SIGN UP FOR INSIGHTS

Geopolitics

Balancing Act: China and Turkey in a Changing World Order

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Understanding relations between China and Turkey – an Asia-Pacific superpower and an ambitious middle power straddling Europe and the Middle East – is important in a changing world order. AsiaGlobal Fellow 2020/21 Mher Sahakyan, director of the China-Eurasia Council for Political and Strategic Research in Armenia, examines their competing and collaborative interests and their approaches to their respective connectivity strategies (Beijing’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Ankara’s Trans-Caspian East-West Middle Corridor Initiative) and how Turkey might pivot eastward – or westward.

Balancing Act: China and Turkey in a Changing World Order

Xi welcomes Erdoğan: An Asia-Pacific superpower meets an ambitious middle power that straddles Europe and the Middle East (Credit: Presidency of the Republic of Turkey)

In March 2021, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Ankara to meet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu for talks with a complex agenda. Wang wanted backing from Turkey for its policies in Xinjiang, the Muslim-majority autonomous region in northwest China. This, he hoped, would show that the criticisms of several Western countries such as the US, UK, Australia and Canada that have attacked Beijing’s policy in Xinjiang had no basis. If Muslim Turkey has no problems with Beijing’s behavior, then why should other countries be disparaging?

At their encounter in the Turkish capital, Wang told Çavuşoğlu that “the essence of Xinjiang-related issues is fighting against violence, terrorism and separatism. China hopes that the Turkish side will continue to offer understanding and support to China on issues related to China's core interests and major concerns.” For his part, the Turkish minister obliged: “Turkey has always abided by the one-China principle and is committed to elevating Turkey-China strategic cooperative ties. Turkey will never get involved in any actions that are hostile to China”. In response, Wang promised to encourage Chinese companies to increase imports of Turkish products and expand the investment in Turkey.

Uyghurs protest outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, December 2019 (Credit: Huseyin Aldemir / Shutterstock.com)

Uyghurs protest outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, December 2019 (Credit: Huseyin Aldemir / Shutterstock.com)

Turkey’s support might not have been as full-throated as the Chinese might have hoped. During the visit, Uyghur migrants in Turkey organized anti-China demonstrations, which could not have taken place without the approval of the autocratic Erdoğan government. Even after China and Turkey signed the “Common Declaration of Establishing and Developing Strategic Relations” in 2010, the main sticking point in bilateral ties has been the Xinjiang issue. This irritant worsened in 2015 when China accused Turkey of providing passports to some of the hundreds of Uyghur jihadists who went to Syria to join the Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State to fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Beijing has long argued that it needs to maintain control in Xinjiang because of the threat from Uyghur Muslim militants. Clearly, China views it as in its interest to bolster the Turkish economy to keep Ankara from straying and lending support to the separatists. In 2017, on a visit to Beijing, Çavuşoğlu had assured China that “Turkey will regard China's security as its own security and crack down on all domestic activities that threaten China”. By the end of that year, China had invested US$1.3 billion in Turkey, a figure that grew to US$2.8 billion by 2019. Although the Xinjiang issue surfaced again that year, provoking a short exchange of words, in 2020, Beijing promised to provide up to US$5 billion in financing to Turkey to promote bilateral economic, trade and investment cooperation. The Turkish political opposition accused Erdoğan of betraying the Uyghurs for Chinese money.

Chinese vaccine for the Turkish leader: Erdoğan received the first Sinovac dose in January (Credit: AA)

Chinese vaccine for the Turkish leader: Erdoğan received the first Sinovac dose in January (Credit: AA)

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided another avenue for China to provide economic incentives to Turkey, which like many countries in western Asia and the Middle East, has struggled to procure enough vaccines. Within the framework of its Health Silk Road initiative, China has already shipped a huge quantity of the Sinovac vaccine to Turkey. As a result, more than 7 million Turkish residents have received one dose and 2.1 million have been given both shots. Among the recipients was President Erdoğan. “I myself have been publicly vaccinated with China's Covid-19 vaccine, aiming to show the safety and effectiveness of the Chinese vaccines to Turkish citizens as well as the whole world,” he told Wang at their meeting on March 26.

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.

We'll connect with you, if you connect with us: The first train carrying goods from Turkey to China leaves the European side of Istanbul (Credit: AA)

We'll connect with you, if you connect with us: The first train carrying goods from Turkey to China leaves the European side of Istanbul (Credit: AA)

At China’s invitation, Turkey became a founding regional member of the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015, broadening the reach of the multilateral financial institution to the western edge of Asia. Turkey has subsequently received AIIB loans. In 2018, the AIIB provided a US$600-million loan to Ankara to improve its gas supply chain. In 2020, the AIIB extended a US$500-million loan to Turkey to help the country in its efforts to address the economic impact of Covid-19.

With its 83 million population, Turkey is a large market for China. Statistics provided by China’s General Administration of Customs show that in 2020 trade between the two economies surpassed US$24 billion, compared to US$20 billion the previous year. Meanwhile, the value of Turkey’s imports from China exceeded its exports to China by around US$16.3 billion.

Mask diplomacy: The Chinese foreign minister and Turkish president met on March 25, 2021 (Credit Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China)

Mask diplomacy: The Chinese foreign minister and Turkish president met on March 25, 2021 (Credit Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China)

Can Ankara sustain its balancing act?

In a rapidly changing world order, it is clear that China and Turkey have tried not to let their occasional differences obscure the advantages of cooperation. There are obvious opportunities in integrating or blending the BRI and the Middle Corridor initiatives, which would boost cooperation in the fields of healthcare, technology, infrastructure development, trade and investment. China needs Turkey to help strengthen its position in the Middle East, while Turkey would benefit from the economic stimulus that China would bring. Turkish opposition parties will try to use the Xinjiang issue against Erdoğan and his ruling conservative populist Justice and Development Party (known as AK Parti) in the next elections due by June 2023. Beijing will be watching political developments closely.

China closely follows developments in Ankara’s relations with the West. With his strongman style, Erdoğan has cut an independent foreign-policy path in Turkey’s activities in Eurasian and African continents, often not in sync with the interests of its NATO allies. It uses the issue of illegal migration as a weapon to press the European Union (EU) for concessions. Turkey’s negotiations to join the EU were launched in 2005, but accession talks have stalled since 2016.

It would seem that Turkey’s tense relationships with the US and Europe might nudge it closer to the Sino-Russian tandem. Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia became a serious diplomatic dispute between Turkey and the US, leading the administration of then-president Donald Trump to impose sanctions on certain Turkish defense officials. The April 24 announcement by President Joe Biden that the US recognizes the Armenian genocide has opened further rifts in Turkish-American relations.

All this will provide an opportunity for Beijing and Moscow to try to strengthen their relations with Ankara and draw Turkey to look east and join a Eurasian political-economic bloc. Turkey will try to avoid choosing sides but might be forced to make a decision if the competition/confrontation between the US and China worsens.

Would Washington try to repair the cracks in its ties with Ankara and encourage Turkey to play the role of “Trojan horse” and disrupt or thwart China’s BRI projects in the Middle East? Can Turkey maintain its delicate tightrope-walking act and serve as a balance between West and East?

Ankara would never withdraw from the NATO as it has fractious relations with almost all of its neighbors and the transatlantic alliance provides it with a nuclear umbrella, military-technical superiority, and security. Erdoğan, meanwhile, will continue to plot his independent dual-track diplomacy with the great powers.

But if a choice has to be made, Turkey will more than likely stay in the West’s camp as it did during the Korean War, when it joined the fight against the Sino-Soviet alignment. The US will try to involve Turkey in its own geopolitical struggles such as against Russia in eastern Ukraine. Washington will give Ankara a leading role in the US’s own New Silk Road strategy, which aims to oust Russia and China from South Caucasus and Central Asia. This would align with Turkey’s own regional perspective. Yet, Ankara could be tempted to look east to meet its considerable economic development needs, especially after the pandemic.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

Recent Articles

SIGN UP FOR INSIGHTS

Recent Articles