, the government of Thailand allowed 170 of the Uyghurs it had detained for over a year to go to Turkey.  Here’s how RFA reported it:

Gungor Yavuzarslan, the president of the International Journalists Association of Turkish-Speaking Countries, was quoted by the Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) network Wednesday confirming that 173 Uyghurs had arrived in the country a day earlier, and calling their acceptance a “diplomatic victory for Turkey on the international stage.”

A Uyghur scholar living in the capital Ankara also confirmed the group’s arrival to RFA, but said Turkish officials had sought to downplay the move amid ongoing internal political negotiations.

“I am aware of this news, but the Turkish government is trying to form a coalition [between the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement party (MHP)] following the parliamentary election, so they do not want to publicize it,” he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.

I should say why, given way the MHP & AKP have both been playing up the Uyghur angle, I don’t really understand the comment about the publicity.  

Certainly, the triumph was diluted somewhat by the fact that Thailand split the families, if not the baby, by only allowing women and children to leave and, presumably out of deference to the PRC, continues to detain the men.  Nevertheless, a big win for Turkey and I imagine Erdogan would want to shout this from the mountaintops and tender regard for his probable MHP allies (whom he had just ripped on the same issue in remarks at an iftar dinner) did not really figure in his calculations.

I’m assuming the local press has been told to downplay the news (there have been a couple of brief articles in the Turkish press that I’ve been able to find, and most outlets have reprinted an Al Jazeera article & the RFA piece) so the PRC doesn’t feel it’s getting its nose rubbed in it.  Given the close relationship between the PRC and the new Thai junta, I’m guessing that the Thai government obtained assurances of PRC forbearance before releasing the Uyghurs.

The AP subsequently quoted the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson as expressing displeasure at the release, saying: 

Beijing opposes "any actions that aid and abet, or even support illegal migration."

"We believe that the international community should share common responsibility for combating and preventing illegal migration."

But I didn’t find the reference on the “Spokesperson’s Remarks” (which is highlights, to the PRC anyway, of the press conference, not a full transcript) at the PRC MOFA website, an indication to me that the PRC knew about it, had decided to soft-pedal it, and is now busy moving on.

So we get a picture of popular anger at PRC abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, stoked by two nationalist Turkish parties, the AKP and the MHP, in a spirit of political competition, combined with a general tendency of the governments, both on the PRC and Turkish side to treat the current brouhaha as a secondary element in the ebb and flow of the diplomatic and strategic relationship.

In other words, not much different from other governments that find themselves compelled to modulate their resentment at overbearing PRC behavior in response to Beijing’s outreach, blandishments, and arm-twisting.

Business as usual in the Rising China era, maybe.

But maybe not.

Turkey’s a bit different.

One of the most interesting developments of the last few years has been Turkish neo-Ottomanism.

Turkey grew out of an intensely nationalistic, perhaps even prototypically fascist rejection of Ottoman imperial and multicultural pretensions after the collapse of the empire in the wake of World War I, in favor of a laser focus on the supremacy of ethnic Turks in an ethnically cleansed, militarily defensible, and politically impregnable homeland.

However, in an interesting parallel with Japan’s “quest for normalcy” under Abe 70 years after its shattering defeat in World War II, Erdogan has adopted a quasi-imperial interest in asserting Turkey’s influence both regionally, in the areas of the old Ottoman empire, and in Central Asia, where the Turkish people originated before they made their westward trek to the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Today, the “stans” of Central Asia are largely Turkic speaking and considered a suitable object of Turkish attentions, and especially those of Turkish nationalists.   This map reconfigures Central Asia into North, South, and East Turkestan.

Xinjiang, the "stan that never was" in my formulation, homeland of the Uyghurs, is East Turkestan.

In current Turkish nationalist cartography, East Turkestan is the opposite bookend to Turkey in a belt of Turkic civilization stretching across Central Asia.  The East Turkestan flag is identical to the current Turkish flag, except in background color (red for Turkey, sky-blue for East Turkistan) making for some nice graphics and patriotic associations.

The Uyghurs figure in Erdogan’s notorious honor guard of 16 soldiers dressed in historical warrior costumes, who astounded the world when they appeared during a welcoming ceremony for President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in January 2015.

Each warrior represents one of the 16 “great (or historic) Turkish empires” commemorated on Turkey’s official seal. 

One of the stars marks the Uyghur Khanate, which was actually centered in present-day Mongolia (Uyghurs subsequently migrated southwestward to present-day Xinjiang).  The Uyghur Khanate appears to have had subjected the Tang Dynasty to a de facto tributary relation when the Chinese empire was weak, doing rather badly, and desperately in need of steppe military muscle.  

The Uyghur Khanate anchors a chain of Turkic empires as conceived by Turkish nationalists, one that extends across Central Asia and, naturally, terminates in modern-day Turkey, in a “March of Empire” narrative that is understandably more popular than the “Turkish tribes asskicked westward by competing steppe kingdoms until they ended up on the shores of the Mediterranean” version preferred by Mongolian nationalists and perhaps some historians.

