Turkey, China place economic ties ahead of ideology
A week after top US diplomat Antony Blinken preferred to make his first overseas visit since President Joe Biden’s inauguration to Japan and South Korea, China’s foreign minister began a six-country tour of the Middle East.
Wang Yi’s tour, which aims to broaden Beijing’s sphere of influence in the region, was scheduled to include Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, the UAE, Bahrain and Oman before he returns to Beijing on March 30.
Needless to say, the shrinking of America’s position in the region has created an opportunity for China to strengthen its relations with Middle Eastern countries in several aspects, even if it cannot totally fill the American void. China may not be considered able to replace America’s great military power in the near term, but it is important to note its increasing role in the regional countries’ security and economic fields.
Beijing provides both Turkey and the Gulf countries with an opportunity to lessen their dependence on the US as the only heavyweight in the region, while also developing a multifaceted relationship with them.
Wang’s file for every country contains important topics and, for Turkey, it needs a special focus as this year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two. During his two-day visit to Ankara, Wang met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. According to a Foreign Ministry statement, bilateral, regional and international issues were on the agenda.
China’s rise in the global order, with its fast-developing economy, is grabbing the attention of Turkish policymakers. Although ties between Turkey and China experience occasional ebbs and flows, in recent years their relationship has entered a period of growth based on mutual benefits. There has been increasing trade and accelerated intergovernmental dialogue.
As Ankara faces tensions in its relations with the West and the Turkish economy suffers severely, the enhancement of its relations with China appears to be a significant option. Although Blinken recently stated that the Biden administration won't demand that its allies make a choice between the US and China, it seems the latter currently comes with attractive options on a silver platter for US allies in the region.
Although their relations experience occasional ebbs and flows, in recent years they have entered a period of growth based on mutual benefits.
One of the most important factors in the Turkish tilt toward China is the latter’s policy of noninterference in others’ domestic affairs; an area in which Ankara considers the West to be too involved. In late 2017, Erdogan, in order to show Turkey’s interest in developing closer ties with Beijing, appointed one of his key advisers, Abdulkadir Emin Onen, a former Justice and Development Party deputy and experienced businessman, as the country’s ambassador in the Chinese capital.
For Ankara, China is a crucial player in the international system, as it is the second-largest economy in the world and a key trading power that can help Turkey overcome its economic and technological gaps. For China, meanwhile, Turkey’s geostrategic location between Europe and Asia and its status in the Middle East gives it a strategic position within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has brought a new dynamism to Turkish-Chinese relations.
In 2015, Ankara proposed itself as the starting point for a “Middle Corridor” in the BRI — stretching through the Caucasus and Central Asia — and a memorandum of understanding was signed. In line with this agreement, Turkey completed the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway project in 2017 and the first export train to China via this route left Istanbul last December, reaching the city of Xian in central China the same month.
Ankara’s approach to Beijing is based on pragmatism and rationalism that is predominately motivated by economic concerns, rather than any ideological choice. The trade volume between China and Turkey is about $24 billion as of 2020, as Beijing became Ankara’s second-largest trading partner.
But Turkish-Chinese relations have gone beyond the economic and also include a security and political dimension. Both countries are avoiding thorny areas, such as the Uighur issue, in an effort not to undermine the economic-political nexus between them. In particular, Ankara has toned down its harsh rhetoric toward Beijing over the Uighur matter. The World Uighur Congress, the largest such activist group in exile, estimates there are 45,000 Uighur refugees in Turkey, making it one of the largest diaspora communities.
The Syrian war is another area where the two countries have an interest. In his latest visit to China in July 2019, Erdogan underlined that Turkey would not allow anyone to drive a wedge into its relations with China, emphasizing his readiness to deepen political mutual trust and strengthen security cooperation with Beijing. In the past, Erdogan has even suggested Turkey could join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional security body composed of China, Russia and four Central Asian nations.
Erdogan’s remarks raised eyebrows in Western capitals, which had to point out Ankara’s status as a NATO member. However, it is crystal clear that Turkey intends to raise the stakes by showing that it has the ability to expand its relations on the international arena and diversify its partners at a time when US influence is declining in the region and the distrust between Turkey and the West is deepening. Despite being ideologically at odds on several issues, both Ankara and Beijing keep mutual economic interests at the forefront of their relationship.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz