By Selcuk Colakoglu
Vice President of China Xi Jinping’s Turkey visit in February 2012 and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s China visit in April 2012 are clear show of a historical turning point in the bilateral relations. Those visits were the last of the top-level meetings between the two countries since 2009 and can be interpreted as a sign of huge developments in the Turkish-Chinese relations.
President Abdullah Gül’s China visit in 2009 was an important milestone in the bilateral relations as well, but relations were then locked due to strong public reactions in Turkey against the Urumqi events on July 5th, 2009. However, the normalization process between two countries was restarted through economic relations, and relations were restored in six months particularly due to the mutual visits at the ministerial level. Hence, the conducting of a military drill in September 2010 proved that Turkey-China relations are developing quickly.
Premier of China Wen Jiabao’s Turkey visit in October 2010 also gave a strategic meaning to the bilateral relations. Aims including the increase of the bilateral trade volume from 17 billion to 50 billion dollars within five years and using the Turkish lira and yuan for trade instead of the dollar indicate the changes in the balance of the global political economy.
These aims were reemphasized during the visit of Vice President Xi Jinping in February 2012 and then the visit of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s in April 2012. Close relations, especially in nuclear energy and railways, are projected for the two countries. Turkey is planning to set up an almost 5,000 kilometer-long rail network with Chinese firms. The project of a “modern silk road” that has been discussed for twenty years but has not been realized is highly significant for Turkey’s trade with China, the Caucasus and Central Asian countries. The route of a “silk railway” from China to Europe will both increase the level of trade and expand the economic integration between countries along the route.
Is Strategic Partnership Possible?
Relations between Turkey and China, both G-20 members, have been quickly developing since the end of 2009. The dimensions of Turkish-Chinese relations are no longer bilateral, but have a global characteristic. Therefore, news related to Turkish-Chinese relations has begun to receive wide-spread media coverage, even by Western media. However, Turkey and China should take considerable economic and political steps in order to carry their relations to the level of “strategic partnership.”
During the last few years, some differences of opinion on global issues between Ankara and Beijing started to appear. Evaluating the events which occurred during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria as destabilizing and domestic affairs of those countries, China preferred supporting the incumbent Arab regimes. Conversely, Turkey advocated non-violence and soft power as well as supporting the democratic demands of the public.
As the latest events prove, Turkey is acting with NATO-allied countries as opposed to increasing global tension, but China has been coming out against Western policies with Russia. The probability that Turkey and China may develop completely opposite policies under the conditions of the global crisis can prevent them from developing strategic cooperation.
The most obvious problem that occurred in the field of economics is that there is a trade gap between Turkey and China. With the membership of China in the World Trade Organization, the gap in the bilateral trade relations against Turkey’s favor has grown gradually. Therefore, the most important topic of the high-level bilateral talks in recent years has been trade imbalances. Ankara demands direct investment from Chinese companies, the using of trade surplus capital in the Turkish financial sector, the founding of Turkish-Chinese joint-ventures in third countries and the directing of Chinese tourists to Turkey.
Accordingly, Beijing has still not taken concrete steps despite making some commitments. Thus, in evaluating the business data of 2011, it can be seen that more than 21 billion out of a 24 billion-dollar trading volume consists of Turkey’s imports from China. While it is a nice aim to increase the level of bilateral trade relations to fifty billion dollars by 2015, to what extent the bilateral trade relations will be balanced is at least as important. Furthermore, China cannot meet Turkey’s expectations for tourism. For instance, there were only around a hundred thousand Chinese tourists who visited Turkey in 2011out of over thirty million.
Another economic problem is the cutthroat competition between Turkish and Chinese firms for Middle Eastern and African markets. Strict competition particularly in the construction sector decreases the margin of profit for both sides. Therefore, it is necessary for Turkish and Chinese firms to increase their profits via the new partnerships in the region.
Xinjiang and Taiwan
There is still a probability of having problems in the bilateral relations with Xinjiang in the political context. Turkey acts as a goodwill ambassador that continuously conveys the demands of the Uighurs, a Turkic-Muslim people residing in Xinjiang with regard to the protection of their political and cultural rights to China.
It was the considerable development of an easier opening of Xinjiang to Turkey that allowed for Hainan Airlines to start Urumqi-Istanbul flights in 2011. The solution of the Uighur issue by satisfying the expectations of the Turkish public is of vital importance in preventing new crises in the bilateral relations. Beijing has also make gesture letting the Turkish leaders visit Xinjiang cities. In addition to the Xinjiang visits of President Gül and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in previous years, Prime Minister Erdoğan began its China tour with Urumqi stop in April 2012.
Another political issue between Turkey and China is related to Taiwan. Visa barriers and having no direct flights between Turkey and Taiwan negatively affect the bilateral trade and touristic visits. Even though taking steps in these matters would not mean that the one-China policy is being ignored, Beijing has been warning Ankara not to exaggerate relations with Taiwan. However, Hong Kong is a legal part of China with an autonomous political administration, its own flag and currency. Therefore, Turkey should consider Taiwan just like Hong Kong in order to conveniently develop trade and economic relations.
Consequently, Turkey and China have had the opportunity to become closely acquainted with each other in recent years. If both countries can develop a suitable policy to overcome the existing problems in a positive manner, it can be possible for Turkish-Chinese relations to achieve the level of “strategic partnership.”
USAK Center for Asia-Pacific Studies