Thanks to Hurriyet, we know that the Uyghur warrior was the sixth man from the top of the steps on the left, with the black flaps hanging down and almost obscuring his face.


The shielding for the neck and face is apparently called a “leather aventail”, available for purchase for only $55 from Leatherhelms.com.  Helm not included.

Wonder if Erdogan will deploy that honor guard next time there’s a state visit from the PRC.

I believe Turkish neo-imperial incitement of Uyghur pride involves more than historical dressup.

As a matter of government policy, Turkey has unambiguously been positioning itself ideologically as the protector of the Uyghurs and has welcomed Uyghur refugees to Turkey.  It has also advocated on behalf of Uyghur refugees who have escaped Xinjiang, providing consular services and even passports, and, as noted above, energetically agitated with the government of Thailand to allow Uyghurs detained in Thailand for illegal entry to continue on to Turkey.

That’s part and parcel of Turkish official discourse.  But there are also compelling hints of shenanigans by Turkish security forces presumably intended to engage, penetrate, exploit, subvert Uyghur militant elements and, if the universal history of covert ops is any guide, abet one or more embarrassing terrorism-related screwups that must be hushed up.

There are dark mutterings that Uyghur fighters perhaps up to a number of several hundred have appeared in Syria thanks to the assistance of the Turkish government.  Uyghur refugees reside in rather miserable conditions in Turkey and some young men might fall prey to the blandishments of  ostensibly freelance but presumably government security forces-linked jihadi recruiters for the Syrian struggle.

There are also signs that the Turkish government has gone a step further and actively facilitated Uyghur illegal emigration from the PRC by providing false passports, perhaps for the purpose of recruiting and developing trained Uyghur militants as a security and power projection asset.

In the end of 2014, the PRC government shut down a “passport forging” ring that was selling falsified Turkish passports to Uyghurs seeking to leave the country. 

I put the phrase “passport forging” in quotes because it would appear to be extremely difficult for these passports to be “forged” by a criminal gang, and not prepared with the assistance of the Turkish government.

Turkish passports include a smart chip.  The smart chip contains more than the alphanumeric text information from the passport page; it also includes biometric data on facial dimensions.  The data is loaded onto a chip, which is then encrypted.

Provision of falsified Turkish passports to Uyghurs apparently became a big deal.  

 Today’s Zaman, a not particularly Erdogan-friendly mainstream outlet, retailed a sensational piece of tittle-tattle from the local Turkish press in April:

According to a story in the Meydan daily, A.G., an aide of Nurali T., a Uyghur Turk working for ISIL to provide militants with passports worldwide, Nurali T.'s office in İstanbul's Zeytinburnu district functions as an ISIL passport office. Each passport was sold for $200, A.G. told Meydan.

More than 50,000 Uyghur Turks came to Turkey with these fake passports from China via Thailand and Malaysia and entered Syria after staying a day in İstanbul, Meydan reported. A.G. claimed that most of the Uyghurs with fake passports were caught by police in Turkish airports but they were released in Turkey after their passports were seized. “The Uyghurs' release in Turkey is due to a secret [little-known] Turkish law on Uyghur Turks. More than 50,000 Uyghurs joined ISIL through this method,” A.G. added.

A.G. further said that Nurali T. organizes recruits from around the world from his İstanbul office. Militants who entered Turkey with these fake passports are hosted either in hotels or guesthouses for a day before they join ISIL in Syria, A.G. said.

The 50,000 militant figure is, hopefully, vastly exaggerated BS.  The best estimates are that there only 50,000 Uyghurs in Turkey en toto. But I suspect there is a grain of truth in it as well.

I infer the Turkish government’s angle is that Uyghurs get falsified travel documents, but these documents are flagged at Turkish immigration and confiscated so the refugees have no alternative to obeying the dictates of their handlers in Turkish security.  Some eager and promising Uyghurs get hustled off to gain training and battlefield experience in Syria, and hopefully survive to become long-term assets for whatever the Turkish security services hope to accomplish in Central Asia as well as the Middle East. 

Since Turkish biometric passports are good for free travel within the EU, I would think the Turkish government would not be interested in advertising that they are handing out passports to Uyghurs, some of whom engage in terrorist activity that advances Turkish interests, or fuel anxiety that they have anything less than a 100% success rate in recovering these passports…or that maybe anti-PRC terrorists exploited the generous Turkish clandestine passport policy to bug out of the PRC for reasons of their own.

And it looks plausible that the first big screwup in Turkish government footsie with Uyghur militants is now playing out in Indonesia, as this June 12 article from Benar News implies:

There are four suspected Uyghurs currently on trial in Indonesia.  “Suspected” because they insist they are Turkish citizens per the impeccable Turkish passports they were holding when the Indonesian government arrested them, even though (in a rather basic tradecraft lapse) they apparently neglected to memorize the birthdates listed on the passport.

