At least that was the unified message given by Chinese officials in Beijing on the eve of popular Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s first official visit to China. Erdoğan visited China in 2003 as the leader of his party, since at the time he was not formally the prime minister. “We are enthusiastic to develop our partnership with Turkey, not only at the bilateral level but also on a host of regional and global issues,” Jian Lu, counsellor at the Foreign Ministry, told a group of Turkish reporters this week.
“It is a must for us to see deeper cooperation with Turkey on regional and international issues, and we are ready for that,” Lu, whose portfolio covers West Asian and North African affairs, strongly emphasized. According to him, Turkey and China as rich members of the G-20 club, can work together, for example, in getting a bigger voice in international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“We are both emerging economies, and we need to have more power in shaping the financial structures at the global level,” he added.
The term “strategic” is not a new term in Sino-Turkish relations. During Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit in October 2010, both Wen and Turkish counterpart Erdoğan agreed that their relationship should be upgraded to “strategic partnership.” This was the first strategic cooperation agreement China signed in any country within the Western Asia and North Africa region. It showed that the Chinese leadership has been pondering the long-term vision in ties with Turkey. Erdoğan’s visit will be an occasion to flesh out the strategic concept, the Chinese predict.
In recent years, there has been a sustained effort on the part of China to resolve issues that are deemed sensitive for Turkey. That includes a burgeoning trade deficit heavily favoring China in trade volume and the status of Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province. The two countries have taken different approaches with respect to the Syrian crisis; however, no one expects there will be a spillover effect onto bilateral ties. On the controversial Iranian nuclear program, both countries advocate negotiations and dialogue to resolve the conflict. These overtures did not go unreciprocated from the Turkish side, either, as seen by strong messages concerning the “one-China” policy by Turkish officials.
Chinese officials made clear that they acknowledge the trade deficit as a one of the major problems hampering the development of relations with Turkey. “We recognize that it is a problem, and we do want to change it to reflect a balanced figure,” Wentao Liang, director general of the Asian Affairs Department at the Ministry of Commerce, has said. “We have developed a set of measures to stimulate exports from Turkey,” he said, though he admitted that challenges remain because of the high labor costs in the Turkish market.
“Lack of knowledge and mutual understanding are the major constraints in promoting Turkish products in the Chinese market. But we are encouraging our companies to import more from Turkey,” Liang noted. Chinese officials believe that a number of activities planned for Turkey Culture Year in China in 2013 will help promote Turkish culture here, hoping that it will in turn trigger interest into Turkish products. China has already been celebrating 2012 as China Culture Year in Turkey.
China is Turkey’s largest trade partner in the Far East and its third biggest trade partner after Germany and Russia. According to the Turkish Statistics Institute (Turkstat), the trade volume in 2011 was $24.5 billion, up from $19.3 billion a year earlier. While Chinese exports to Turkey were $22 billion in 2011, its imports from Turkey were only $2.5 billion. Turkey has been working on an action plan to provide incentives to industries that manufacture similar goods to replace Chinese imports. It remains to be seen how effective that policy will prove to be.
The latest available data for 2012, which covered January, indicated that there is a slight improvement in the balance. Turkey imported $1.6 billion worth of Chinese goods in January this year, which is the same figure for the same month last year. Turkish exports to China increased, however, to $200 million from $164 million in the same period, posting a 22 percent increase. Considering that the two countries are hoping to reach $50 billion in 2015 and $100 billion in 2020 in the area of bilateral trade volume, both sides seems to be aware of the urgency in balancing trade.
In third markets where Turkish companies compete with Chinese ones, Lu dismisses the rivalry and says there is certainly room to cooperate in many fields in African, Central Asian and Middle Eastern markets. “Both Turkey and China have competitive advantages in different industries. We can turn this into a profitable partnership by cooperating with each other,” he explained. Wentao agrees with him, saying that Chinese companies can provide low-cost labor and financing while Turkish companies can pitch in with expertise and technology.
