Relations between Turkey and China have been going through a sour period recently.
Media reports on Chinese government’s decision to ban Ramadan fasting for public servants, teachers and students in Xinjiang caused public outrage in Turkey, which was further fuelled through disinformation spreading through social media.
Many in Turkey expressed distaste with China’s policies, a number of demonstrations were held, which in some cases turned violent. Turkey’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese ambassador in Ankara to express concerns about the developments in Xinjiang, and China in turn expressed its own concerns about Ankara’s stance on the issue.
In the meantime, allegations were brought up about Turkish diplomats in Asia providing travel documents to illegal Uyghur migrants to facilitate their journey to Turkey. Reports about Uyghurs using Turkey as a gateway into Syria where they joined the jihadists made matters even more complicated.
At a time when the Uyghur issue is heavily overshadowing the relationship between Turkey and China, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is in Beijing on an official visit.
Erdoğan’s visit is first and foremost a mission of restoring confidence between Ankara and Beijing, which is currently at an all-time low.
He adopted a conciliatory tone in his statement after the anti-Chinese demonstrations erupted in Turkey, arguing that most of the media reports about Chinese oppression against the Muslims in Xinjiang were fabricated and it was the work of provocateurs who wanted to damage the relationship between Turkey and China.
The timing of these provocative demonstrations right before his visit to Beijing, Erdoğan said, was “rather meaningful.”
In Beijing, Erdoğan will likely reassure the Chinese side about Turkey’s position with regard to the Uyghur issue: Turkey supports the territorial integrity of the People’s Republic of China, is opposed to all kinds of separatism, and anti-Chinese demonstrations like the ones that have taken recently are not approved of.
While this reassurance will help to smooth matters over, the confidence restored will be fragile at best, because long lasting mutual understanding on the Uyghur issue between the two countries requires more than words. Concrete steps need to be taken in this respect.
Turkey’s official discourse refers to the Uyghur people as “the friendship bridge between Turkey and China” and the Chinese side likes to reiterate this motto as well.
What Turkey and China need to do is to devise ways through which the rhetoric of bridge can be turned into actual, fully functional reality.
This can be done by empowering the Uyghurs to play a greater roles in the economic, social and cultural relations between the two countries, through joint Turkish-Chinese contribution to the development of Xinjiang, and most importantly by pursuing effective dialogue between the two on issues of mutual concern.
As a suggestion, a vital step in this direction could be the opening of a Turkish consulate in Urumqi, and the two sides need to start negotiating this possibility.
The Uyghur fallout in Turkish-Chinese relations came at a time when there was significant progress towards greater cooperation between Ankara and Beijing in economic issues.
Turkey had joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member, the first Chinese bank had entered the Turkish market, Ankara was considering to commission the construction of a nuclear plant on Turkish soil to a Chinese corporation, and as members of the G20 troika for the current and the coming year, Turks and Chinese were (and still are) in constant dialogue over global issues.
Erdoğan’s current visit to Beijing aims to make sure that these processes will go ahead without interruption.
Two major practical issues will be on the table, the first being related to defense cooperation.
Turkey’s tender for the procurement of a missile defense system received three bids, out of which China’s offered the best conditions as it came not only with a lower price tag, but also with better capabilities in the sense that the Chinese corporation, in contrast with the American and European bidders, agreed for technology transfer and co-production.
Facing criticism and pressure by NATO, Turkey did not finalize the tender, and asked the three participants to revise their bids in the hope that NATO allies participating in the tender would make better offers equaling or at least coming close to the one China has made. They did not.
The deadline for renewing the offers was extended five times, and Turkey is yet to make the final decision on the tender.
During Erdoğan’s Beijing visit, the Chinese side will restate its interest to work with Turkey on the missile defense system at a time when Turkey is taking a more determined stance against terrorism in the Middle East and exploring with NATO the possibilities for joint action. Hence it will be difficult for China to re-attain its favorable position in the missile defense system tender.
The second issue that is likely to top Erdoğan’s agenda in Beijing will be Turkey’s position in the ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) initiative. Turkey has been interested in this project since the very first day, for two reasons.
First, Turkey wants to receive more Chinese investment, and the OBOR provides the perfect context to make this happen. Turkey has a significant trade deficit with China ($22 billion as of the end of 2014), which worsens Turkey’s already sizeable current account deficit.
From the viewpoint of Ankara, the only way to balance this deficit is to attract more Chinese investment into the Turkish economy. At the moment, according to data released by Chinese authorities, Chinese direct investment stock in Turkey totals $642 million, only a fraction of China’s total outward investment around the globe.
OBOR provides an opportunity for Turkey to consolidate itself as a transportation hub between Europe and Asia as well. Chinese companies are already active in Turkish railway projects, and as OBOR gains steam, Turkey is likely to benefit from increasing investment in larger infrastructure projects.
From the Chinese perspective, with a normalized Iran where Beijing is going to double its investment to more than $50 billion to its east and with a troubled Greece which is likely to grow more dependent on Chinese funding and infrastructure investment to its west, Turkey is the logical link in the chain.
In Beijing, Erdoğan will emphasize Turkey’s interest in OBOR, and it would not be a surprise if concrete investment and cooperation projects within this framework are brought to the table.
Erdoğan’s visit to Beijing will help restore confidence between the two countries for the time being, which is certainly needed if the ongoing economic projects are to be brought to fruition.
In the long term, however, Turkey and China will need to put aside their deeply rooted mistrust against each other, and work together to turn the Uyghurs into an asset rather than a trouble spot in the bilateral relationship.
The task ahead will be difficult, but by no means impossible.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and a non-resident research fellow at the Center for Global Studies of Shanghai University.