Turkey and China have expanded ties, but their relationship is marked by continued distrust and competition. The two sides are expanding economic cooperation but fundamental political differences remain.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Beijing on July 2 to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, as the two Countries seek to build on budding economic and political ties at a time both are experiencing a low point in their relations with the United States. 

Turkey is increasing estranged from the United States and Western allies over differences on Syria,Ankara’s planned purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system and democratic backsliding following the failed coup attempt in June 2016.

The fallout has fuelled speculation by some observers that NATO member Turkey may be rebalancing its strategic relations away from the West to the East not least because Erdogan has suggested Turkey could join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a regional security body composed of China, Russia and four Central Asian nations.

Meanwhile, the ongoing US-China trade dispute coincides with the world’s two largest economies being locked in a geopolitical power struggle to define the future world order.

However, Erdogan’s eighth meeting with Xi since 2012 is more about economics and diversifying relations, not part of a strategic shift to the East, experts said.

“Turkey’s relations with China cannot replace its alliance with the United States or relations with the European Union,” said Altay Atli, a lecturer at Koc University in Istanbul who specialises on Turkish-Asian relations. “Turkey has very deep and mutually beneficial relations with the West.”

He added that Ankara’s foreign policy aims to make Turkey an international actor capable of expanding relations with all countries, unlike during the Cold War when it was tied to the Western bloc.

Kadir Temiz, a faculty member at Istanbul Sehir University, said that although China is becoming an important country for Turkey, the relationship centres on common interests in developing economic ties.

“Their biggest differences are political and geopolitical,” he said. “These political and geopolitical differences are likely to come to the fore in the future if there is a greater economic dependency.”  

One main area of divergence between Ankara and Beijing is over the Syrian civil war, where Turkey has backed the opposition and China has economically and politically supported the regime and Russia’s military intervention. 

Belt & Road

China-Turkey bilateral trade reached $23 billion in 2018 (20.3 billion euros), according to the Turkish Statistics Office, making China Turkey’s third largest trading partner.

The trade relationship is marked by a massive $18 billion imbalance in China’s favour, something that Turkey seeks to address by expanding exports and attracting Chinese investment at a time its economy is struggling.

For China, Turkey’s position at the crossroads of the Middle East, south Caucasus, Eastern Mediterranean and Europe makes it a key geography for Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative and bid to expand its global influence to balance against the United States.  

Port Khorgos - Kazakhstan
Photo: Largest Central Asian land Port Khorgos – Kazakhstan, an important transportation Hub connecting China to Europe by Rail.

“Turkey’s position on the Belt and Road Initiative has the potential to determine the trajectory of Beijing’s future policy as it seeks to connect China to Europe,” said Temiz.

Washington and its European allies have warned that the Chinese plan to finance and build infrastructure across the globe could lead to a debt trap, creating dependency on Beijing for its strategic gain.

Turkey looks at Belt and Road positively, seeing it as complementary to its own “Middle Corridor” initiative to create a rail and road network along the ancient Silk Road from Turkey through the Caucasus and Central Asia to China. 

At Odds Over the Uyghurs

Erdogan, who in 2009 accused Beijing of committing “a kind of genocide” against the Uyghurs, has remained relatively mute in recent years as China has rounded up an estimated one million people-from the mostly Muslim, Turkic ethnic group in western Xinjiang province.  

The plight of their ethnic Turkic cousins has long stirred passions among religious-nationalist circles and the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey.

Turkish officials in February had described as a “shame for humanity” the “systematic assimilation policy” against the Uyghur. Since then, Turkey has been relatively mute.

China says its “reeducation camps” are intended to fight Islamic radicalism and terrorism. Several thousand Uyghur jihadis are believed to have travelled through Turkey to join militant groups in Syria.

Beijing says these Syrian trained Uyghur jihadis have carried out attacks in western China and fears that more battle-hardened fighters will return to wage war.

On the Uyghur issue, Ankara wants to avoid angering China at a time its economy is weak. At the same time, China fears that Erdogan, a widely popular figure in Muslim world, could stir anti-Chinese sentiment if were too vocal about the treatment of the Uyghurs.

“Turkey is trying to follow a careful policy on this,” said Atli, adding that the government has supported Chinese sovereignty and right to fight against terrorism, while expressing that not every Muslim is a terrorist.