According to Lu, the idea has already been discussed at high-level meetings between the two countries. Though there are no examples of joint ventures in third markets yet, Liang said Turkish and Chinese companies collaborated in marketing Chinese-made cars in one African market, for instance. China’s Huawei Technologies, the world’s largest networking and telecommunications equipment company, has set up regional headquarters in Turkey to serve customers both in Turkey as well as in Turkey’s neighborhood, which includes countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Albania, Georgia and Mongolia. More Chinese investment is on the way for Turkey, officials here say.
Chinese officials regret that the number of Chinese tourists visiting Turkey is still a little below the 100,000 mark, saying that Turkey must be continuously be promoted as vacation destination in China. According to Turkey’s tourism ministry statistics, 97,000 Chinese tourists came to Turkey in 2011, a 25 percent increase over a year earlier. Considering that some 70 million Chinese spend their vacation abroad, the slice Turkey is getting seems to be negligible. Thailand alone receives about 2 million Chinese tourists a year.
“Part of the reason is lack of knowledge,” Liang explained, adding that Chinese do not know much about Turkey. “The promotional activities that will be done next year as part of Turkey culture year here may help raise awareness of Turkey,” he noted. Turkish Airlines (THY) direct flights from a number of Chinese cities has contributed to the number of tourists visiting Turkey. “Still cost-wise, Turkey sometimes seems to be an expensive destination for the Chinese,” he warned, urging price slashes on airline fares.
Overall, on business cooperation in many fields, the Chinese are hopeful that that the visit of Erdoğan on April 7 will set the orientation for the future direction of trade relations. It is expected that some bilateral agreements will be signed between the two countries during the visit. “Since the Turkish delegation will be our guest, we will await their initiatives to tell us where and how to move the trade ties. Then we will make it easier for Turks to accomplish these stated goals,” he explained.
No spillover from Syria
It is obvious that Turkey and China have taken different approaches to the Syrian crisis. While the former is openly asking the departure of Bashar al-Assad from the power, the latter is advocating a negotiated political solution between Assad and the opposition. “Non-interference in the domestic affairs of another country and the fate of Syria to be determined by Syrian people are the two main pillars of Chinese foreign policy on Syria,” summarized Manyuan Dong, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), during discussion with Turkish reporters this week in Beijing.
“Sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Syria must be respected, while the focus should be on stopping the violence, having a cease-fire and providing access to humanitarian assistance complemented by inclusive dialogue with all parties,” he added. Guofu Li, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at CIIS, questions the Turkish policy vis-à-vis Syria. “What caused Turkey to abruptly change its policy towards Syria,” he asks, defending his country’s veto decision to the UN Security Council. “We acted in line with our principled approach toward other countries,” he explained.
Xiudong Jia, a senior fellow at the CIIS who worked as political counsellor at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, argued that the US has strategic interests in the Middle East in general and in Syria particular. “Americans have a tendency to make complex issues simple. They reduced the solution to one thing: Assad’s departure. Then what? Nobody knows. What is more, in an election year, the first priority for Obama is to get re-elected. All others are secondary,” he explained. All experts at CIIS disagree with the common perception that China is supporting the Assad regime and condones violence. “We support the Syrian people and condemn the violence whoever commits it,” noted Wang Youming, director of the Department of Developing Countries Studies at the CIIS.
Jisheng Ma, deputy director general of the Information Department at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, warns that a possible intervention in Syria may set an example for other interventions in other countries in the future. “We are thinking of the future,” he said. He went on to point out: “All countries have domestic problems including Turkey, which its own Kurdish problem. Some other countries may want to exploit these problems to meddle into our affairs. That is why we have to act with the principle of non-interference.”
Ma disclosed that China is also talking to the opposition in Syria and has even extended an invitation for their leaders to visit Beijing. “We are trying to convince Assad for political settlement. The bloodshed must cease, and Assad must undertake reforms urgently,” he stated. Ma made clear that different policies on Syria have no impact on the bilateral ties between Turkey and China. Every country has a different approach on a number of issues, and that is quite normal,” he added.
As for Xinxiang, Chinese officials say both countries were able to set aside their differences over 2009 clashes between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in China’s Xinjiang province and are committed to joint efforts to crack down on terrorism and separatism. While China has shown greater sensitivity to Muslim grievances in the region and provided economic incentives, Turkey reaffirmed the one-China policy with utmost respect to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.