Can Two Ends of Asia Meet? An Overview of Contemporary Turkey-China Relations

Abstract

China’s new Silk Road policy, titled “One Belt, One Road,” signals a proactive turn in China’s regional policy towards Central and West Asia. The policy has two dimensions: First, China aims to revitalize the old Silk Road exchange of goods, ideas, and people with trade, energy, and transportation projects. Second, armed with these new connections, China aims to redefine the territories the old Silk Road encompasses as a region in the contemporary international system. Turkey, as one of the countries at the westernmost end of the historic Silk Road, and one of the target countries of China’s new Silk Road diplomacy, welcomes the increasing economic and technological exchange with China. Establishing better contacts with China fits suitably in Turkey’s new foreign policy orientation. While the foreign policies of the two countries seem to be compatible, Turkish domestic political dynamics and public opinion hinder further engagement between the two ends of the Silk Road. The negative public opinion towards China manifests itself in the form of media coverage, protests and lobbying and, at times, it derails bilateral relations. This paper assesses the prospects for bilateral relations in the light of these developments. The paper starts with a historical analysis of Sino-Turkish relations and proceeds with various dimensions of the current relations. Then, it provides an analysis of various public opinion surveys in order to grasp the nature of the Turkish public opinion towards China, and it offers a media framing analysis in order to decipher the specific ways the image of China is constructed in Turkish public opinion. The last part of the paper discusses the domestic political actors that have a role in the perceptions and policies toward China in Turkey.

Introduction

At one time, Eurasia was a vast regional system, interconnected with the flow of goods, ideas, and people. The modern states system created national identities that made the societies of the region grow apart from one another. Now, in the twenty-first century, there are attempts to redefine Asia as a region. China’s New Silk Road Diplomacy (NSRD) is one of these. While it has the transnational undertones, its success is bound with the commitment of the target states and societies. Would material interests of the Silk Road states suffice it for the policy to be successful, or would the states need to enlist the national and sub-regional identities to make it work? This article focuses on the Turkey-China relations to begin thinking about this question. These countries at the two ends of Asia both emerge with normative claims about Asian identity and challenge the contemporary regionalisms in the last decade. Would their state-sanctioned regional policies meet eye-to-eye and help create (re)Asianization of Asia?

Relations of capital, production, and trade linked East Asia to Europe for many centuries, as many scholars outlined [21]. Transportation and communication networks that facilitated the Silk Road system served as mechanisms of continuity. The societies and their social structures on the corridors and zones of the Silk Road were mutually transformed as they interacted [9]. The economic and social institutions of Eurasian regional system were among the building blocks of the European (and later, global) capitalism order [19, 13].

Eurasian regional interconnectivity was interrupted with the rise of modern nation states and the relations among these states became the dominant paradigm of global politics. By the twentieth century, rules and norms of modern international relations challenged the penetrability of borders; ideologies replaced geographies to group states together. Regions ceased to be culture-regions with common cultural and economic backgrounds coming together as a result of unplanned, evolutionary processes of interaction, and became an ideologically driven political process and a social construction [10].

The Asian region went through several phases of grouping, un-grouping, and regrouping. The Eurasian system was composed of several zones such as China-centric Tribute System, India-centered South Asian subsystem, Central Asian subsystem, and West Asian system of Islamic empires which interacted among permeable borders and fluid identities. The territorial empires of the past contained a multitude of ethnicities, religions, and languages which created an environment conducive to the permeability and fluidity of the pre-modern times. European struggle to grab a fair share from the colonies divided Asia into national territories and the waves of modernization at the turn of the twentieth century formalized these divisions in the form of nation-states. The Cold War divided the region into ideological zones: East Asia was divided into two, maritime East Asia regrouped in the US-led Asia-Pacific, and mainland East Asia loosely attached to the East Camp—along with the Central Asian republics of Soviet Russia, the Middle East regrouped in the “Middle East and North Africa” (MENA) region with Turkey emphasizing its European identity at the expense of its Asian one. With the end of the Cold War, the ideologically driven regionalizations left their place to the forces of globalization. In the vacuum created by the absence of a hegemonic power to dictate regional groupings, new actors claimed a stake. China’s rise in the global system was one of them. While China claims that its role in the international system is based on the “peaceful coexistence” principle as stated in its 1982 Constitution, there is ample evidence that it is (re)claiming East Asia as a China-centric region (for instance [30, 4]).

