The year 2012 is set to witness a boost in Turkey-China bilateral relations. To kick off the 2012 China Culture Year in Turkey, the two countries have begun a series of cultural exchange events.
While 2012 has been declared China Culture Year in Turkey, 2013 will be celebrated as Turkey Culture Year in China.” Both Chinese and Turkish officials have expressed hope that the coming culture years will breathe life into the relationship between the two countries.
Modern diplomatic relations between Turkey and the People's Republic of China began on Aug. 4, 1971. However, there was only little close cooperation between the two countries during the 1970s and 1980s. This situation changed recently, after Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rose to power. The AK Party has adopted a new foreign policy that has a proactive, multidimensional stance and emphasizes dynamic economic relations at a multilateral level. Actively seeking opportunities in global markets, Turkey is now establishing closer economic relations not only with the West but also with Central Asia, the Arab world and rising African countries. With its fast-developing economy and promising markets, China has started to loom large in Turkey's new vision and on June 24, 2009, President Abdullah Gül visited China, becoming the first Turkish president to visit China in 14 years since President Süleyman Demirel in 1995.
“China, a potential dominator of the global economy with the world's largest market and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is very likely to become the next superpower in the near future. Turkey fully recognizes China's importance and is working to devise suitable foreign policies to improve relations with China,” Selçuk Çolakoğlu, head of Asia-Pacific Studies at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), told Sunday's Zaman.
Economic relations flourish
To understand China's importance for Turkey, it should first be pointed out that China is the biggest trade partner of Turkey in the Far East. Business between Turkey and China has been increasing rapidly over the past five years. According to statistics provided by the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON), trade between Turkey and China in 2006 was $10.4 billion, which had doubled to $24 billion by 2011. Both countries have pledged to increase bilateral trade to $50 billion by 2015 and $100 billion by 2020, as discussed by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during a meeting in 2010. Many Turkish companies, including Çimtaş, Demirdöküm and Arçelik, are investing in the Chinese market. Business cooperation between Turkey and China extends to various fields, such as construction, textiles, transportation, banking and finance and technology R&D. While many countries have been suffering from the current global financial crisis, China and Turkey are still seeing strong economic growth. Dr. Çağdaş Üngör, a China specialist and lecturer at Marmara University, thinks the global financial crisis had just a minor impact on China and Turkey's trade. “Although there was a decline in the volume of bilateral trade in 2009, this proved to be a temporary setback, and the overall trend has remained positive since 2010,” she said.
Moreover, China and Turkey will begin close cooperation in the areas of energy, tourism and logistics. According to recently signed agreements, China will invest in nuclear power and thermal power as well as in the renewable energy sectors in Turkey, facilitating the meeting of Turkey's energy needs and increasing its energy security. As a favored tourist destination, Turkey expects to see a dramatic increase in Chinese tourists during and after the China-Turkey culture years, which will contribute significantly to its tourism revenue. In the area of logistics, big cooperation projects, such as building a high-speed rail line to link Ankara and İstanbul, are under way. According to Çolakoğlu, “Turkey and China are trying to establish a joint market. In the past, Chinese and Turkish companies were competitors, but now we are seeking a win-win cooperation.”
Problematic Xinjiang issue tests bilateral relations
Meanwhile, from China's perspective, Turkey is a critical partner not only in economic development but also in national security concerning the critical issue of Xinjiang. China needs intensive support and close cooperation from Turkey to deal with the “East Turkestan” problem. The Xinjiang region was acquired by China during the Qing dynasty in the 18th century and is of great importance since it accounts for one-sixth of the country's territory and is rich in oil and natural gas. However, Xinjiang, as a region where up to 20 ethnic groups reside, including Uyghur, Han Chinese, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Kazakh, has suffered serious ethnic tension in recent years. In 2009, the Uyghur in Xinjiang rioted against Han Chinese residents, which led to 197 deaths and thousands injured. The Uyghurs make up one of the ethnic Turkic populations and many Uyghurs are living in Turkey.
