Sino-Turkish Strategic Partnership: Implications of Anatolian Eagle 2010

Publication: China Brief Volume: 11 Issue: 1

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (L) and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan

Since being inaugurated in 2001, Turkey’s annual hosting of its "Anatolian Eagle" aerial military exercises at Konya air base in the central Anatolian region of Konya have been central to its efforts to preserve military preparedness and to enhance relations with the air forces of the United States and fellow NATO allies.  "Anatolian Eagle" has also encouraged closer relations between Turkey and a range of regional partners—especially Israel—as well as Jordan, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).  Turkey’s guest of honor in the exercises staged from September 20 to October 4, 2010, however, was China. While China cooperates with NATO countries and other members of the international community in anti-piracy operations in the waters off the Horn of Africa, its participation in "Anatolian Eagle" marked the first time it engaged in joint air exercises with a NATO member (Hurriyet [Istanbul], October 29, 2010; Xinhua News Agency, January 19, 2009).  

The exercises featured U.S.-origin Turkish fighters, namely U.S.-built F-4E Phantoms alongside Russian-built Sukhoi SU-27 Flankers operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) (Asia Sentinel [Hong Kong], October 7, 2010).  Rumors circulated that Turkey deployed its advanced U.S.-made F-16 Fighting Falcons during the maneuvers, raising fears in Washington and Brussels that sensitive U.S. and NATO technology would slip into the hands of the Chinese.  Turkish officials denied the allegations, however, stating that they took great care to protect sensitive technology, a point confirmed by officials in Washington (Today’s Zaman [Istanbul], October 11, 2010; Reuters, October 9, 2010).  The exercises included mock dogfights and other air-based maneuvers.  Yet key questions remain regarding the details of important aspects of the exercises.  The precise number of Chinese fighters involved in the exercises, for example, is unclear (Aviation Week, September 30, 2010; Asia Sentinel, October 7, 2010).  

For all of the attention the presence of the PLAAF in Turkey has received, the greatest implications of China’s participation in "Anatolian Eagle 2010" in the long-run may indeed be understood through the notable absence of two mainstays at "Anatolian Eagle" events: the United States and Israel.  The progressive disintegration of Turkish-Israeli relations stemming from Israel’s December 2008 invasion of Gaza and ongoing occupation and siege against the territory—a relationship cultivated over decades and once touted as a strategic axis joining two of the region’s most powerful militaries—prompted Ankara to cancel the international component of "Anatolian Eagle 2009" due to the scheduled participation of Israeli, alongside Turkish, US, and NATO forces (Asia Times [Hong Kong], July 20, 2010; Today’s Zaman, June 8, 2009).  Tensions between Turkey and Israel reached a fever pitch following Israel’s May 2010 attack against the MV Mari Marmara, a Turkish aid ship traveling as part of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, which left eight Turks and one Turkish-American dead (Asia Times, July 20, 2010).  Not surprisingly, Turkey did not extend an invitation to Israel to participate in "Anatolian Eagle 2010" or other maneuvers.  The United States, according to some Turkish sources, opted out of "Anatolian Eagle 2010" drills to protest Turkey’s exclusion of Israel (Hurriyet, September 1, 2010).

China’s involvement in "Anatolian Eagle 2010" occurred on the heels of its participation in "Peace Mission 2010." A 16-day drill aimed at combating what Beijing refers to as the "three evil forces" of terrorism, separatism, and extremism in the region, "Peace Mission 2010" included forces from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan held under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)—Uzbekistan opted out of the exercise.  One of the highlights of the exercise for China was showcasing the PLA’s rapidly improving expeditionary combat capabilities (See "China’s Growing Clout in the SCO: Peace Mission 2010," China Brief, October 8, 2010).  China’s participation in "Anatolian Eagle 2010" demonstrates the PLA’s increasing capability in launching and sustaining long-range combat missions outside of its immediate geographic periphery in East Asia.  On their voyage to Turkey, for example, PLAAF planes reportedly made refueling stops in Pakistan and Iran (Hurriyet, October 29, 2010; Press TV [Tehran], October 3, 2010).