The New Silk Road Diplomacy (NSRD) signals a proactive turn in China’s regional policy towards Central and West Asia. The NSRD has two dimensions: First, China aims to revitalize the old Silk Road exchange of goods, ideas, and people with trade, energy, and transportation projects. Second, armed with these new connections, China aims to redefine the territories encompassed by the old Silk Road as a region in the contemporary international system.

As a part of the New Silk Road policy, Xi Jinping announced the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” (from now on “One Road, One Belt,” the common abbreviation for Xi Jinping’s twin policies) in the Fall of 2013. The Silk Road Economic Belt is an ambitious plan to unite the countries and sub-regions along the route of the ancient Silk Road through trade, transportation, and energy cooperation. The twenty-first century Maritime Silk Road covers the route which is commonly known as the Spice Road. By overseeing revitalization of the Silk and Spice Roads, China seems to redefine both Southeast and Central Asia in its own terms.

While experts focus on the economic aspects of the New Silk Road project, China emphasizes the normative dimension of the attempt:

From economic exchanges, China hopes to gain closer cultural and political ties with each of the countries along the Silk Road—resulting in a new model of ‘mutual respect and mutual trust.’ The Silk Road creates not just an economic trade route, but a community with ‘common interests, fate, and responsibilities.’ The Silk Road represents China’s visions for an interdependent economic and political community stretching from East Asia to western Europe, and it’s clear that China believes its principles will be the guiding force in this new community [20].

A quest for “a community with common interests, fate and responsibilities” may sound like a hegemonic bloc in making, but mutual trust is what China needs to create the motivation to cooperate with the target countries. The active involvement of not only the governments but also business circles, labor unions, and consumer markets in these countries is crucial for China’s unilateral attempt to revitalize the greater Asian region.

Turkey is included in the New Silk Road Diplomacy via the Turkey-Pakistan-China railroad project as well as several bilateral initiatives in trade and investment. China sees Turkey as an important regional actor and recently, as a stakeholder in the Xinjiang issue [5]. China also makes gestures such as nominating Turkey as the guest of honor in the Eurasia Expo on September 2014 to demonstrate its interest in including Turkey in its New Silk Road project. Similarly, Turkey hosted China as guest of honor/theme at national book fair in Istanbul in 2014.

Turkey, at the westernmost end of Asia, and one of the target countries of the NSRD, welcomes the increasing economic and technological exchange with China. Establishing better contacts with China fits perfectly within Turkey’s new foreign policy orientation. This paper analyzes the material basis for such prospective regional reunion.

The paper introduces Turkey’s new foreign policy orientation which appears to be compatible with China’s Silk Road policy. The following sections approach this question of compatibility from three angles: (1) the historical legacy of Turkey-China relations; (2) the role of public opinion to demonstrate the role of agency in constructing the idea of a region; and (3) Review of the institutions that can/not operationalize the policies that would enhance Turkey-China relations. The paper concludes with the argument that the top-down state policies are often not enough to realize regional identity-formations. In the case of Turkey-China relations, the realization of these state policies is restrained by multiplicity of interests and mutual perceptions.

Turkey’s Foreign Policy Orientation and a New Regional Identity

For various reasons, Turkey’s foreign policy has been decidedly Western-oriented since the establishment of the republic in 1923. The Western-style modernization of the new nation-state required denouncing its traditional roots in Islam and therefore regrouping itself with the European region. There were, however, not one but two main roots of Turkish identity: Islam and Turkish ethnic origins which can be traced back to Central Asia and which is now the Xinjiang region of China. In order to disentangle the national identity from Islam, the governments of the early Republic years favored an official history based on the Chinese resources on Turkish nation’s “Turkishness” [11]. The same decades, 1930s, also witnessed a steady flow of Jewish scholars fleeing Nazi Germany who established many academic departments in young Turkish universities—including Sinology at Ankara University [15].

Despite the emphasis on the Asianness of Turkey in the early Republican years, Cold War politics locked Turkey in the West Camp and Turkey drifted away from being a part of Asia. Being cut off from the socialist Central Asia and China pushed Turkey towards Europe, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership and pending EC (then, EU) membership pulled Turkey towards Europe.

The end of the Cold War released the ideological straight-jacket imposed on Turkey and it was free again to engage with Asia. Indeed, the Turkish government of the 1990s immediately formulated a “Big Brother” policy towards Central Asia in order to maximize its influence during the power vacuum after the collapse of Soviet Union. However, due to the lack of expertise and experience due to its isolation during the Cold War years, Turkey’s Central Asia pivot did not turn out as successful as the decision-makers had envisioned. While increased trade relations, education exchanges, and other ties with the post-Soviet Central Asian states nevertheless created a foundation for future engagement, the Turkish ruling elite once again turned their face to Europe allured by the accelerated full-membership negotiations with the EU.

