While in Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and thus nominally a military ally of the US, Wang also discussed strengthening collaboration in artificial intelligence, the digital economy, 5G and big data, all aspects of China’s Digital Silk Road. In sum, at a time when the heated competition between China and the US for technological and vaccine markets may even be intensifying, China has sought to expand its involvement in the Turkish market and use vaccine diplomacy, investments and technologies to increase its influence in a country, which has the potential to create problems for Beijing in Xinjiang.
China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Turkey’s Middle Corridor
For its part, Turkey understands that, without China’s support, its Trans-Caspian East-West Middle Corridor initiative (referred to as Middle Corridor), a connectivity strategy akin to Beijing’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), will not succeed. Turkey is an essential bridge between Europe and Asia, which China needs to develop its China-Central Asia-Western Asia Economic Corridor (CCAWAEC). As part of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB), the CCAWAEC would provide an alternative route from China to Europe without crossing Russian territory. Its mainland route would run from Xinjiang through Central Asia, Iran and then to Turkey, while the multimodal connection would go through Central Asia and across the Caspian Sea to Baku port in Azerbaijan and then on via Georgian and Turkish railways and roads to the Mediterranean, Black and Aegean seaports.
In November 2015, China and Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding for the harmonization of the BRI with the Middle Corridor. In every meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Erdoğan has lobbied for expanding throughput on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway. As a result, China has invested in the development and modernization of Turkish railroads, which connect the east and the west of the country. The China Railway Construction Corporation and the China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation, in partnership with Turkish companies, won the right to build a high-speed railway connecting Ankara and Istanbul, the biggest city in Turkey and famous as the link between Europe and Asia.
Also in 2015, Chinese state-owned COSCO Pacific, in cooperation with China Merchants Holdings International and CIC Capital, paid US$940 million for 65 percent of the shares in Kumport, the third largest container terminal in Turkey, located in the Marmara Sea, 22 miles west of the Bosporus strait. In 2019, the first China Railway Express freight train traveled from China to Europe using the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway and the tunnel under the Bosporus. The first train to carry goods from Turkey to China began operating on the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway in 2020.