There are already signs that "Anatolian Eagle 2010" set a precedent for future joint military exercises, training, and other forms of cooperation between China and Turkey.  Beginning on November 8, 2010, the PLA and Turkish special forces participated in a weeklong series of military drills focusing on assault tactics in hilly and mountainous terrain in Turkey (Xinhua News Agency, November 9, 2010).  As the PLAAF’s participation in the high-profile "Anatolian Eagle 2010" event represented the first instance of joint air maneuvers between China and a NATO member country, the comparatively low-key ground-based military exercises marked the first time Chinese ground forces operated on NATO soil.  According to a statement issued by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, a special operations unit conducted exercises with Turkish forces at an undisclosed location in Turkey.  Although the exact nature and location of the maneuvers have not been disclosed, sources in China claim that the drills focused on joint counterterrorism missions.  The same sources also report that the drill was staged in mountainous territory, essentially the type of terrain conducive to harboring insurgent and terrorist movements (South China Morning Post [Hong Kong], November 9, 2010).  

The recent developments in Sino-Turkish relations are all the more significant given that it was not too long ago that both countries were embroiled in a spat over the crisis spawned by the violence in Urumqi, the capital of China’s northwestern Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XAR), in July 2009 between ethnic Uighurs—a Turkic and Muslim minority that faces discrimination and repression by the state—and Han Chinese, China’s majority ethnic group.  Sharing ethnic, religious, and linguistic ties with the Uighurs, Turkey assumed an advocacy role on behalf of Uighur causes after the fall of the Soviet Union.  At one point during the crisis, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused China of committing a "near genocide" in Xinjiang (See "Xinjiang Crackdown and Changing Perceptions of China in the Islamic World?," China Brief, August 5, 2009). Ironically, China’s participation in ground maneuvers with Turkish forces in mountainous terrain in Turkey suggests that the PLA is keen to tap the Turkish army’s experience waging counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations against Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) guerillas to shore up its defense against the "three evil forces" it has identified as threats; Expressions of Uighur identity, activism, and grievances, as defined by China, embody the threats of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.  

Trade and Business

If recent trends signal a watershed in relations between China and Turkey, the results of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s three-day official visit to Turkey on October 7-10, 2010, the final stop of Wen’s European tour that included stops in Greece, Belgium, and Italy, demonstrate that the most serious tensions over Xinjiang in the aftermath of the Urumqi riots are a thing of the past (Xinhua News Agency, October 7, 2010).  

The Chinese premier’s visit with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara proved to be a fruitful one for advancing bilateral commercial ties.  Lauding the start of what he described as a new "strategic partnership," China and Turkey declared their goal to increase bilateral trade to $50 billion by 2015 and $100 billion by 2020; the existing volume of bilateral trade is around $17 billion.  The current trade balance favors China heavily, however, Turkey is eager to level the playing field by attracting more Chinese investment and promoting itself as a gateway to markets in Europe and the Middle East.  Both sides also inked eight agreements regarding investment in the infrastructure, transportation, and telecommunication sectors, and discussed future ventures in the energy, air transport, and tourism industries.  The China Railway Construction Corporation (CRSS), for instance, is constructing a high-speed rail link between Ankara and Istanbul.  Erdogan said Turkey also intended to build a railway connecting Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, and the Chinese capital, Beijing (Xinhua News Agency, October 8, 2010)

Chinese tourists are also flocking to Turkey in record numbers.  While remaining competitors in the textile and electronics sectors, both sides also expressed their commitment to encourage Chinese and Turkish businesses to pursue joint ventures in emerging markets in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia (Financial Times [London], October 8, 2010; People’s Daily, October 9, 2010 Xinhua News Agency, January 19, 2009).


The talks between Beijing and Ankara also highlighted their shared historical legacies as the modern heirs of the ancient civilizations that intermingled on the Silk Road trade routes and proposed to jointly develop modern transportation links to facilitate contacts between Turkey and China, and the countries in between, in order to revive a new Silk Road (Hurriyet, November 2, 2010).  2011 marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations between China and Turkey.  To honor this milestone, Turkey has declared 2011 the "Year of China"; China was quick to show its gratitude to Turkey by designating 2012 the "Year of Turkey" (Hurriyet, September 2, 2010). The harsh diplomacy that typified Sino-Turkish relations amidst the Xinjiang crisis has given way to compliments, expressions of mutual friendship, and promises of closer and frequent contacts in the future.  Wen’s visit to Ankara in October 2010 was the first visit by a Chinese premier to Turkey in eight years; Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s visit to China in 2009 was the first by a Turkish president in 14 years.  Chinese President Hu Jintao has already made plans to visit Turkey in 2011; Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan also plans to make his way to China in 2011.  The increased frequency of high-level visits committed to by both sides was cemented by the signing of a joint-working committee between the respective foreign ministries, which includes a goal of holding at least one high-level visit in either China or Turkey annually (Hurriyet, November 2, 2010).