It is with the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government that Turkey’s foreign policy has witnessed a major attempt for a “paradigm shift” towards “a more assertive, multidimensional, and proactive approach with a broader geographical scope” [12]. The AKP elite denies that their foreign policy involves a decisive shift of focus away from Europe as the EU accession process has been uninterrupted during their term ([23], p. 60), but Turkish foreign policy definitely became more assertive and proactive in the Middle East and multidimensional with regards to Central and East Asia. Robins [20] points out the “push” and “pull” factors shaping this policy shift: the disappointment with the EU accession process pushes Turkey away from the European region while multipolarity and global governance pulls Turkey towards a multidimensional foreign policy [12].

While the early Republican period had witnessed a push away from Asia, the post-Cold War years witnessed a pull towards Asia. There are three periods in Turkey’s proactive policy towards Asia. In the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of USSR, Turkey meant to act as a big brother towards the newly established Central Asian republics. Both during this initial period as well as the early AKP period, Europe maintained its status as the primary regional alignment for Turkey. It was only after 2005 that Turkish foreign policy drifted more decisively towards Eurasia. While it does not necessarily constitute a decisive “axis shift,” Europeanization lost its steam after the accession negotiations reached a stalemate around 2005. Together with the emerging strains in the Turkey-USA-Israel relations around the same time, Turkish official stance shifted away from the West to possibly welcome new foreign policy opportunities that might arise in Asia. A series of regional developments paved the way to this new “soft-Eurasianism” such as temporary betterment of relations with Syria in the early 2000s and Turkey’s attempt to act as a regional mediator in the Russo-Caucasian relations through “Caucasus Solidarity and Cooperation Platform” [18].

Turkey is recently classified as a “cusp state,” defined as a state “straddling different regions physically and ideationally” [1]. Asia came into attention as one of Turkey’s multiple regional claims as Turkey has sought observer status both in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (granted in 2013) and SAARC (still pending). Nevertheless, Turkey’s engagement with Asian countries and regional organizations are yet to be backed by a comprehensive regional policy.

Similar to Xi Jinping’s One Road, One Belt foreign policy vision, Turkey’s multiregional foreign policy has two dimensions: While multiregional relations are primarily based on trade relations and secondarily cultural and social exchange, these policies are framed as a conscious attempt to redefine Turkey’s role in global politics [12]. The scholarly work of then Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, “Strategic Depth” is often referred to as the ideational source of Turkey’s recent multiregional engagements.

Primacy of trade relations is partly due to domestic factors. Kirisci ([14], p. 33) identifies a change in the perceived role of Turkey in the regional politics from an aggressive state who tries to fetch the lion’s share in the post-Cold War politics of the 1990s to an—almost—soft power in the 2000s. Some find the reasons behind this outcome in the changing identity of Turkey under the AKP leadership, but Kirisci points out the increased dependency on international trade and its consequences for the foreign policy. According to Kirisci, Turkey has become a “trading state” in the 2000s.

The nature of a trading state is such that a wider range of actors come to participate in foreign policy-making or diplomatic games and that the interests and priorities of these actors are quite different from those of traditional foreign policy-makers of Turkey. Furthermore, the rise of the trading state has transformed and is transforming traditional foreign policy-makers, too. They are increasingly coming to recognize that Turkey’s national interest cannot be solely determined in terms of a narrowly defined national security, and that economic considerations such as the need to trade, expand export markets, and attract and export foreign direct investment are just as important ([14], p. 34).

As the decision-makers of various institutions of Turkey, from ministries to the military, became conscious of the impact of their attitudes on the stock market and foreign investors, the overall atmosphere of politics would be less confrontational, and therefore, the country would appear more benign ([14], p, 40–42). There is also another important actor at play in the rise of the trading state: the business class that operates at international and domestic levels simultaneously. This new business class enjoys relative autonomy within the context of neoliberal globalism while at the same time, seeks their “neo-mercantalist” state’s support to create new markets ([14], p. 43). The AKP government is responsive to these demands as this post-1990s neoliberal capitalists are the most reliable support base of AKP. Incidentally, Bacik [3] explains Turkey’s desire for better economic relations with the same rationale:

The economic dynamic of Turkish foreign policy is connected with the new Anatolian bourgeoisie, the financial bedrock of Islamic politics, who are in search of new markets to safeguard their survival. New markets are also a factor in the AKP’s own long-term survival. This cohabitation of the AKP and the Anatolian bourgeoisie has become one of the most complex socio-economic dimensions of Turkish foreign policy … Consequently, Turkish foreign policy oscillates between the strategic and the economic poles, which are not always compatible. No matter what China means ideologically to the West, Turkey will try to maximize its economic benefit from that state [3].

