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    Greater China
     Apr 21, 2012

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Turkey: The odd man in
By Peter Lee

With a high-profile visit to China, Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued his campaign to increase the geopolitical clout of his country.

Turkey has great hopes of emerging (or re-emerging, if one recalls the heyday of the Ottoman Empire) as more than the geographic and economic linchpin of Eurasia. Erdogan hopes to leverage that central position by establishing Turkey as a regional power, a country that can set the agenda for events across the continents.

Judging from Erdogan's trip to China, Turkey still has a way to go.
Hurriyet, Turkey's leading English-language daily, confused


Premier Wen Jiabao's given name and surname and covered the visit as: Erdogan meets Jiabao on milestone China trip. [1]

Geopolitics also saw no uniformity on a key issue - Syria. Turkey has turned its back on President Bashar al-Assad; the People's Republic of China is actively engaged in the Syrian peace process.

Nevertheless, at Beijing Airport on April 10, Erdogan told reporters that "China is not in the same position as it was before", ie that it was shifting away from full support of Assad's regime in Syria.

One can speculate that he made his statement at the airport on his way out, so that he could shape the message without fear of any embarrassing contradiction from his hosts.

Optimistic spin was duly provided to Turkey's Sunday Zaman newspaper by a Turkish academic:
I think both [Russia and China] will re-evaluate their positions and take a stand very close to the Turkish one ... Russia and China will not confront Turkey and the West by continuing to support the Assad regime. [2]
Beijing did not respond to Erdogan's comments, at least not directly.

However, China's Syria peace initiative is arguably its most important geopolitical move in the last decade. If China and Russia have any doubts about Assad's staying power, they are unlikely to share them with Erdogan.

On April 12, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs highlighted a special statement on the Syrian ceasefire:
In order to ease tensions and push forward the political settlement process, China has been engaging the Syrian Government and other parties in Syria in its own way ... China has also stayed in contact with relevant parties such as regional countries, the Arab League and Russia on the political resolution of the Syrian issue. What China has done is effective.

At the next stage, China will work with other parties concerned to continue to actively support Annan's mediation for the political settlement of the Syrian issue, maintain communication and coordination with relevant parties in a bid to play a constructive role for the fair, peaceful and proper settlement of the Syrian issue at an early date. [3]
More to the point, shortly after Erdogan's departure, China gave a high-profile welcome to Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, and provided a full-throated endorsement of the Kofi Annan mission to broker peace.

If there was a message for Turkey in all this, it was that China is directly engaged in the issue, and is not looking to Turkey for leadership.

The fact is, Turkey is very far out on a limb on Syria and, at this point, can only be grateful that the international community has not sawn it off.

Toward the end of 2011, Erdogan apparently saw Syria as another Libya. Turkey had dumped Muammar Gaddafi in Libya when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Arab League, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) lined up against him and Erdogan could claim the credit, such that it was, that the bombing was conducted under NATO instead of French and British auspices.

As demonstrations against Assad and his regime persisted into the summer and autumn of 2011, it looked like Turkey might begin thinking about a new regime-democratic, perhaps with a strong Sunni component, and eager for Turkish tutelage and assistance across its southern border.

Erdogan abandoned his policy of engagement with Assad and joined the chorus calling for his ouster.

In Syria, however, no foreign intervention has materialized out of the expressions of Western and GCC outrage, Assad is still in Damascus, and Turkey, instead of basking in another deft "right side of history" Arab Spring maneuver, is now locked into an agenda of confrontation with a desperate and rather resourceful neighbor.

Turkey has not cut its losses by exploring rapprochement with the Syrian government; instead it has emerged as the patron of the feckless (the Syrian National Council - SNC), the reckless (Free Syria Army - FSA), and the opportunistic (Friends of Syria).

Erdogan seems to be intent upon digging a deeper hole for Turkey with his mouth, talking up the horrors of the Assad regime so that reconciliation will be politically impossible for him.

Upon leaving China, he declared that he would invoke NATO's obligations under Article 5 (to protect a member state) in response to a minor border skirmish that might actually have been provoked by some FSA fighters seeking a haven in a refugee camp in Turkey following an attack that they had mounted.

Erdogan's Syria stance has had other diplomatic repercussions.

Iran, which had traditionally viewed Turkey as a supporter in its wrangling with the West over its nuclear program, called for a shift in venue for the "Iran Six" (also known as the P5+1 - the United States, China, the United Kingdom, France and Russia plus Germany) talks from Istanbul in response to Turkey's pro-Western tilt over Syria, and Erdogan's decision to go all-in supporting NATO missile defense.

Erdogan peremptorily burned his bridges with Tehran by responding, "Because of the lack of honesty, Iran is continually losing its international prestige." [4]

This round did take place in Istanbul, but the next round will be in Baghdad.

Erdogan has successfully placed Turkey on the outs with Syria, Russia and Iran. Since Turkey sources the majority of its energy needs from Russia and Iran, this is no small feat.

If Turkey is seen to be advancing the Western freedom agenda, it can count on coolness from China as well.

And that's not good news for Erdogan, whose political strength relies on delivering economic growth, not diplomatic hassles.

Erdogan's highest priority on his April 2012 trip was business: to strengthen the economic ties between the People's Republic of China and Turkey. Trade is booming, but with China enjoying a major surplus. Therefore, Erdogan brought 300 businesspeople in tow, issued calls for increased Chinese investment in Turkey, and talked expansively of a "New Silk Road", a railway bridging 28 countries and connecting China and Turkey.

At the same time, Erdogan was anxious to demonstrate Turkey's stature (and his enhanced global profile) by visiting Xinjiang, home to 10 million Uighurs who share cultural and linguistic ties with Turkic peoples across Asia.

The imperatives of Turkish politics and geopolitical self-regard have turned the issue of the Uighurs, and the ongoing political and cultural repression they suffer at the hands of the Chinese government, into another crisis point for Erdogan. 

Continued 1 2  

Syria, Turkey and the camp cover-up
(Apr 19, '12)

China sits out Syria regime change tango (Feb 18, '12)

China tests the will of the Philippines

2. Syria, Turkey and the camp cover-up

3. Report distorts Iran's nuclear fatwa

4. India and China can do the unthinkable

5. The smog of war

6. Free thinker takes on China's neo-Maoists

7. China keeps new and old rivals in range

8. How Pakistan makes US pay for Afghan war

9. South Korea silences pro-North voices

10. Beijing takes mini-step to free-float currency

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Apr 19, 2012)


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