China’s newly appointed Foreign Minister Wang Yi made his first official visit to Turkey (hereafter Turkiye) in the last week of July 2023 as part of his African tour, which included countries like Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya following the BRICS meeting in Johannesburg. During the official visit to Ankara, many topics were discussed, ranging from bilateral trade volume, financial issues and economic relations between the two countries, intergovernmental cooperation committee, consultation mechanisms between foreign ministries, work of an economic committee, to harmonization efforts in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and regional issues, including the ongoing war and the latest developments and situation in Ukraine and Middle East, NATO activities in Asia as well as civil aviation, agriculture, nuclear energy, culture and tourism and the state of the Uyghur community in China. Wang said that China supported Turkiye in playing an important role in the regional and international arena while the Turkish side expressed that they want to develop relations with China in every field.
Although Turkiye and China have come a long way in the development of bilateral relations since they established official diplomatic relations in 1971, the strategic partnership established between the two countries in 2010 is one notch behind China’s relations with some countries around Turkiye within the scope of its partnership diplomacy, which China has developed in the region over the last years. For example, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria are China’s comprehensive strategic partners. Turkiye’s great neighbor in the north, Russia, is also a comprehensive strategic partner of China, which is the highest level in China’s partnership diplomacy, apart from announcing a “no-limits partnership”.
However, in the meeting held last year between Turkiye President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the two leaders emphasized on raising the level of their partnership. A similar statement was also made in Wang Yi’s meeting with Erdogan after the meeting with his counterpart, Hakan Fidan. It would come as no surprise if Turkish-Chinese relations increased from the level of strategic partnership to the level of comprehensive strategic partnership or to another level in the near future.
Ankara’s Greater Influence
Turkiye has increased its presence and influence both in its region and on the world stage with the mediation role it played after outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine in February 2022. This has significantly increased Turkiye’s geopolitical and geostrategic importance in the eyes of regional and global actors. It is possible to read Wang Yi’s visit to Ankara as an indication that the Beijing administration is aware of Turkiye’s increasing regional importance. Although the topics on the bilateral agenda relations are varied, China is seeking to balance out the U.S. and its allies by improving relations with Turkiye. The strategic advantage for China is directly related to the level of cooperation it can develop with Turkiye, especially on the Ukraine issue, and in general, within the scope of the BRI project and Turkey’s attitude towards NATO’s enlargement to the Asia-Pacific. For this reason, the Ukraine issue may take an important place in the course of Turkiye-Chinese relations.
Wang Yi’s visit to Ankara was the highest level from a Chinese official in the past three years. Can Wang Yi’s visit, the Ukraine issue coming to the fore, Wang Yi’s statement on supporting Turkiye in the international arena and the desire of both countries to develop relations further lead to the emergence of a new cooperation ground between the two countries over the Ukraine issue?
The answer is clear: Yes. This is possible because both countries are following the ongoing war in Ukraine closely and both countries are among the few regional actors who have been able to maintain their relations and dialogue channels with both Russia and Ukraine since the beginning of the war in February 2022.
China’s Peace Imperatives
China presented a 12-point peace plan on the one-year anniversary of the war in February 2023, after some Western countries’ requested China to play a mediation role to end the ongoing war in Ukraine by using its influence on Russia. While Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the plan could be evaluated when the West and Ukraine are ready for negotiations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put forward the restoration of its borders with Russia as a precondition for peace negotiations. Some Western countries also questioned the neutrality of the China due to the increasing closeness between China and Russia. The plan was, hence, not implemented.
On the other hand, Turkiye, which is expected to act in accordance with the alliance policy as a member of NATO, supplies some equipment and drones to Ukraine, while it has not been included in the sanctions and embargoes imposed on Russia by the western world considering the strategic partnership and economic relations it has developed with Russia. Turkiye together with the United Nations successfully implemented the Grain Corridor Agreement in July 2022, which allows grain and other food products of Russia and Ukraine to reach world markets via the Black Sea. Russia recently backed out of the agreement, and there is urgent need for negotiations to renew the agreement.
Therefore, cooperation on the Ukraine issue between China, as a global actor outside the western alliance, and Turkiye, as a regional player who is in the western alliance, can bring a new momentum towards the resolution of the crisis. China can moderate the West’s neutrality criticism towards it regarding the Ukraine issue, with the cooperation it can develop with, and the mediator role it can play with, Turkiye. Moreover, a possible cooperation with Turkiye may increase the willingness of France, one of the countries that raised the loudest voice about the end of the war in the western alliance, to take part in the mediation process as a member of the western alliance. If China can involve two important regional actors in the western alliance, such as Turkiye and France, in the mediation process, it can both deepen the rift within the western alliance and place greater pressure to accept a peace plan.
For this reason, the cooperation that can be developed between Turkiye and China in the coming period, especially over the Ukraine issue, may take Turkish-Chinese relations to another level, both regionally and globally, where both countries want reform and multipolarization of the global system.