In terms of geography, Turkey occupies a unique space. As a large country in the midst of Afro-Eurasia’s vast landmass, it may be defined as a central country with multiple regional identities that cannot be reduced to one unified character. Like Russia, Germany, Iran, and Egypt, Turkey cannot be explained geographically or culturally by associating it with one single region [1]. Turkey’s diverse regional composition lends it the capability of maneuvering in several regions simultaneously; in this sense, it controls an area of influence in its immediate environs ([8], p. 78).

China-Turkey Relations in Historical Perspective

China-Turkey Relations Prior to Cold War

China-Turkey relations were overshadowed by international politics in most of the twentieth century. While both countries spent the first half of the twentieth century focusing on their state-building processes, the beginning of the Cold War pushed the two countries into opposite camps. Turkey sent troops to the UN force in Korea during the Korean War. This move enabled Turkey’s membership in NATO, but relations with China remained strained even after the diplomatic normalization in 1971.

Turkey maintained a sympathetic attitude towards the Uyghur refugees in the post-1949 revolution period. While the Turkish governments did not explicitly support the Uyghur separatist movement burgeoning in Istanbul; both the political elite and the public opinion welcomed diaspora leaders such as Mehmet Emin Bugra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin [22].

China-Turkey Relations during Cold War Years

There were two main factors behind Turkey’s strained relationship with China during the Cold War years. One, being an immediate neighbor of the USSR increased the perception of threat from its eastern neighbor, and exposed the Turkish public to systematic anti-communist propaganda both by the Turkish elite and the international (West Camp) society [27]. The anti-communist propaganda included the PRC as well as the USSR, especially because Maoism found relatively wide support among left wing activists in Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s [28].

The second factor that has colored China-Turkey relations since the end of WWII is the Uyghur population who emigrated from China to Turkey during the 1949 Revolution and in the 1950s [7]. The Uyghur émigrés constituted a diaspora community and decisively lobbied against any rapprochement between Turkey and China. The Uyghur diaspora is still one of the most important actors shaping contemporary China-Turkey relations [16].

China-Turkey Relations During Post-Cold War Years

In the post-Cold War period, Turkey and China found themselves in a confrontational situation over Central Asia. Wanting to benefit from the economic and strategic opportunities that arose from the dissolution of the USSR, Turkey invested heavily on developing its economic, political, and social relations with the newly established republics of Central Asia. The Turkish state used a rhetoric that emphasized ethnic, religious, and linguistic ties with Central Asian republics in order to gain priority in their economic activities [28]. This new policy based on “brotherly relations” was perceived by China as “neo Pan-Turkism.” Pan-Turkism was an early twentieth century ideology that sought to unite all Turkic people under the leadership of Turkey and was suggested as a solution for the problems with the late Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state in an era of nation-states. Neo-pan Turkism, as perceived by China, was seen as a possible intervention in the relationship between the Chinese state and its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang [29]. Even though Turkey’s charm offensive was not met with much enthusiasm in Central Asia, Istanbul becoming the center for Uyghur separatist activities in the 1990s did help the internationalization of the “Xinjiang issue.”

China-Turkey Relations in the 1990s

China’s relations with Turkey were strained throughout the 1990s as Turkey hosted the leaders of the Uyghur separatist movement such as Yusuf Alptekin [7]. Towards the end of the 1990s, however, the Turkish governments felt the urge to engage China more as the trade deficit between Turkey and China was growing.

China did not take a proactive stance against Uyghur separatist movement based in Turkey due to its own isolation during the Cold War years. The 1990s witnessed both the internationalization of the Uyghur separatist movement and China’s pressuring of the Turkish governments to limit their support for the Uyghur diaspora leaders. In fact, the Turkish support for the Uyghur separatist movement lessened, if not entirely ceased, after the first generation of Uyghur diaspora leaders passed away. Besides generational change, the pressure of the Kurdish issue in Turkey and China’s growing economic influence also led Turkey to cease its support for the Uyghur nationalist movement. Shichor notes that China’s pressure on Turkey to stop supporting the Uyghur movement further contributed to the global spread of the Uyghur cause [22].

