BACKGROUND: During much of the twentieth century, relations between Turkey and China were either marginal, conflictual, or both. During the first half, the two nations were preoccupied with their internal affairs, trying to modernize their antiquated political and economic institutions. In 1950, Turkey and the newly created People’s Republic of China (PRC) came into direct contact in highly unpropitious circumstances. Seeking to gain entry into NATO, which like the PRC had been created the previous year, the Turkish government voluntarily sent thousands of troops to fight alongside American and other Western soldiers in the Korean War. A few months later, the PRC also ordered its soldiers into the Korean battlefield, leading to bloody battles between Chinese and Turkish troops.
The other major historic source of tension in Sino-Turkish relations was Beijing’s treatment of its ethnic Uighur minority in Xinjiang. The Uighurs are a Turkic-speaking Muslim people sharing religious, ethnic, historical, and other ties with the other Turkish people of Central Asia as well as Turkey itself. The PRC has provoked separatist sentiments among the Uighurs, as well as emigration to Turkey and other countries, by encouraging Han Chinese migration into Xinjiang, a step Beijing hoped would secure China’s hold over the province. Xinjiang is rich in natural resources and occupies a pivotal geographic position as the PRC’s gateway to Central Asia and beyond. For decades, Turkish governments offered asylum to waves of Uighur migrants, some of whom established associations advocating independence for what they called the state of East Turkistan.
Even after Turkey and the PRC established diplomatic relations in 1971, their engagement with one another remained marginal. It was not until 1982 that a Turkish head of state, President Kenan Evren, visited China. Bilateral relations continued to improve during the next two decades, with PRC President Jiang Zemin visiting Turkey in April 2000, though it was hardly of central concern to either government.
The rise of Kurdish separatism in the 1990s helped win over the Turkish political establishment to the Chinese position that Beijing’s difficulties in Xinjiang resembled Ankara's problems with the Kurds By the end of the decade, Turkish officials stopped giving Uighur emigrants from China automatic Turkish citizenship, ceased using the name “East Turkistan” rather than Xinjiang, and placed greater constraints on Uighur separatist agitation in Turkey.
The suppression of the ethnic rioting between Han Chinese and Uighurs in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in 2009 by the People’s Liberations Army (PLA) occasioned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to speak of it as “almost genocide.” However, the rhetoric did not announce any reorientation of Turkish government policy toward embracing Uighur nationalism. Turkish officials felt compelled to express concern due to the strong, if short-lived pressure for action by important segments of Turkish society.
Embarrassingly, the riots had occurred just a few days after Turkish president Abdullah Gül had visited China and had prioritized developing bilateral economic ties over promoting human rights. During a stop in Urumqi, Gül had commented that the region’s Uighur population represented a bridge between Turkey and China.
Gül’s visit to Beijing, the first by a Turkish president since 1995, resulted in the Export-Import Bank of China giving several Turkish banks a $800 million line of credit to finance bilateral trade. Following meetings between Gül and Chinese CEOs, several Chinese companies pledged to transfer more technology to their local Turkish partners as they increased their direct investment in Turkey. The Turkish and Chinese energy agencies also signed a memo envisaging greater cooperation on various projects. Both Ankara and Beijing have an interest in helping Turkey realize its ambition to become a multidirectional energy corridor that would help direct some Eurasian oil and gas eastward as well as toward Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.
Sino-Turkish military cooperation began in the 1990s after Ankara turned to China following failed negotiations with the U.S. government to produce, with technology transfer, the M-270 Multiple Launch Rocket System. In the late 1990s, Turkey manufactured under license the Chinese WS-1 302mm and TR-3000 rockets as well as the B-611 short-range surface-to-surface missile. Still, the value of the Chinese arms transfers to Ankara remained small compared to what Turkey was acquiring from its NATO partners, and Turkish military exchanges with China were very infrequent compared with the robust exchange program between Turkey and the United States, Europe, and Israel.
IMPLICATIONS: However, the unprecedented September 20 to October 6 military exercise between the Chinese and Turkish air forces, followed by the visit of the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, suggests that these bilateral ties are becoming even more important. In the “Anatolian Eagle” exercise, Chinese Su-27 and Mig-29 fighters flew from China and, after reportedly stopping to refuel in Iran, landed at the huge Konya airbase in Turkey's central Anatolia region. Shortly thereafter, they engaged in China’s first ever bilateral military exercise with Turkey, which also marked the PLA’s first deployment on the territory of a NATO member.
