BACKGROUND: The bilateral relations between Ankara and Beijing – formally initiated in 1971 – have recently taken a serious blow. False rumors have surfaced and spread on Turkish social media that China has prohibited the Muslim Uyghurs in the Xinjiang province from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and force-fed them to prevent them from keeping the commandments of Islam. As Uyghurs are considered to be a part of the extended Turkic family, the Turkish government faced intense pressure at home from Pan-Turkist nationalist circles.
The riots and unrest in the Turkish streets – including the targeting of a Chinese restaurant and Korean tourists (who were mistakenly identified as Chinese) in Istanbul– could not go unaddressed by the government. This was compounded by the execution in effigy of China’s former leader Mao Zedong in the main square in the city of Balıkesir; following these events, Ankara was pushed to initiate a new constructive strategy towards preserving Turkey’s vital interests in Beijing.
In order to break the ice between the two countries, President Erdoğan went to Beijing on July 28, 2015. Pro-government media used the announcement of the visit for the political benefit of the president, and sought to increase support for him among Turkish nationalists. A headline from the newspaper Yeni Akit read: “Erdoğan’s surprise visit to China! He is going to warn them.”
Despite this show of strength at home, in his statements to the press, Erdoğan adopted a conciliatory stance, and tried to alleviate the tense atmosphere by declaring that the claims of a Chinese ban on Ramadan are baseless.
Even though the Xinjiang question has continued to present a complication, Erdoğan’s Turkey has managed to preserve and even improve its bilateral relations with China. In 2010, both countries signed eight different cooperation agreements, including the “Joint Declaration on the Establishment and Development of the Strategic Relationship of Cooperation.” This budding partnership has brought 200,000 Chinese tourists to Turkey, while simultaneously paving the way for a trade volume between the two counties that has already reached over $24 Billion. This development made China Turkey’s third-largest trading partner.
Besides the commodity trade, cooperation in the energy sector is also crucial. President Erdoğan has asked the Chinese to take part in building Turkey’s third nuclear reactor, and has openly supported the penetration of Turkish companies into the Chinese energy market. In order to increase the inter-dependency between the two counties, the Turkish president, accompanied by one hundred senior Turkish businessmen and investors, declared together with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping that the two countries would like to increase the trade volume to $100 billion. In order to realize this goal, Erdoğan went even further, and stated the need to abandon foreign currencies in favor of the Chinese Yuan and Turkish Lira.
In addition, Ankara is aiming to use its national airways as a business bridge between China and Turkey by increasing its frequency of flights from seven to fifteen in a week. Indeed, this policy perfectly coincides with China’s Silk Road Project, which aims to maximize and expand China’s economic influence to the west via Iran, Turkey, and Greece. By exposing Turkey to more Chinese businessmen and Chinese investments, the project will eventually result in a win-win situation for the two counties, and even may decrease the Turkish trade deficit vis-a-vis China that stood at $22 billion as of end of 2014.
IMPLICATIONS: Alongside this growing economic partnership, political integration and military cooperation between the two countries also occupied the agenda of the Turkish President’s Chinese visit. Eager to decrease Ankara’s dependency on NATO and the West, Erdoğan has not hesitated to use China as a bargaining chip. The cancellation of the Anatolian Eagle military drill with Turkey’s Western allies due to diplomatic frictions with Israel in 2009 has pushed Turkey to diversify its strategic allies. Turkey’s first joint military drill with the Chinese air force was launched in 2010, where Turkey did not use its F-16 planes due to NATO pressure.
If this step towards strategic rapprochement was not enough, in 2013, a Chinese state-run company won the bid to produce an anti-missile system worth $3.4 billion for Turkey. However, this project has not been realized due to strong NATO pressure. Despite this, during his visit, Erdoğan re-signaled the renewal of the military bid to provide an anti-missile system to Turkey.
Turkey is also keen on using China as leverage against the European Union. In this regard, Erdoğan has referred to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) (which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and India) as a possible alternative to the European Union. Indeed, Erdoğan went even further, and asked Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to assist him in realizing this possibility. During his visit in Beijing, Erdoğan reiterated his stance, calling on his Chinese counterpart to finalize Turkey’s accession into the SCO.
