Cooperation among the Turkic states has significantly risen in recent years. Established in 2009, the Cooperation Council of the Turkic Speaking States, also known as the Turkic Council, was transformed into the Organization of Turkic States in 2021 with the aim of generating “greater mutual support and solidarity in line with the needs of its members.” Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan are full members of the organization, while Hungary and Turkmenistan are observers (though Turkmenistan is set to join as a full member in the organization’s November 2022 summit in Samarkand.
Shortly after the announcement of the transformation of the Turkic Council into the Organization of Turkic States, the Global Times, a newspaper published under the auspices of the Communist Party of China, wrote that this change signified how “the organization has been politicized and has been upgraded into a political union” with a tendency towards “pan-Turkism.” “This organization may trigger the rise of extreme nationalism, which could intensify ethnic conflicts and hit the regional stability and security,” it added. The commentary denied the Turkic ethnicity of the Uyghur people living in northwestern China and called for China’s vigilance in countering pan-Turkism and “separatist forces who have attempted to split China.”
The idea of establishing a Turkic union and even Turkic unification gained vast support in early twentieth century, but due to the domination of Central Asia and the Caucuses by the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, the idea’s popularity gradually waned. In the post-Cold War era the idea has re-emerged, and prominent Turkic figures have been calling for an ever-stronger Turkic union.
In December 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey attended the Baku Victory Parade and recited a controversial poem which supports the idea of Azerbaijani unification, causing an uproar among Iranians and a spike in diplomatic tensions between Iran and Turkey. Shortly afterward, Devlet Bahcheli, the leader of Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party, reiterated the poem and made several important remarks. “I have said in the past, and say it again: Shah Ismail is as much of a Turk that Yavuz [Selim I] is … Turk does not have Sunni or Shiite, Turk is Turk and cannot fit into any other description or division … It should be known that Ötüken’s strategic mind cannot be blunted, his holy goals cannot be overlooked,” he continued. Ötüken was the capital of the First Turkic Khaganate and later became the capital of the Uyghur Khaganate. In Turkic mythology, Ötüken is the name of the sacred mountain of the ancient Turkic people from which a force was emanated that gave a divine right to the leader to rule all the Turkic tribes.
Enhanced cooperation among the Turkic states could have significant strategic implications across Eurasia. It could facilitate trade between Asia and Europe and might play a major role in Europe’s energy security. Especially, in the wake of Russo-Ukrainian War, the Middle Corridor or the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR) has gained vast attention as an alternative route for Europe’s supply chains. But there is another major implication of the rise in Turkic cooperation, which is the potential role it could play in a broader conflict with China.
China has routinely expressed its intent to reunify the Chinese mainland with Taiwan. In the recent Chinese Communist Party congress, President Xi Jinping reiterated this position and reaffirmed that although China wants a peaceful reunification it will “never promise to renounce the use of force” and will “reserve the option of taking all measures necessary.”
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan could spiral into a broader war involving other countries. The United States, for its part, will seriously consider intervening in the conflict to prevent Taiwan’s takeover. Since 2021, President Joe Biden has said several times that the United States will defend Taiwan in case China launched an invasion of the island. Other countries such as Japan and the Philippines might also be dragged into the conflict. But in such a scenario, will China’s western borders remain secure?
Among China’s neighbors, no nation will likely be keener than the Turkic world to capture a significant chunk of the Chinese mainland in case a broad conflict erupted in the region. In the Xinjiang region of China, or East Turkestan as the Uyghurs call it—which in terms of area is bigger than California, Texas, Illinois, and New York combined—a large Uyghur population is living within a system of severe Chinese repression that includes arbitrary detainment, mass sterilization and family separation, and systemic rape, sexual abuse, and torture. The U.S. government has declared the Chinese government’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide.
As cooperation among the Turkic states grows, their alliance will likely include increased cooperation in military affairs and might even move toward forming a military alliance. Such a move would mean a much higher projection of Turkish and Azerbaijani—that possess strong and combat-ready militaries—power in Central Asia across Chinese borders. A strong Turkic alliance could also foster the establishment of a cooperative Altaic arc around China that would include Mongolia and potentially Japan and South Korea.
With China’s growing military power and determination to seize Taiwan, only the perception of a proportionate or higher cost for such a move could provide a credible deterrent. In case of a broader war over Taiwan, a potential war with the Turkic alliance and a possible loss of Xinjiang is something that would make any Chinese leader think twice.
Amin E. Aghjeh is a doctoral candidate in History at the University of Vienna where he is working on U.S. diplomatic history and international affairs.