Authors: Wang Li & Fan Yao-tian

During his 2-day visit to China (August 2-3), Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey informed the media that the two countries should take the consensus between the two heads of state as guidance to push forward the development of their strategic cooperative partnership.

Yes, over the past decades, China and Turkey, although separated by the Eurasia and differences in their cultures, have developed close ties through the win- win working relationship. They are the members of the G-20 which will be playing more significant role than the G-7 in the world affairs. Now China and Turkey agreed to integrate the "Belt & Road" initiative with the "Middle Corridor" project in terms of practical cooperation in the fields such as anti-terrorism, regional stability and global climate change. Chinese FM Wang Yi reiterated that China firmly supports Turkey's efforts to safeguard its sovereignty, security and stability. And Turkish FM stressed that Turkey continues firmly and powerfully adhering to the one-China policy; and therefore, it will not allow any activities to undermine China's sovereignty and security in its territory. Both sides vow to continuously take care of reciprocal core interest and enhance political mutual trust.

This is not an easy task for historically China and Turkey needed each other only in a symbolic way. During the heyday of the Cold War, the two sides were in effect within the opposed camps and even had engaged fiercely in the Korean War. A new era was not opened until the year of 1971 when the two countries extended diplomatic recognition to each other in the wake of President Nixon’s visit to Beijing. Yet, the bilateral relations between China and Turkey were still less important in view of the latter’s ties with the United States, the Soviet Union, France and Britain, all of them were the nuclear powers and the permanent members of the UN Security Council; and the mutual needs were still low in a practical sense. The significant changes took place in the 1980s when China undertook the overall reforms and openness policy with a view of a peaceful rise in the current world system, evidently dominated by the U.S. and its allies. It requires that China works intelligently and consistently to promote its new image over the world, in which Turkey is believed as a strong military power and an influential player in the Middle East and later in the Central Asian states after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Given this, the significance of Sino-Turkish relationship can be understood from two perspectives as follows.

First is the consideration of their core interest in terms of sovereignty, security and stability. It is reported that thousands of Uighurs have fled China in recent years to seek asylum in Turkey, with many traveling on to Syria to join Islamic militant groups. According to what a German—Afghan officer serving in the NATO troops observed that fairly speaking now hundreds of Uighurs, if not far more, are believed to have joined the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front while others have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group or sided with smaller militant factions in the Syrian conflict.

China has legitimate concerns about such battle-hardened extremists returning to their homeland—Xinjiang—to wage violence in pursuit of their goal of establishing an independent “East Turkestan” and recruiting more Uighurs to join ISIS’ ranks. In 2016, ISIS released its first propaganda video with Uighur subtitles directly targeting China. Considering this challenge, Chinese top leaders accept that maintaining a respectful dialogue with their counterparts in Ankara on the Uighur row is wise in terms of geopolitics and its expanding trade globally. Meanwhile Turkey is now increasingly unsettled by Central Asian and Uighur fighters from ISIS set on spilling blood at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub. There is no doubt the two countries have diverse opinions on the issues of Uighur, yet have recently warmed amid a broader political realignment. Since China, Russia and Turkey have enhanced their consultation and cooperation in the case of Syria while Erdogan has pulled away from the orbit of the EU directives amid disputes over human rights and other issues. In return, China has expressed openness toward Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a regional security regime comprised of Russia, the central Asian states and now India and Pakistan as well. With all the vicissitudes, FM Cavusoglu frankly said in Beijing that Turkey regarded China’s security as akin to its own and fully appreciated all the actions China has taken in combating the Islamic State group as well as reaching a political settlement in the Syrian War. Here is the point that the Turkish government under President Erdogan would root out militants plotting against Beijing, signaling closer cooperation against suspected Uighur militants hailing from China's far west who have long been a sore point in bilateral relation.

Second is the shared desire to be great powers in the new century. As China has put forward the “Belt & Road Initiative” as the century’s project linking it to Europe, Turkey and Russia have backed some major Chinese initiatives to develop infrastructure spanning the Eurasian continent that were initially shunned by Western powers. Turkey is regarded as the key player in the Middle East and the Central Asia as well. Chinese FM Wang Yi hailed the visit of his Turkish counterpart, speaking that "deepening the collaboration on anti-terror and region’s security is the most central part of the two countries' relationship.”

That may be a small price for Turkey to pay given the benefits it expects from a better relationship with China, the second largest economy now. Turkey has expressed a keen interest in the BRI, enticed by prospects of a high-speed railway and a nuclear plant, among other projects that China has pledged to build in Turkey. But Beijing has hinted that such projects are in part conditional on a more China- friendly security policy. President Xi talked frankly in a meeting with Erdogan at the Belt and Road Summit in May: “In order to promote even greater development of relations, China and Turkey must respect and give consideration to each other’s core concerns, and deepen security and counter-terrorism cooperation.” In other words, Turkey may opine China’s suggestion on security issues if it is serious to have a more favorable economic relationship.

Traditionally, China was not a major trade partner of Turkey, but the bilateral relations between the two have grown significantly since Turkey’s ruling Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Economically, Turkey already represents an important market for China. By 2010 China was the third largest source of Turkey's imports, the previous decade seeing trade between the two countries rising more than 12 fold to a value of 20 billion dollars. The signing of Strategic Agreement in Ankara (2016) included a target of 50 billion dollars of mutual trade by 2015 rising to 100 billion dollars by 2020. In addition, China’s global investment and acquisition strategies always ranked as Beijing’s top priority when it came to defining relations with Turkey, which surely creates more opportunities for stronger cooperation between the two countries in the years to come. Ultimately, Turkey and China’s deepening economic links are illustrative of Ankara’s quest to pivot east and Beijing’s drive to invest in an important country that serves as a hub for transcontinental energy and trade routes. Despite pressure from some members of a domestic constituency in Turkey, the two countries are likely to strengthen the bilateral ties without the Uighur issue derailing such progress. Clearly, it is in the area of foreign investment and joint production that Turkey's new strategic partnership with China could really shine.

Some scholars like to argue that Turkey’s overtures to China and Russia as well may be more than idle flirtation or empty anti-Western posturing. Since the failed coup attempt of 2016, Turkey has been looking east for new partners in order to decrease its dependence on European allies. Turkey is still unable to cope with the issue of East Turkestan and the plight of the area's security. Yet, Russia has played the most influential role in Turkey’s strategic pivot. China also factors into Ankara’s eastward shift. It is true that the ruling AKP party in Turkey has different factions, some of them nationalists who want to inflame tensions with China over Uighurs, and other pragmatic members who want to maintain good relations with China believing that the Uyghur issue is being abused to spoil relations between China and Turkey by the United States. Turkey has had to follow its own country's interests first with a pragmatic approach to foreign affairs.

No matter how you would like to interpret the relationship between China and Turkey, one thing is assured that both sides were the ancient empires dictating the rules in each realm, and both were the underdogs at the mercy of the Western powers in modern history; and now both powers have aspired to struggle for the greatness in the era of globalization. Given this, China and Turkey are aware of the results: standing together is much stronger than walking alone.

(*) Fan Yao-tian, MA in Finance and a free-lance writer on international affairs

Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.

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