In past years, the annual Anatolian Eagle air drills in the central province of Konya involved warplanes from the United States, Israel, and occasionally other countries. But in 2009 and 2010 the Turkish government decided not to invite Israel to participate, which may have contributed to the U.S. decision to skip the maneuvers as well. Seeing an opportunity for mutual benefit, the Turkish and Chinese air forces decided to conduct their own joint war games. Presumably at the government’s request, the Turkish media gave much less coverage to the drills as compared with previous years. Still, the Pentagon spokeswoman felt compelled to stress that Turkey remained committed to NATO and that Turkish representatives had pledged to protect U.S. and NATO military secrets.
The decision of the Turkish air force to use its older F-4Es rather than its more advanced F-16s during the exercise with the PLA may have resulted from Pentagon pressure since the initial media reports had indicated the F-16s would participate. Notwithstanding this apparent concession to U.S. concerns that the exercises would enhance Chinese understanding of NATO tactics and technologies, which presumably would make it easier for the PLA to develop countermeasures, several American commentators cited the exercises as a reason to be more cautious about transferring further advanced U.S. military technology to Turkey. In particular, the decision to sell Turkey the new F-35 joint strike fighter is being questioned.
Despite these concerns, Turkish-Chinese military cooperation looks set to continue. The Turkish armed forces are eagerly trying to develop contacts with non-Western militaries, while the PLA Air Force has been expanding its range of operations in Eurasia. The more interesting question is whether the PRC will succeed in enlarging its hitherto minimal presence in the Turkish arms market. Current Chinese hopes center on the China's HQ-9 air defense system, which Beijing is offering Turkey as a possible element of the planned Turkish air and missile defense network. Should Ankara unexpectedly choose the PRC system rather than the more capable but more expensive competing offerings proposed by American, Russian, and European companies, it would represent a tremendous achievement for China’s increasingly sophisticated arms sales industry and a major departure by the Turkish national security community, which still prefers to purchase major weapons systems from the West if Turkey’s own developing defense industry cannot produce them.
Even if the HQ-9 loses the tender, whose value could exceed US$ one billion, the agreements that were signed during Wen’s visit speak of Turkey’s and China’s eagerness to expand economic and other ties. China is already Turkey’s largest trade partner in the Far East. The two countries’ national economies are expanding much faster than the global average, and have sustained exceptionally high GDP growth rates despite the global recession. The Chinese and Turkish prime ministers announced the establishment of a strategic partnership that is to include increased economic, political, energy, security, cultural and other bilateral ties. Wen emphasized that China would “take active measures to promote trade with Turkey” and “would encourage investment by Chinese enterprises in Turkey”. The two leaders pledged to increase their bilateral trade, which currently amounts to approximately $17 billion per year, to $50 billion annually within the next five years.
Even so, like other countries, Turks have found penetrating the Chinese market difficult. The lower costs of Chinese labor and other advantages have resulted in Sino-Turkish trade being very imbalanced. Chinese exports accounted for $12.6 billion of the $14.2 billion in total Sino-Turkish trade last year. The Chinese ambassador to Turkey insisted that China does not want such an enormous trade surplus. He claimed his government was encouraging Chinese enterprises to import more from Turkey as well as to increase their direct investment in Turkey. In addition to setting the goal of increasing their two-way trade, the two governments said they would rely more on national currencies in their bilateral commerce, which could help equalize both countries mutual imports and exports.
In any case, Turkish policy makers seem less interested in rectifying the bilateral trade imbalance than in enticing more Chinese investment in Turkish infrastructure. Turkish officials are eager to take advantage of Chinese capital and technology to help develop their energy and transportation sectors. High-speed railroads are a special area of interest given China’s leading expertise in this area.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkish-Chinese ties look likely to increase. The Turks are eager to draw on Chinese capital and technologies as they develop their own economy, while China is striving to deepen ties with important regional actors such as Turkey.
Nonetheless, their bilateral relationship is unlikely to become as important as, for example, the broad and deep ties each has developed in recent years between Turkey and Russia. Turkey and China could also easily become commercial rivals in third markets, especially in the textile and construction sectors. U.S. pressure will probably constrain Turkey’s potential interest in developing close defense ties with the PRC. The two countries might also compete again for influence and resources in Central Asia.
Yet the fact that China and Turkey share an ambition to remake at least some features of the international system whose foundations were laid after World War II, when Ankara and Beijing were too weak to influence its key institutions and rules, can have important geopolitical and strategic repercussions.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".