Despite the fact that trade has been a major factor in the connection between China and Turkey since 200 BC, diplomatic ties between the two nations were not established until the 20th century. In the early 1920s, while Turkey was engaged in its own War of Independence, the last Dynasty in China was overthrown but the created Republic was unable to completely provide a central authority. In addition to dealing with the Japanese occupation, China also faced an ideological split between Communists and Nationalists that ultimately led to civil war. When the Communists won the Chinese Civil War which took place between 1945 and 1949 and the People’s Republic of China was established on October 1, 1949, it was evident that China and Turkey were on ideologically opposed sides.
In contrast to Turkey, which throughout the Cold War considered the Soviet Union as a threat, China made it quite apparent that it supported the Soviet Union with its “leaning to one side” policy.[i] Turkish policy toward China shifted after the Sino-Soviet crisis broke out in the early 1970s and the Sino-U.S. rapprochement began; diplomatic ties between China and Turkey were established in 1971.[ii] However, relations continued at a slow pace. After the Cold War, Turkey attempted to follow a multilateral foreign policy, but due to its aspirations to become a full member of the European Union (EU) and its close ties to the U.S., it has continued to pursue a Western-oriented foreign policy.
Turkey’s Interest on China
Turkey became interested in China as a result of Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening-up policy in 1978. The 2000s saw the start of a new era in relations following reciprocal high-level visits in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the two nations’ relations accelerated during this time, there are still some fundamental security issues, particularly in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, that impede further progress. Due to their shared history and culture, a huge number of Uyghurs fled to Turkey from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, also known as East Turkistan in Turkey. Turkey and China occasionally have tense relations as a result of Turkey’s backing of the Uyghurs.
The Justice and Development Party (JDP), a pro-Islamist party, won the elections in Turkey in 2002 and, on March 15, 2003, it formed the country’s 59th government. With the JDP government, it may be claimed that Turkey’s foreign policy has changed. In fact, the “axis shift” debates have been sparked by this change in Turkey’s foreign policy.[iii] Turkey’s desire to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2005 is one of the primary markers of this transformation. Turkey’s application for full membership was rejected; however in 2012, Turkey was approved as an SCO dialogue partner.[iv] Turkey is a NATO member and has been making efforts for full membership to the EU for years. Yet, its request for membership to the SCO indicates that Turkey has left its Western-centered foreign policy understanding and sought alternatives. The areas where the interests of the two nations collide and conflict in this environment can be identified by reviewing the development of China-Turkey ties in recent years.
Turkey and China increased their relations to the level of “strategic partnership” in 2010. According to Kadir Temiz, China-Turkey relations after 2010 are based on “strengthening economic relations and not bringing political disagreements to the table”.[v] For instance, despite Erdogan’s description of the events in Urumqi in 2009 as genocide,[vi] the Uyghur problem has not received much attention since 2010. Turkey even deported a Uyghur political activist back to China in 2016 after having him detained. Turkey has since detained hundreds of Uyghurs and transported them to deportation centers.[vii] Additionally, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) was designated a terrorist organization by Turkey in 2017.[viii]
BRI as a Medium to Strengthen Ties
Economically, Xi Jinping’s Belt Road Initiative (BRI), which was introduced in 2012, is the most significant development that unites China and Turkey on an equal footing. Turkey is a significant nation for China due to its strategic location at the crossroads of the continents of Asia and Europe and its status as the gateway to Europe.
Turkey and China aligned their “Middle Corridor” in 2015 when they signed the BRI memorandum of understanding. The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), as the corridor is officially known, denotes Turkey’s intention to establish connectivity with China via the Caucasus and Central Asia and also to broaden markets, and foster large economic scales.[ix] Chinese investments in Turkey have increased significantly within the BRI framework. Trade between China and Turkey was $27.27 billion in 2015 and increased to $35.9 billion in 2021.[x] China’s total investment in Turkey is $5.11 billion according to recent data.[xi] Turkey’s trade imbalance with China is still a concern, though.
Following the COVID pandemic that erupted in Wuhan in 2019, China launched the Health Silk Road (HSR), an expansion of the BRI, to promote international collaboration in the health industry. In this context, while China provides health equipment and vaccine aid to many countries, Turkey, Brazil, and Indonesia become test sites for Phase 3 trials of CoronaVac.[xii] However, the fact that China did not send the promised quantity of vaccines and the delay in sending the vaccines damaged China’s reputation in Turkey, and rumors emerged that the vaccines were delayed because of the “Treaty for the Extradition of Uyghur Turks,” which China approved in 2020 but has not yet been ratified by the Turkish parliament.[xiii] The delay in Chinese vaccines has led the public to prefer Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.
Turkey’s economic dependence on China has increased as a result of the decline in the value of the Turkish lira, despite China’s failure in health diplomacy. However, on global and regional matters, like the Kosovo and Cyprus questions, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Syrian civil war, and other topics, it is evident that the two nations frequently adopt opposing stances.
