Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's official visit to Turkey on October 7-8
marked a new phase in Turkish-Chinese relations. During the joint press
briefing with Wen's Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both leaders
emphasized the importance they place on each other in their external relations
and called their flourishing ties a "strategic partnership". The parties signed
eight agreements to develop further cooperation in various areas, including
trade, transportation and combating terrorism.
Erdogan preferred to highlight the agreement to switch from dollars to the two
country's own currencies in bilateral trade. Turkey also signed a similar
agreement with Russia and Iran, its other major trading partners. Through such
bilateral agreements, Turkey appears determined to underscore its willingness
to pursue independent policies in the global economic and financial
order, which has been structured around US primacy. As such, Ankara seeks to
readjust to a post-American-led world order, as the existing global order is
currently in flux. On many occasions, Turkish leaders have emphasized that the
gravity of the global economy has been shifting towards Asia, and that Turkey,
which had been traditionally integrated into the Western world, now needs to
readjust its economic and political priorities.
Erdogan described the decision to use mutual currencies as a step to cement the
strategic partnership between China, which is likely to dominate the world
economy in the years to come, and Turkey, an emerging economy, which ranks
17th. China and Turkey have been recovering rapidly from the global financial
crisis, which may precipitate greater coordination between both powers in the
context of the Group of 20 and other international platforms.
However, there remains a major trade imbalance in China's favor, which Turkey
must quickly address. While Turkey's imports from China were around US$12.7
billion in 2009, Turkey's exports amounted to only $1.6 billion. Ankara's
strategy is to redress this imbalance through the promotion of Chinese
investments in Turkey, increasing tourism from China, and gaining greater
exposure for Turkish products in China.
Through more intensive cultural exchanges within the next three years, Turkey
hopes to accomplish the latter objectives. However, given China's track record
in achieving a positive trade balance with its partners and its low production
costs, it remains to be seen how far Turkey can penetrate Chinese markets.
Erdogan also referred to the prospects of joint projects in energy and nuclear
power as yet another aspect of bilateral economic cooperation. Since Ankara
signed an agreement with Moscow to construct the country's first nuclear power
plant, preparations have been underway for the construction of additional
plants. While Turkey has been in talks with a South Korean company regarding
the second plant, others, including Japanese companies, have recently
approached Ankara on the same issue, raising expectations of growing
competition in this sector.
Given China's recent drive to build numerous nuclear reactors, including some
of the world's most advanced, its experience in this field might make it a new
entrant into the Turkish energy sector, though there is no concrete offer on
the table. China has already won various large contracts to build major
infrastructure projects, including railways, in Turkey.
History plays a role in these flourishing ties, as references to the idea of
reviving the historic Silk Road abound. Earlier, Iran also expressed interest
in a similar idea, in the context of the Economic Cooperation Organization. The
Turkish side has worked on various projects to improve the transportation
infrastructure in order that goods could flow easily between China and Turkey
as well as through Central Asia. Such projects, in Ankara's view, will also
serve as the best remedy to bring stability to volatile Central Asia.
However, historical factors also emerge as a source of friction in Sino-Turkish
relations, as was demonstrated clearly during Wen's visit. Following Turkish
President Abdullah Gul's historic visit to China in late June 2009, violent
clashes in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region left many Turkic Muslim
Uyghurs dead in July 2009. Turkish leaders, who had come under pressure for
ignoring the plight of Uyghurs, moved to criticize Chinese policy in Xinjiang.
Erdogan went as far as claiming that the killings amounted to "nearly
genocide". However, in the subsequent period, Sino-Turkish relations rapidly
normalized, despite the efforts of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey to pressurize
the government. Later, Turkey and China also started discussing cooperation in
Since China has represented the Uyghur resistance as subversive terrorist
activities, possibly with ties to the global al-Qaeda network, such cooperation
with Turkey has been deemed valuable. In this context, Wen emphasized during
the joint press briefing that they discussed boosting bilateral cooperation in
fighting terrorism and extremism. Such talks, ironically, took place while
Uyghur activists organized demonstrations outside to protest against Wen's
visit and Ankara's policy towards China.
Ankara's position on Uyghur demands, which might appear as backpedaling,
mirrors Turkey's earlier experience with the North Caucasus diaspora. In order
to preserve the flourishing Turkish-Russian bilateral relationship, Ankara
adopted a cooperative approach and restrained the activities of the Caucasian
diaspora during the second Chechen war, a policy which continues to date. In
the otherwise strong relationship with China, Uyghur pleas for greater
recognition are likely to remain a sore point. Yet, the Turkish government
seems determined not to let the Xinjiang issue spoil growing economic and
political ties with China.
An apparent indication of this determination came earlier this month, when a
Turkish daily reported that in late September and early October, the Turkish
and Chinese air forces held joint drills in Turkey's Central Anatolian province
of Konya. Although Turkey refrained from using its more advanced F-16s and flew
only F-4s upon US expression of concern over protecting sensitive technology,
its decision to deepen military ties with China to such a level, the first such
exercise China has conducted with a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member,
reveals much about Turkey's new strategic priorities.
Saban Kardas is an associate instructor at the Political Science
Department, University of Utah, USA.