China Fêtes Turkish Leader as Beijing Recognizes Ankara’s Growing Role

Further Military Cooperation Did Not Appear to be on the Agenda

On April 11, Chinese President Hu Jintao met with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Beijing during the latter’s lavish if brief state visit. Both sides naturally promised cooperation and to expand ties (Xinhua, April 11; China Daily, April 11). The visit marked the first state visit by a Turkish prime minister in 27 years, even though the two sides established a strategic partnership in 2010 (People’s Daily, April 10). Prime Minister Erdogan met with most of China’s top leaders, including Hu, Premier Wen Jiabao, National People’s Congress (NPC) Chairman Wu Bangguo, and Vice President Xi Jinping (Xinhua, April 10). The content of these discussions was relatively muted, suggesting continuing differences related to how to address Syria’s ongoing turmoil and the Iranian nuclear program. Regardless, Ankara and Beijing trumpeted their economic relationship this week, which, coming out of this state visit, appears to be about to boom.

Interestingly, Erdogan started his China trip in Urumqi, the capital of the restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, on April 8. Beijing’s mistreatment of the ethnically-Turkic Uyghurs has long been a sore spot with Ankara, but the Turkish position has softened as Sino-Turkish ties have blossomed. Turkey now condemns any discussion of separatism or an “East Turkestan,” despite Turkish sympathies for the Uyghurs. Both NPC Chairman Wu and Premier Wen thanked Erdogan for Turkey’s support for the “one China principle” with respect to Taiwan and Xinjiang (Beijing News, April 11; People’s Daily, April 10; China News Service, April 10; Today’s Zaman, April 8).

The primary reason for the trip, or at least the trip’s outcomes, was economic and both sides pledged to work on expanding trade. From a decade ago when Sino-Turkish trade was $1.6 billion, bilateral trade is now nearly $25 billion. The Chinese and Turkish sides set $50 billion in bilateral trade as the goal for 2015 and $100 billion for 2020 (Xinhua, April 11, April 7; China Daily, April 11). Energy deals however were the biggest story of the state visit. Chinese and Turkish firms signed six agreements, including a $1.5 billion deal for a Chinese coal plant, more than $1 billion for two wind farms and construction of a solar panel factory (Reuters, April 10). Additionally, during the Wen-Erdogan meeting, both sides agreed to pursue nuclear power cooperation, suggesting China may have an edge in the bidding to build a nuclear power plant on the Black Sea (21st Century Business Herald, April 10; Xinhua, April 9). 

It may be Turkey’s “Year of China,”—to be reciprocated next year as China’s “Year of Turkey”—but cultural exchange played a secondary role compared to the business delegations accompanying Erdogan to China (Xinhua, April 7). On April 10, Beijing played host to the “Sino-Turkish Business Forum,” which included 700 business representatives from the energy, textile, light manufacturing, chemicals and mining industries. The forum was an industry-led discussion on where the Chinese and Turkish economies could complement each other and how to meet the political goals of boosting trade (21st Century Business Herald, April 10). Finally, Propaganda Department Chief Liu Yunshan met with the Chairman of the Calik Group, a Turkish conglomerate, which signed a deal to (Xinhua, April 11). In parallel, China Radio International announced ahead of the visit that it wants to expand its Turkish service (Today’s Zaman, April 8).

While economics may have headlined the Erdogan’s many meetings with Chinese leaders, some tensions clearly existed between the two sides over China’s relationships and support for Iran and Syria. Official Chinese press carried only the terse line that “both sides exchanged views on the Syria and Iran problems.” In contrast to Beijing’s UN Security Council veto, Ankara has imposed supplemental sanctions on Syria—the kind of action recently condemned by China’s commerce minister (People’s Daily, April 10; Xinhua, April 10; The Telegraph [India], March 29). Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was accompanying Erdogan, had to cut short his visit to attend to matters related to Syria, including phone calls with NATO counterparts, a briefing for G-8 ministers and presumably to prepare for the Iran nuclear talks Turkey is hosting in a few days (Today’s Zaman, April 11; Xinhua, April 10).

Chinese rhetoric surrounding the Erdogan’s visit suggests Beijing is trying to boost Turkey’s international standing and create a grateful partner that can assist Beijing internationally more than countries like Iran and North Korea. In meeting with Prime Minister Erdogan, Wen Jiabao said “China attaches great importance to Turkey’s role as a major emerging power” (Xinhua, April 9). Wu Bangguo also praised Sino-Turkish ties “in the context of the profoundly changing international context” as “increasingly having a concrete strategic influence” (People’s Daily, April 10). While the Sino-Turkish strategic partnership two years ago may have overstated their convergent interests, the real tests of the relationship in Iran and Syria are still to come. Ankara may be charting its own path, less connected to its previous European aspirations; however, as its disapproval of Beijing’s veto of UN action related to Syria suggests, the Turks do not share China’s at times almost reflexive stance on sovereignty.