Turkish-Chinese ties warm but with potential for conflict
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a closed-door meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit, which took place last week in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires. After the meeting, Erdogan stated that Turkey was ready to bolster cooperation with China on global and regional issues, while Xi added that he has kept in close contact with Erdogan in recent years.
Just two days after the leaders’ meeting, Turkey’s Parliament Speaker Binali Yildirim paid an official visit to China, where he met with his counterpart and the premier of the country, Li Keqiang. “We see China as a strategic and friendly country,” said Yildirim, referring to the importance of the geographical situation of Turkey and China on the historic Silk Road.
Chinese officials regularly underline that they are ready to work with Turkey in every field based on mutual interests. In an interview last October, Chinese Ambassador to Turkey Yu Hongyang underlined that Ankara and Beijing have established a strategic partnership with the help of Erdogan’s leadership. Last month, Turkish Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul was also in China, where he signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate more closely with his hosts on judicial issues. In another sign of warmer ties between Turkey and China, the leaders have met six times in the last three years, leading to the inking of agreements and opening of new areas of cooperation.
Turkey-China ties have been inconsistent since they were officially established in 1971, but the last decade has seen an increase in bilateral trade and warmer political relations.
Turkish-Sino relations have been inconsistent since they were officially established in 1971. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Ankara and Beijing were given added impetus. The last decade in particular has seen an increase in bilateral trade between the countries. China became Turkey’s key trading partner as of 2016, leaving Germany behind. And Erdogan and Xi agreed to further strengthen trade relations when they met on the sidelines of the 10th BRICS summit that took place in South Africa in July.
Although there are some political dimensions to the relationship, ranging from Syria to Africa, the overall rationale is economic. And, at the core of Turkey’s interest in bolstering relations with China, lies the long-term vision for a strong economic cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative. Turkish officials have repeatedly stated Ankara’s enthusiasm for China’s grand project.
However, just as Turkey’s closeness with Russia was interpreted as moving away from the Western alliance, Turkish-Chinese rapprochement has also been viewed through the same lens. This is a false assessment for three reasons.
Firstly, Turkey’s relations with China significantly differ from its relations with Russia, since Ankara-Moscow ties are built on their Astana deal in Syria and military cooperation. Secondly, Ankara getting closer with Beijing is not because of Turkey’s problematic relations with the Western community, namely the EU and NATO ally the US. Rather, it is because, as a rising middle power, it searches for global partners to cooperate with for its long-term economic development, and China appeared as a potential partner. Thirdly, Turkey is not likely to consider China as an alternative to the West, despite the ups and downs in its relations with the latter.
From the other side, while Turkish-Chinese relations are blossoming, the relationship is no bed of roses. There is the issue of the Uighurs — the Muslim Turkic ethnic minority in Xinjiang — but this does not currently pose a serious risk as the sides have reached an understanding on the matter. Secondly, China is also a crucial player in the Syrian war. Although Turkey confronted Russia and the US in the Syrian context, it has not yet confronted China. However, the past has shown that Syria has been a serious testing ground for several alliances and efforts for Turkey and China to find common ground there will be a curious case.
Africa is the other area where China is having a growing influence, but facing new players on the ground, namely Turkey, which is also looking to increase its political and economic influence. As part of its Africa Initiative, Turkey has opened several embassies on the continent and has recently won big infrastructure projects there. Although Turkey’s annual trade with the continent is far less than China’s, it has made a major push in a short period of time.
Turkey is considered as a newcomer to Africa, yet, 26 years ago on Saturday, the Turkish Parliament decided to back participation in the US-led peace operation in Somalia following an invitation letter from the UN. Somalia is the core country of Turkey’s Africa opening.
Turkey’s policy toward Africa significantly differs from that of other actors and China, which is predominantly based on economics. Turkey seems to be taking determined steps in its policy toward Africa and time will tell whether the continent will be an area of cooperation or competition between Ankara and Beijing.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.