But just days after Gül’s visit, China violently cracked down on a riot in Xinjiang by ethnic Turkic Muslim Uighurs protesting harsh government policies, leaving nearly 200 dead.
Regardless of the level to which the relations between China and Turkey fell following the bloody crackdown on Uighur riots last July, ties have significantly improved between the two countries in the past few months, even to strategic levels. Thanks to the Chinese government’s tangible policies seeking to alter dynamics in the Xinjiang region, and Turkey’s dramatic shift in its rhetoric against China, relations between the two countries have largely improved, which, as a result, is expected to enhance trade and investment in the region.
The first move came from Beijing, when it replaced long-time dictator Wang Lequan, who has been criticized for his handling of last year’s ethnic riot, and appointed Zhang Chunxian as Communist Party secretary in Xinjiang. Known for his liberal approach and reformist character, Beijing is planning to take an even more liberal approach in easing tensions in the region.
With an increase in dissatisfaction between Turkey and the US over a wide range of issues in the region, Turkey, through inviting China to a military drill, showed the US there are still alternatives even in security cooperation. This was the result of a vacuum that formed when the US pulled out of a military exercise after Turkey refused to allow Israel to participate in it. Soon after, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a key visit to Turkey, signing eight agreements, mostly in the economy and trade sectors. The visit heralded a new era in partnership and cooperation between the two countries.
The growing relations further marked an important turning point during Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s visit to China, including to the Xinjiang region. Erkin Ertem of the Ankara-based Institute of Strategic Thinking (SDE) views Davutoğlu’s visit to China as a follow-up to the strategic cooperation decision between the two countries during Jiabao’s visit to Turkey.
Ertem said China aspired for such cooperation in the early 2000s and made political statements in this regard. Despite the late Foreign Minister İsmail Cem’s comprehensive action plan regarding China, Ertem said, this issue remained only on paper.
The incidents in Urumqi, Ertem continued, also dampened the effects of President Gül’s visit last summer. “But Davutoğlu’s visit [negated] this unfortunate development,” he said.
China’s outward foreign direct investment (FDI) reached $100 billion in 2008, a 19-fold increase since 2000. The unfortunate aspect of this unprecedented growth is that it did not really benefit Turkey. Chinese investment in Turkey is shockingly low, hovering at around $60 million. The level of trade between Turkey and China reached $14.2 billion last year, of which 80 percent is in Chinese exports to Turkey, leaving Ankara with an $11 billion deficit. The authorities of the two countries are eyeing $100 billion in trade by 2020.
An increase in tourism between the two countries was also on the agenda during the discussions. Turkey hosts 27 million tourists every year, but only 70,000 are from China. To tackle this problem and attract more Chinese tourists, Turkish Airlines (THY) increased its weekly flights to China last summer from nine to 21. China’s “Western Development” program, envisaging billions of dollars for infrastructure in the Xinjiang region, has largely been ineffective in years past. The government is now seeking to stir interest among Turkish businessmen to invest in the region.
China has always been very careful about preventing foreign intrusion into its affairs, particularly regarding its vulnerable regions seeking secession. Turkey, however, seems to be reassuring the Chinese leadership that it supports China’s territorial integrity and is only asking China to improve living conditions for Uighurs.
Turkey has for two reasons shifted its rhetoric against China and taken a more pragmatic stance to help solve the Uighur problem and improve ties with Beijing. First, Turkey’s new assertive policies both in the region and beyond have prompted the new rising star to build good relations with countries such as China to offset the balance against Israel and the US, which has recently adopted a more negative position towards Turkey. Second, Turkey has understood that establishing good relations with the Chinese leadership is a must to spur the government to soften its approach toward the ethnic Turkic minority. “Improving relations between the two countries will also bring relief to our Uighur brothers,” Davutoğlu assured the Uighur community while speaking in Kashgar on Oct. 28 during his visit to China.
“It is a must for China and Turkey to continue economic, political and military cooperation in a strategic dimension to realize the Uighurs’ democratic rights and freedoms,” Seyit Tümtürk, president of the East Turkestan Culture and Solidarity Association, told Sunday’s Zaman in an interview, adding that Davutoğlu’s messages delivered during his visit to China are something his community attaches importance to. Tümtürk also raised concerns on the content of agreements Interior Minister Beşir Atalay signed with his Chinese counterparts, claiming that similar agreements with other countries had turned out to be a tool to crack down on the Uighur community. “We hope the same will not happen this time,” Tümtürk said.
Davutoğlu started his trip by first visiting China’s western cities, which, observers say, is evidence of what degree the Uighur issue weighs in on Turkish foreign policy and in its relations with Beijing. “It is important because the Chinese side did not object to Davutoğlu’s visit to Urumqi and Kashgar,” Selçuk Çolakoğlu, the head of the Asia-Pacific Studies department at the Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), said.
Also pointing to the fact that the minister prayed in a mosque without any incident, Çolakoğlu said these depict that dialogue has been established. “It is not only due to a more flexible position of the Chinese government, but also to the Turkish side’s sensitivity and expectations with respect to the Uighur Turks,” the expert noted. Claiming that Uighurs still constitute the most important agenda item in Turkey’s relations with China, Çolakoğlu noted that this issue was not brought to fore between 1997 and 2004.
Emine Kart contributed to this report from Ankara.