The shift in Sino-Turkish diplomacy since the Xinjiang crisis was also on display during a six-day visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to China from October 28 to November 4, 2010.  In a gesture of China’s importance to Turkey and its interest in forging closer links, Davutoglu announced that Turkey plans to expand its diplomatic presence across China by adding more consulates: "China is almost a continent for us. We want to increase the number of Turkish consulates," stated Davutoglu in Beijing (Hurriyet, November 2 2010).  In addition to meeting with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi in Beijing, Davutoglu also toured Kashgar, an ancient center of Uighur culture—the first Turkish foreign minister to do so.  Asked about the possibility that Turkey would build a consulate in Urumqi, the provincial capital of Xinjiang, Davutoglu declared, "We are determined to take every step that will bring the Turkish and Chinese peoples closer and open consulates all over China … Uighur Turks, with whom we have close historic and cultural bonds, live in Kashgar and Urumqi.  It was important that an atmosphere of calm and peace was achieved in the region after the unrest last year" (Hurriyet, November 2, 2010).  

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping conveyed Beijing’s satisfaction with Ankara’s support to combat "East Turkistan [sic] terrorist forces" in Xinjiang during talks with Davutoglu in Beijing and called for greater Sino-Turkish cooperation in counterterrorism.  Davutoglu also reaffirmed Ankara’s support of the "one-China" principle that defines Taiwan as a sovereign part of China.  In a veiled remark that likely alluded to the activities of ethnic Uighur activists in Turkey—Turkey is home to a sizeable Uighur diaspora—Davutoglu also reaffirmed Turkey’s commitment to target any activities occurring in Turkey that threaten China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (New China News Agency, November 1, 2010).

Mapping the Geopolitics

Understanding the backdrop underlying the latest trends in Sino-Turkish relations provides insight into the strategic implications of what appears to be the makings of a burgeoning partnership.  China’s participation in "Anatolian Eagle" as a guest of a key NATO member comes amid increasingly vocal criticism of China’s economic policies out of Washington, specifically the manner in which China manages its currency, and heightened tensions between China and its neighbors, including U.S. allies in the region, stemming from territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, for instance, remain a major point of contention in Sino-U.S. ties.

The U.S. position on the Iranian nuclear program represents another major dispute clouding relations between the United States and China that may be driving Beijing closer to Ankara.  China has demonstrated little serious interest in abandoning one of its most importance sources of oil and gas in the face of growing U.S.-led international pressure for additional sanctions and potentially a military response against Iran.  On the question of Iran, Davutoglu declared in Beijing "We discussed Iran’s nuclear program in detail… Our views are very close" (Hurriyet, November 2, 2010).  In this regard, Beijing’s efforts to court Ankara are part of a larger strategy to counter Washington’s moves in East Asia and other theaters it sees its interests threatened (See "Shifting Sands in the Gulf: The Iran Calculus in China-Saudi Arabia Relations," China Brief, May 13, 2010).

Finally, the emergence of a new Turkish foreign policy is also shaping the tenor of Sino-Turkish relations today.  Although a close ally of the United States and West, Turkey’s ties with the United States, NATO, and Europe have come under increasing strain in recent years over disagreements ranging from the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to the European Union’s (EU) refusal to allow Turkey to join its club.  As a result, Turkey appears to have opted for a broader foreign policy that departs from its traditionally Western-oriented focus for a more expansive approach that includes courting forming rivals and new partners such as China (Asia Times, July 20, 2010).

Considering the troubled state of relations following the violence in Xinjiang in 2009, a number of factors bode well for Sino-Turkish relations in 2011 and beyond.