Baby Steps for Turkey and China
Trading ties between the two countries improve but remain vulnerable
Today, Ankara and Beijing prefer to put their various differences to rest, and instead utilize their newly found economic and diplomatic might to advance their national interests in Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East. In other words, China and Turkey have entered a new period of strategic cooperation, the foundation of which was set in stone during the official exchanges by the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, in 2010.
To this end, China and Turkey are now seeking to conduct joint projects in the fields of infrastructure construction, communication, and technical consultancy in so-called third countries, with Chinese companies responsible for the provision of cheap labor and capital, while their Turkish counterparts pitch in with expertise and technology.China and Turkey are now seeking to conduct joint projects in the fields of infrastructure construction, communication, and technical consultancy
Already, for instance, Turkey has helped a Chinese car manufacturer to market its vehicles in Africa, and Huawei Technologies has set up a headquarters in Istanbul to manage its businesses in Central Asia, GCC, and Iran.
Closely linked, Ankara and Beijing are also discussing ways in which they can replace their competition over access to the vast natural resources of Africa and Central Asia with cooperation and the establishment of joint ventures. Surely, Beijing has the means to facilitate Turkish companies’ entry into African markets if Ankara is willing to replicate that with a similar gesture in Central Asia and the Caucuses. They are also seeking to team-up in the fields of solar power and nuclear energy. In fact, Turkey, according to its Deputy Prime Minister, is considering China as a potential candidate for the construction of one of its three nuclear power plants alongside Russia and South Korea.
Chinese and Turkish central banks, moreover, have entered into a three-year currency swap deal to facilitate bilateral trade, and they are both in search of a strategy that enables them to attract more foreign direct investment from the Arab world. As such, China and Turkey could, in the not too distant future, begin working on a joint approach to Islamic finance/banking as Arab economies, similar to their policies, are set to have a stronger Islamic flavor in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Last but not least, aware of the economic benefits of their centuries-old Silk Road links, Beijing and Ankara have developed a shared strategic enthusiasm in rebuilding its 21st Century equivalent, as is evident in the construction of the Eurasian trans-continental railways that links Northwestern China to Europe via Turkey.
As significant as these developments are, they are nonetheless confined to purely commercial activities which, notwithstanding their geopolitical implications, have not been matched by a parallel degree of political cooperation. Put differently, although China and Turkey have been willingly engaged in joint commercial undertakings, their opposing threat perceptions have, or could in the future, put them at odds over a number of political issues. This, in turn, casts a big question mark over their ability to indulge themselves into a fruitful (geo)-strategic cooperation.They are both in search of a strategy that enables them to attract more foreign direct investment from the Arab world
Putting aside Turkey’s growing trade deficit with China, which has been irritating Ankara over the past decade and could very well complicate bilateral ties by encouraging protectionism, it is hard to contemplate how Turkey and China can cooperate in the Middle East or Central Asia when they prefer different means for securing their otherwise near-identical interests there.
Governments in both countries have, among other things, an interest in Central Asia as a source of raw materials for their growing economies. In this regard, China is locked in fierce competition with NATO and Russia, whereas Turkey, a NATO member state, has an interest in securing its Central Asian ambitions through, and not outside, NATO. Undoubtedly, Ankara’s cooperation with either NATO or China in Central Asia will frustrate its largest trading partner and chief gas supplier. Nevertheless, a NATO-led approach can, to an extent, shield Turkey against potential Russian backlashes. Beijing, on the other end, is unlikely to stand up to Moscow for the sake of its ties with Turkey.
Similarly, while China and Turkey appear to seek peace and stability in the Middle East as an overall strategic objective, their short-term preferences are divergent. As a regional state, Turkey realizes that the most important factor for its continued economic growth is regional stability, and so it ostensibly advocates an immediate end to both Iran’s nuclear controversy as well as the Syrian crisis. China, on the other hand, could have a short term strategic interest in preserving the current status-quo in the Middle East, seeing ongoing instability in the region as its best weapon in complicating Washington’s Pacific Century strategy. Their disagreement over Syria, furthermore, reveals their different foreign policy principles in spite of their shared desire for the emergence of a multipolar world order.
Equally important, Beijing would be ill-advised to expect that its expanding commercial ties with Ankara will immunize it from Turkey’s criticisms should there be another outbreak of unrest amongst Uighurs. Turkey’s continued economic growth and its elevated global standing as a role model for Arab revolutionaries have not only boosted the government’s confidence, but have also given rise to nationalistic sentiments. In the event of an uprising, thus, the Turkish government may be left with no option but to condemn Beijing as a matter of electoral necessity.
Of course, none of this is to suggest that a strategic cooperation between these two civilisational powers is impossible. However, much more needs to be done on the political front before there can be any talk of a strategic relationship. Increased socio-cultural exchanges are a prerequisite if a truly strategic relationship between China and Turkey is to materialize, and Ankara and Beijing’s recent decision to hold Chinese Culture Year in Turkey is a baby-step in the right direction. Yet, such undertakings are inherently slow, and thus it is fair to assert that China-Turkey’s growing trade ties could be pushed back to square one as they will remain vulnerable to a wide array of domestic and international developments in the foreseeable future.