Turkey's stance on the Xinjiang problem greatly influences its relations with China. In June 2009, Gül visited China and met with President Hu Jintao. During the meeting, Hu suggested Turkey and China strengthen their cooperation in security, especially in “East Turkestan.” In response, Gül emphasized that Turkey was strongly opposed to separatist activities and was ready to boost its cooperation with China. In November 2010, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu visited China to meet with Vice President Xi Jinping. Davutoğlu said Turkey valued its ties with China and would uphold the one-China policy and crack down on any activities in Turkey that aim to sabotage China's sovereignty and threaten its territorial integrity.
Turkey's crucial role in the peaceful resolution of the Xinjiang problem acts as a springboard in improving bilateral ties with China. “Turkey has declared its full support of a united China,” Gökhan Bacık, director of the Middle East Research Center at Zirve University and an analyst on Turkey-China relations, told Today's Zaman. “Turkey does not want to risk its good relations with China on the Xinjiang issue,” Bacık added. Meanwhile, Çolakoğlu said, “Turkey sees Xinjiang as a bridge to communicate with China rather than a problem,” and added that “sticking with the one-China policy, Turkey wants to see the Uyghur people live a happy and prosperous life as Chinese citizens. Turkey could play an important role in developing Xinjiang's economy by setting up free trade zones with China in Xinjiang. More trust and transparency should be established between the two countries.” Üngör also told Sunday's Zaman that Turkey's current stance on the Xinjiang issue was based on pragmatic principles and a realistic outlook. “Turkey's influence in the Xinjiang region can only be facilitated through close ties with China's leadership, as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu recently pointed out.” She said: “However, the Uyghur problem is prone to being easily manipulated by the Turkish media, with few journalists and experts having direct access to China. And the public opinion in Turkey on the Xinjiang issue is largely shaped by the Uyghur diaspora, which has very biased opinions.” Üngör further suggested that Turkey and China should set up better channels of communication in dealing with the Xinjiang problem.
Meanwhile, Üngör's interpretation of the unfolding problems faced by the Uyghur in western China is not shared by the Uyghur diaspora. Seyit Tümtürk, vice president of the World Uighur Congress, stated that most of the articles in the agreement that introduced a semi-autonomous status for Turkic people in China in 1955 still have not been fully adopted due to the persistent defiance of the Chinese government. He said the accusations against the Uighur diaspora are out of touch with the reality on the ground, adding that China is successfully changing the demographic composition of the region by allowing large-scale immigration into the area. In this respect, while Chinese people only constituted 3 to 4 percent of the total population in 1949 -- before the Chinese military's intervention in the region, following the Maoist revolution -- he said this ratio went up to 80 percent in Urumchi and 30 to 40 percent in other provinces in 2009, at a time when deadly clashes between Uighur and Chinese communities erupted. By doing this, he said, China aims to retain the region in the future, even if a referendum is held as result of a probable democratization of Chinese politics. The untapped natural resources in the region are the primary reason, according to him, why China is so assertive in denying the fundamental rights of the Uighur population.
Turkey and China try to develop strategic ties
In addition, China and Turkey are trying to strengthen cooperation in strategic matters. During Jiabao's visit to Turkey in October 2010, the two countries' relations were further reinforced by the declaration of Turkey-China's “strategic partnership.” In late September and early October 2010, the Chinese and Turkish air forces held joint military drills in Turkey's Central Anatolian province of Konya, which signified the deepening military ties between China and Turkey. This drill was the first such exercise that China conducted with a NATO member, revealing Turkey's new strategic priority in China's foreign policy. “Turkey has the capacity to be the most effective partner for China in its communication with the West and the Middle East,” Bacık said. “China has increased its geopolitical and geo-economic ambitions concerning Central Asia and the Middle East, and Turkey is increasing its importance in this region. Turkey and China's cooperation will certainly contribute to mutual benefits, which in turn will strengthen each country's geo-economic and geopolitical significance. Turkey-China relations have a huge potential to develop and benefit both sides in the coming years,” Çolakoğlu stated.
With the promising potential for cooperation in economic and strategic areas, it is critical for the people of Turkey and China to understand each other better, gain knowledge of and trust in each other. In 2012, China will exhibit rich examples of its music, literature, acrobatics, crafts, cinema, traditional dance and opera across many Turkish cities, including İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Bursa, Antalya, Mersin and Trabzon. The world-famous Terracotta Army, depicting the warriors and horses of the first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang, will also be brought to Turkey for exhibition.
Abdullah Ayasun contributed to this report from İstanbul.