The case of these four Uyghurs is not just a minor annoyance to the PRC government.  It claims that these detainees were involved in the bloody attack at the Kunming rail station that killed 33 and wounded over 100.

And it’s not just a minor annoyance to the Indonesian government.  It does not believe that the four were engaged in tourism that went awry when they ended up on remote island allegedly attempting to link up with a notorious Indonesian separatist/terrorist/Islamic militant, one Santoso.

Turkish official attitude…well:

Turkey responds
Officials at the Turkish embassy in Jakarta did not deny Asludin’s claim about his clients being Turkish citizens.

“You should take into account what the lawyer says. On the other hand, [the Indonesian] Attorney General officially asked the Turkish embassy to provide the translator for the court. So this is what procedure says, and we follow that,” Ambassador Zekeriya Akcam said in a statement sent to BenarNews on Thursday.

A fine kettle of fish.

In my opinion, the Turkish government looks rather enviously at the Arab Sunni paramilitary muscle on tap to project power and influence in the Middle East for Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

I think President Erdogan would like, as a matter of national self-interest as well as personal ego, to develop a similar capability using Turkic-speaking paramilitary assets to project Turkish power into the Middle East, mainly Syria, to make sure that Turkey has sufficient heft to stand up to Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the subject of Syria’s future or lack of it.

But the paramilitary tool will also give Turkey the option of assisting/intimidating/countering local forces in Central Asia.  That means competing with the PRC, as well as trying to overawe the rickety ex-Soviet stans.

And Uyghurs, otherwise stateless and many with an intense sense of grievance against the PRC and the willingness to leave Xinjiang and fight, are a tempting source of manpower.

I’d speculate that the Turkish government is beginning to regard Uyghur anger as a useful asset in competing with the PRC for influence in the Turkic-speaking stans of Central Asia, and perhaps even punish the PRC for its resistance to Turkish aims in Syria.

Particularly today, burgeoning overt Turkish moral and diplomatic sponsorship of Uyghur aspirations is an important geopolitical issue for the PRC.

For decades, the dominant Islamic political and military formation in South Asia has been Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban.  And the PRC, drawing on its history and contacts as quartermaster for the foreign support of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, has persistently and effectively engaged with the Afghan Taliban, both directly and through Pakistan, to protect PRC interests…and discourage the harboring of Uyghur militants.

Now, however, this system shows signs of breaking down, as IS gains a hearing and adherents among splinter groups that are less than entranced with Mullah Omar, and viscerally opposed to the PRC and its oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Chief among them is the Pakistan Taliban, or PTT, which is not just the branch office of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan.

The formative event for the creation of the PTT was the storming of the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad by President Musharaff in 2007—at the behest of the People’s Republic of China.

Elements of the PTT, and anti-Mullah Omar factions inside Afghanistan, are declaring allegiance to IS.  And they also provide a welcome to Uyghur militants. 
Cracks in the containment regime are emerging at a most unwelcome time for the PRC, since it is escalating the repression of Uyghur political, religious, and cultural expression, and trying to maintain the stability of Xinjiang, a one-time backwater that has been become a linchpin of the PRC’s Central Asia/Silk Road strategy.

If the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan government are unable to dissuade local jihadis from harboring Uyghur militants, and Turkey does not resist the urge to meddle on behalf of the Uyghurs, the PRC faces a situation in Xinjiang potentially analogous to the anti-Soviet war conducted by the mujahideen in Chechnya: local militant forces with cross-border havens attracting foreign fighters and enjoying material and diplomatic support from an outside power as a matter of ideology and strategic self-interest.

I expect the PRC government will put immense pressure on the Afghan and Pakistan governments, the Taliban, and Turkey to deny Uyghur separatists institutional support.  And if the situation in Xinjiang and in Pakistan/Afghanistan shows signs of getting out of hand, I would not rule out the possibility that the PRC’s first international military intervention since 1979 would occur, not in the South China Sea, but in the Central Asian borderlands.

But if Turkey provides material, propaganda, and diplomatic support to Uyghur aspirations as part of a power play in a contest with the PRC for influence in Central Asia,that might not be enough.

As to whether Turkey would recklessly put the Uyghur issue in play and endanger the rickety system of Uyghur control instituted by the PRC and Kazahkstan and endorsed by Pakistan & Afghanistan, well, one word…Syria.

Turkey is determinedly blowing up an entire country on its own doorstep, so I’m not sure it would have overwhelming strategic and moral qualms about screwing up a remote corner of Inner Asia, especially if it turns out cultivating the Uyghur cause is perceived to be good politics, useful diplomacy, and a nastily effective power projection gambit.

And that’s why I think the mainstreaming of support for Uyghurs as a bedrock issue in Turkish politics is big thing for the PRC—bigger than the entire pivot-enabling kabuki over uninhabited rocks, atolls, and sandbars in the South China Sea.