Turk­ish-Chi­nese ties warm but with po­ten­tial for con­flict

Arab News - - Opinion - SINEM CEN­GIZ

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.

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.

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