The recent Russia-Ukraine crisis too has been handled differently by China and Turkey. China rapidly increased its commerce with Russia during this period even though it claimed not to be a party to the conflict and did not take a clear stance.[xiv] However, despite opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkey refrained from joining in on the harsh sanctions because it received a majority of its natural gas requirements from Russia, and also Russia is an important source for tourism in Turkey. With the initiatives of Turkey, the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine came together at the Diplomacy Forum in Turkey on March 10, 2022. The sides were able to reunite in Istanbul on March 29, 2022 thanks to Turkey’s crisis-mediating role, but the negotiations ended without a resolution.[xv]
It can be seen that even though China and Turkey take opposing positions on several global and regional issues, including the Syrian conflict, the Ukraine crisis, the Uyghur issue, and the decline in Turkey’s trust of China due to the delay of vaccines, the two nations’ economic ties continue to play a more significant role in their relations. The sides appear to be making an effort to keep their problems and disagreements at a distance.
[i] Mao Tsetung, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, June 30, 1949,” Selected Reading from the Works of Mao Tsetung (Foreign Languages Press, 1971), 376-377.
[ii] “Türkiye-Çin Halk Cumhuriyeti Siyasi İlişkileri,” Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Dışişleri Bakanlığı, https://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkiye-cin-halk-cumhuriyeti-siyasi-iliskileri.tr.mfa.
[iii] Şaban Kardaş, “Türk Dış Politikası’nda Eksen Kayması mı?” Akademik ORTADOĞU, S.5(2) (2011): 19-42; Laura Batalla Adam, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy in the AKP Era: Has There Been a Axis Shift in the Axis?” Turkish Policy Quarterly 1, no. 3 (2012): 139-148; Mehmet Gökhan Genel, “Bir Dış Politika Kavramı Olarak ‘Eksen Kayması’ nın Son Dönem AB İlişkileri Bağlamında Türkiye Basınına Yansıması,” Akademik Bakış Dergisi, no. 43 (2014).
[iv] “Shanghai Cooperation Organisation,” Republic of Türkiye, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, https://www.mfa.gov.tr/shanghai-cooperation-organization.en.mfa#:~:text=T%C3%BCrkiye’s%20Status&text=On%2023%20March%202011%2C%20Turkey,on%206%2D7%20June%202012.
[v] Kadir Temiz, “Turkey-China Relations: Ankara must balance complications on many fronts,” MERICS Papers on China, no. 11 (2022), https://merics.org/en/turkey-china-relations-ankara-must-balance-complications-many-fronts.
[vi] “Turkish leader calls Xinjiang killings “genocide”,”Reuters, July 10, 2009, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-china-sb-idUSTRE56957D20090710.
[vii] A. Alemdaroglu and S. Tepe, “Erdogan Is Turning Turkey Into a Chinese Client State,” Foreign Policy, September 16, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/16/erdogan-is-turning-turkey-into-a-chinese-client-state/.
[viii] Ahmet Faruk Işık, “Opportunities and Challenges in Turkish and Chinese Bilateral Relationship,” International Journal of Politics and Security (IJPS) 2, no. 4 (2020): 136-172.
[ix] Selçuk Çolakoğlu, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Turkey’s Middle Corridor: A Question of Compatibility”, Middle East Institute, January 29, 2019, https://www.mei.edu/publications/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-and-turkeys-middle-corridor-question-compatibility.
[x] “Türkiye-People’s Republic of China Economic and Trade Relations,” Republic of Türkiye, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, https://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey_s-commercial-and-economic-relations-with-china.en.mfa#:~:text=Chinese%20investments%20in%20T%C3%BCrkiye%20are,been%20renewed%20in%20May%202019.
[xi] China Global Investment Tracker, September 2022, https://www.aei.org/china-global-investment-tracker/.
[xii] “China’s Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine proves effective in Brazil trials – WSJ,” Reuters, December 22, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-sinovac-brazil-chi-idUSKBN28V2S6.
[xiii] Sedat Ergin, “Çin’den aşıların gecikmesinin nedeni Uygur Türkleri meselesi mi?” Hürriyet, May 26, 2021, https://www.hurriyet.com.tr/yazarlar/sedat-ergin/cinden-asilarin-gecikmesinin-nedeni-uygur-turkleri-meselesi-mi-41818288.
[xiv] Stuart Lau, “China insists it’s ‘not a party’ to Russia’s war with Ukraine,” Politico, March 14, 2022, https://www.politico.eu/article/china-is-not-party-russia-war-on-ukraine-foreign-minister/.
[xv] “İstanbul görüşmesi sona erdi: Rusya ve Ukrayna heyetlerinden açıklama,” NTV Haber, March 29, 2022, https://www.ntv.com.tr/dunya/istanbul-gorusmesi-sona-erdi-rusya-ve-ukrayna-heyetlerinden-aciklama,O3frV_27XECX8-rl7wbrxg.