By Emre Tunc Sakaoglu
It is still under clouds of suspicion, for the mainstream media and academia, whether Turkey is facing a shift in its foreign policy orientation; from the tradition of facing primarily toward the West, to a new outlook through which the Middle East and greater picture of the Islamic world and sensitivities are today taken as a standpoint in foreign policy-making. But not more than a handful of academic studies, among dozens that are conducted to shed light on the ongoing discussions and unrest, come to the forefront by regarding the ascending trend in Turkish foreign policy considerations in parallel with the changing global focus of political and commercial attraction: on China of course, as a phenomenon of its own at the outset.
Despite the stagnancy of relations for decades between Turkey and China, recently evolving platforms for dialogue and partnership also exist between the two, thanks to both the growing activism in Turkish diplomacy and China’s increasing dynamism in introducing itself properly to the whole world, and to a key country such as Turkey, This is an organic opening toward the growing diplomatic knot being weaved around Turkey as it step by step assumes a central role in several aspects for Western diplomacy. True, the bilateral relations in recent years had faced a political halt in 2009 after the harsh Chinese intervention in Xinjiang province, where some Uighur Turks were involved in unrest; indeed well-justified reasons lie beneath the Uighur discomfort with the authoritarian Chinese applications over the autonomous region. It is also a black mark for Turkish leaders and foreign policy-makers that in the 27 years between 1985 and 2012, no Turkish leader has visited any of his counterparts in China. But the winds of change are blowing hot and cold, and it isn’t accurate to deduce from the political tensions between the two countries that the Turkish focus on Middle Eastern and Western politics is an obstacle to developing a well-woven network of relations, from commerce and energy to military and transportation, with China. Although cooperation grounds pertaining to the latter two fields are in their infancy, the intense diplomatic agendas of the two countries interestingly have spared some space, in several instances recently, for the initiation of further cooperation and dialogue in the fields of enhancing interactions mentioned above.
After Xi Jinping, the Chinese Vice President, visited Ankara in February this year (2012); billions of dollars’ worth agreements were signed between Chinese and Turkish firms under the sponsorship of their respective states of origin. But more were to come as revealed by Erdogan’s reciprocal official visit to China between the 7th and 11th of June, which was truly significant in several aspects. First of all, in the realm of businesses and commercial ties, the visit was a breakthrough as a delegation of more than 300 prominent businessmen together with the Minister of Economy accompanied PM Erdogan as he signed several deals in Shanghai concerning items of intense trade, as well as a deal on funds to be supplied for Turkish joint projects with Chinese firms. Second, the trip was important as it provided Turkey with the chance to deliver its views regarding the peaceful use of nuclear energy and to take note of Chinese prospects around the erection of a second nuclear power plant in Sinop, Turkey. Afterward, an agreement was signed on the peaceful use of nuclear energy between Taner Yildiz, the Energy Minister of Turkey, and his counterpart. A technical deal was furthermore reached with the Chinese equivalent of Electricity Generation Cooperation of Turkey. A clue for the prospects of China as a nuclear power-generating giant is that currently, the country has fourteen active nuclear power plants and 25 are still under construction as China is getting closer to producing all the necessary parts of a nuclear reactor domestically.
The Prime Ministry referred the visit as the “China Initiative,” a well-qualified name indeed as a number of joint communiqués, agreements and commercial deals for joint projects were hence finalized, mostly during the Beijing and Shanghai foots of the single visit. In fact, the initiative was further signified as Prime Minister Erdogan also had the chance to shed light on the official Turkish stance on issues such as the Syrian conflict, globalization and Turkey’s foreign policy vision in general. In addition to opportunities Turkey has for investments by Chinese firms from wind turbine producers to coal generators, he underlined the fact that Turkey also has its cultural richness with its cuisine and art, and with a perspective synthesizing the global with the local in an age where China and Turkey both show the courage to overcome difficulties to fall in step with the winds of change.
Third, the visit was significant in a unique aspect. Erdogan set foot, as the leader of Turkey, into Xinjiang province which had been de facto off-limits to Turkish leaders for decades. The opposition movements against the Chinese government had once been flourishing, and now Rabia Kadeer pioneers a slightly weakened movement from exile in the U.S. The main ideational background of the “Chinese initiative” that revealed itself during the visit to Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China, is not that Erdogan visited the most important wind turbine factory and then the biggest mosque of the city. It is the hidden meaning deeply rooted under these two colossal, concrete buildings. Erdogan addressed the Uighur Turks directly and told them simply, that they should hold on to their mosques (i.e. their heritage), and at the same time to the rising giant (i.e. China) which directs an increasing amount of funds to develop the region. This way, the initiative achieved a substantial success insofar as Turkey handled the necrotized issue of Xingjian accurately, and somewhat managed the inevitable opening to China through a “balancing move” favoring no single focus of motivational or material interest to another, but only Turkey’s pragmatic but moral priorities, as well as evolving interests.
Even by keeping in mind the positive trend reached with the recent reciprocal visits between China and Turkey, it is still early to reach a conclusion on the future of China-Turkey relations and what the future interactions will bring forward. Although many people you may encounter and have a conversation with in a central street of Ankara will tell you that the only thing they know about China is cheap imported toys for kids, and the “fact” that once their princesses married Turkish khans, thereby concluding that China divided Turks from the inside, China offers more than that today for Ankara. However, leaving aside a deeper analysis of bilateral relations between China and Turkey, Turkey’s relations even with “good old” South Korea cannot surpass the level of car imports and ceremonial meetings to commemorate the Korean War. But the leaders of Turkey are getting more aware of the prospects of bilateral relations between Turkey and China. This rings particularly true in regard to the enhancement of Turkish technological and nuclear infrastructure, diversification of Turkish military imports, attracting Chinese capital to diversify the current Western and Middle Eastern investments, and most importantly, as a prerequisite for attaining a global vision and introducing itself positively to a nation that constitutes one-fifth of the global population and the fastest growing economy. Turkish education, music, and TV soaps are penetrating into Asia day by day. However, for Turkey to raise the bar and “leap forward” as the Chinese are doing nowadays, Turkey needs to reveal its prospects and hopes through direct dialogue with China, which will lead Turkey to reach further than “from the Adriatic to the Pacific”; certainly not with its army, but with the help of its leaders, businesspeople, civil society, and diplomats.