China-Turkey Relations Grow Despite Differences over Uighurs

By Giorgio Cafiero and Bertrand Viala, MEI,
Mar 15, 2017. 
Since the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, Turkey has been looking
east for new partners to decrease Ankara’s dependence on traditional Western
allies. The election of Donald Trump has contributed to the further
estrangement of Turkey’s relationship with its traditional NATO allies, leaving
Ankara less comfortable remaining so reliant on Washington for regional
security matters. Unquestionably, Russia has played the most influential role
in Turkey’s strategic pivot of the past eight months. However,
China also factors into Turkey’s eastward shift.

Despite China not being one of Turkey’s major trading partners in the 20th century,
Sino-Turkish relations have grown significantly since Turkey’s Justice and
Development Party (A.K.P.) came to power in 2002. At that time, bilateral trade
was roughly $1 billion; last year that figure reached $27 
billion. As
the A.K.P. has sought to continue strengthening Turkey’s relationship with
China, the party’s ideology and domestic political agendas have at times
constrained the potential for Ankara and Beijing to deepen their links.
Specifically, tensions between the Chinese government and the country’s
Muslim-practicing Uighur minority in Xinjiang have fueled problems in
Sino-Turkish relations. Yet at this point, given Ankara’s interest in
diversifying its web of partners on the international stage, it appears that
the A.K.P. leadership has taken stock of China’s value to Turkey and has
decided to tone down its public displays of solidarity with the Uighurs.

Pan-Turkism Vs. Chinese Nationalism
Since the 19th century, pan-Turkish ideology has shaped
Ottoman/Turkish relations with Turkic peoples scattered across the Middle East,
Central Asia, and China. Pan-Turkish voices, who have promoted the unification
of these people under the Ottoman and then later Turkish leadership, have
always been a permanent reality in Turkey’s political scene. Seen through
Turkish lens, the Uighurs are Turkic people who maintain a special relationship
with the Turkish state and its cultural identity. For years, Turkey has
welcomed Uighur activists. Officials in Beijing have accused their counterparts
in Ankara of granting some Uighurs Turkish passports after they gave up their
Chinese citizenship, as well as helping some flee Xinjiang Province 
Radical Islamist terror attacks in China, including the 2014 Kunming knife
massacre, carried out by eight extremists from Xinjiang, resulted in the
Chinese authorities imposing heavy security measures in northwestern China. The
situation in Xinjiang following the crackdown enraged conservative elements of
Turkey’s political establishment, as underscored by the expressions of anger
across Turkish social media and even a number of violent acts that targeted
Chinese nationals in Turkey.
In July 2015, tempers flared in China after some Turkish and ethnic Uighur
protestors burned a Chinese flag outside of Beijing’s consulate in Istanbul
following reports of a ban on Ramadan fasting in Xinjiang. The
episode reportedly entailed the Grey Wolves, a wing of Turkey’s right-wing
nationalist party, M.H.P., attacking tourists in Istanbul whom they believed
were Chinese, but were actually Korean. Another
mob attacked the Thai consulate after officials in Bangkok honored Beijing’s
request to extradite more than 100 Uighurs back to China. Numerous Turks called
for boycotting Chinese products. In
response to the reports of a ban on Ramadan fasting, Turkey’s foreign ministry
responded: “Our people have been saddened over the news that Uighur Turks have
been banned from fasting or carrying out other religious duties in the Xinjiang region.”
Although the Uighur issue has been a thorn in Ankara-Beijing relations,
officials in Turkey and China recognize that it serves both countries’
strategic interests not to let this one issue define bilateral relations. Not
only would an improvement in Sino-Turkish ties open the door to increasingly
valuable economic links, but there are also important security dimensions to
Ankara and Beijing’s relationship. Given that at least 100 Uighurs from
Xinjiang have joined the Islamic State (ISIS), as have at least 2,000 from
Central Asian states where there is a history of ties with the Uighur cause,
Turkey and China have a major incentive to enhance their counter-terrorism cooperation.
In China, there are legitimate concerns about such battle-hardened
extremists returning to Xinjiang to wage violence in pursuit of their goal of
establishing an independent “East Turkestan” and/or recruiting more Uighurs to
join ISIS’ ranks. Earlier
this month, ISIS released its first propaganda video with Uighur subtitles
directly targeting China. It showcased ISIS’ Uighur fighters living in Iraq
with their families, executing alleged informants, and threatening to come back
to China. In
light of this challenge, Chinese officials accept that maintaining a respectful
dialogue with their counterparts in Ankara on the Uighur file is important.
Meanwhile Ankara is now increasingly unsettled by Central Asian and Uighur
fighters from ISIS set on spilling blood in Turkey, as witnessed by the New
Year’s Day attack at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub.
A New Pragmatism 
In recent years, geopolitical factors have driven Turkey to pursue common
interests with China, resulting in implacable pragmatism enabling both
governments to compartmentalize the Uighur issue and strengthen bilateral
relations in the economic domain.
Bilateral trade expanded significantly between 2010 and 2015. During the
tense period from 2013 to 2015, the Chinese did not react to tensions in
Ankara-Beijing relations by diverting their interests from Turkey. To the
contrary, the Chinese sought to increase their investments in Turkey, paving
the way for future opportunities in the world’s 18thlargest economy. In
September 2015, China Merchants Holdings International Co., along with Cosco
Pacific and China Investment Corp., acquired 64.5 percent of the shares of Fina
Liman, which was operating the massive Kumport for $920million. According
to Chinese bidders, the investment’s objective was to obtain control of the
port. Last November, China’s Vice Premier, Wang Yang, visited the site to
confirm the strategic value which Beijing places on such investments in Turkey
Chinese business interests in Turkey have always been discreet, yet
persistent with their lobbying efforts even when tensions were at the utmost.
Similarly, in the same critical period of 2013, the city of Guanzhou was
organizing the Turkey-China Business Forum in Istanbul with the support of the
Turkish Exporters’ Assembly, a prominent group of key exporting companies, and
the association of Turkey China Business Council, a leading organization in
Sino-Turkish relations. Another
big name supporting the event was billionaire Hüsnü Özyeğin, the second
wealthiest individual in Turkey.
Similarly, seven key agreements to structure Turkey-China cooperation were
signed at the end of 2015 with the Uighur issue drifting into the background.
In that regard, China’s patient lobbying approach has been successful, and has
been supported by Turkey’s interest in luring Chinese investment to help
finance its massive infrastructure program.
Increasing estrangement of traditional Western allies over Turkey’s
domestic and regional agendas encourages Turkey to seek alternative partners
and bodes well for Sino-Turkish relations. China’s global investment and
acquisition strategies always ranked as Beijing’s top priority when it came to
defining relations with the Turks, which will create more fertile ground for
stronger cooperation between Turkey and China in the years to come. Ultimately,
Turkey and China’s deepening economic links are illustrative of Ankara’s quest
to pivot east and Beijing’s determination to invest in an important country
that serves as a hub for transcontinental energy and trade routes. Despite
pressure from some members of a domestic constituency in Turkey, these two
countries are likely to strengthen their bilateral ties without the Uighur
issue derailing such progress. Moreover, with ISIS gaining recruits from the
Turkic-speaking world and Ankara increasingly focused on threats of jihadist
terrorism on Turkish soil, more security cooperation should accompany growing
economic linkages.