Yet despite its engagement to pursue full cooperation in economic and security issues with Beijing, ideological, religious, and ethnic ties with the Uyghurs have imposed a notable ambivalence on Ankara’s policy towards China. The Uyghur question complicates Turkish policy making. According to senior Chinese police officers, Turkey is assisting Uyghurs in obtaining necessary papers that will allow them to travel freely to Turkey as asylum seekers. Capitalizing on this open-door policy, the refugee smugglers have established a complex network in the Far East, providing forged Turkish passports to Uyghurs. The arrests of ten Turkish citizens in Shanghai in November 2014 for selling forged Turkish passports to Uyghurs and the detainment of three hundred Uyghurs in Thailand and another one hundred and fifty five in Malaysia for travelling with these false documents created a serious headache for Turkish officials.
Beijing has grown increasingly critical of Turkey’s pro-asylum policy, arguing that most of the Uyghur asylum seekers are affiliated with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and are eager to fight for ISIS in Syria and in Iraq. Beijing regards these Chinese citizens of Uyghur origin as a third column against its national security, fearing that one day these fighters will return to Xinjiang to carry out terrorist attacks. Indeed, the call of senior Al-Qaeda leader Sheikh Abu Yahyah al-Libi – who was killed by a US drone strike in 2012 – for a global jihad against China in 2009 provides a strong basis for these Chinese concerns.
According to the Turkish daily Sabah, Chinese fears of returning foreign fighters peaked when Beijing signed an intelligence cooperation agreement with Jordan to trace the activities of these Uyghurs in Iraq and in Syria, who were allegedly receiving military training from the Turkish intelligence service, MIT.
Despite these grave concerns, Ankara continues to host and grant asylum to the Uyghurs, who are being settled mainly in the Kayseri province and in Istanbul. In 2009, Erdoğan’s pro -Uyghur rhetoric escalated to the level of accusing China of carrying out “genocide” against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. However, during his Beijing visit, Erdoğan unequivocally condemned the ETIM terrorism and urged Uyghurs to integrate into Chinese society. Erdoğan notably also described religion as a medium for the integration of the Uyghurs in Chinese society; and he made the point that the contacts that have been established between Uyghur religious officials with the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs will help realize this objective. With this statement, Erdoğan tasked the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs with providing religious services and assistance to the Uyghurs of Xinjiang under the auspices of the Chinese administration. By doing so, Erdoğan hopes to increase Turkey’s influence among the Xinjiang Uyghurs and to satisfy his constituency at home by showing that the Uyghurs enjoy religious freedom.
Besides establishing a network of influence through the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs among the Uyghurs, Erdoğan is also attempting to create a pro-Turkish environment in the Chinese academia with institutions such as the “Chinese-Turkish University.”
Yet Erdoğan’s attempts to promote Turkish-Chinese relations notwithstanding, the latest public opinion polls indicate that the Turkish public does not feel the same way. According to a PEW poll, Turkish sympathy towards China stands at only 18 percent. Indeed, there is no doubt that the recent anti-Chinese campaigns on social media have played a crucial role in tarnishing China image in Turkey.
CONCLUSIONS: Despite the importance and improvement of multi-dimensional Turkish-Chinese relations, Turkish decision makers have had difficulties reconciling their Pan-Islamic ideological rhetoric and the demands of realpolitik. While Ankara recognizes the need to form good relations with China, its self-assigned role as the protector of “oppressed Muslims” has, so far, trapped Turkey between realpolitik and the purism of ideology.
Having acknowledged this clash, President Erdoğan has decided to adopt a new stance, which he launched during his visit in China. This new strategy is based on two pillars: The first is “taming” the Uyghurs via the intervention of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs and alleviating Chinese fears; the second is to increase Turkey’s influence in China by launching projects in the educational, trade, and military fields. By taking these initiatives, Erdoğan has moved to neutralize the discord that has existed between what Turkey’s national interests call for and what the Pan-Islamic ideological rhetoric of its foreign policy conjures. Erdoğan’s new China strategy promises to pave the way for solid, stable relations between Turkey and China.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons; Boris Ajeganov)