China-Turkey Relations in the 2000s

In 2009, China approached the Turkish government with a proposal of creating incentives for Turkish investors who cannot enter the eastern parts of China to invest in Xinjiang in return for Turkey acting as a mediator between the Chinese government and the Uyghur minority leaders. The Turkish side welcomed the proposal since it would solve the stalemates in both economic relations and the Uyghur problem. The Turkish investment in Xinjiang would also help the region develop faster [6].

The economic prospects of Turkey as a stakeholder in Xinjiang excited state bureaucrats and scholars alike [5]; however, a series of events prevented immediate realization of this policy.

The Urumqi riots erupted on 5 July 2009, just 6 days after Turkish President Gül’s Urumqi visit. Clashes between Uyghur and Han migrants in Guangzhou over a rape case allegedly committed by the Uyghur migrants (claims that were later proved wrong), quickly spread to Urumqi and led to mutual killings of Uyghur and Han populations in the city. The mass protests started by Uyghurs in reaction to the false claims in Guangzhou and the state’s failure to mediate in the conflict turned into a clash between the local military and the Uyghur population of Urumqi.

The Urumqi riots stirred reactions among the Uyghur diaspora and pro-Uyghur independence right wing groups in Turkey. Turkey’s unofficial reaction through mass protests in front of the Chinese embassy, and negative coverage by the national media soon gained an official dimension with then Prime Minister Erdogan’s public statement calling the Chinese army’s actions during Urumqi riots "almost like a genocide.”

While this public statement caused a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and China and put a halt to the recent agreement between President Gül and President Hu, diplomatic efforts to overcome the crisis proved successful and the 2009 policy was resumed in 2012 with a new Turkish Trade Center opened in Urumqi and Sino-Turkish Cooperative Industrial Base 12 which provides preferential treatment to Turkish investors. With these efforts, Turkey’s desire to close the trade and investment gap with China was combined with China’s 5-Year Plan for Western Development Project in 2012.

Current State of Turkey-China Relations

Political Relations

In the political realm, there are two seemingly contradictory tendencies that dominate public opinion. On the one hand, the growing tensions in Xinjiang fuel the anti-China sentiments among the Uyghur diaspora and their supporters in Turkey. On the other hand, the current government forcefully voices a new foreign policy orientation. Turkey was granted observer status to Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2012 [7], and since then, PM Erdogan expressed intentions to become a full member of SCO [28]. If the membership in SCO, instead of the EU becomes true, that would mean a new era in China-Turkish relations.

Economic Relations

Turkey and China went through similar integration processes into the world economy in the early 1980s. The small- and medium-sized enterprises were encouraged by the political elite to reach out to the world and invest internationally. Turkey eyed China with this motivation in mind. "If we sell one orange to each Chinese person, we’ll be rich soon!" is a famous motto by Kenan Evren, the president of Turkey immediately after the 1980 military coup.

It soon became clear that economic relations between Turkey and China could not be that straightforward. The Turkish businessmen who went to China to export their products realized that they did not have the local knowledge to penetrate into the Chinese markets (a problem the present-day business circles still suffer from). They, instead, figured that it was much easier to import Chinese products whose cheapness would be welcomed in Turkish markets. “As a result, from the mid-1990s, Turkey’s economic approach to China has been marked by short-term, individual profits” [12].

It is due to this decades-long legacy of economic relations based on short-term profits that the economic pillar of the 2010 Strategic Partnership falls short of its potential. Turkey’s trade deficit with China shows a growing tendency since the 1990s (Fig. 1). Currently, China is the second top country for Turkey’s imports [29]. Total trade volume between Turkey and China was US$24.1 billion in 2012 with a deficit of US$18.5 billion for Turkey [29].

Fig. 1
figure1

Turkey-China Trade Deficit (Data Source: Turkish Statistics Bureau, www.turkstat.gov.tr)

A simple increase in the Turkish exports is not enough to narrow this gap because “a significant portion of imports from China are intermediary and investment goods that are used as inputs for final products assembled in Turkey and exported to third markets” [12, 2]. Economists offer two solutions to narrow the deficit in Turkey-China relations:

  1. (1)

    Economists point to the lack of Turkish investment in China as the source of persistence of the deficit between the two countries [2]. According to this view, China has an insurmountable advantage in trade volumes given its low costs. The only way to balance the bilateral economic relations is to encourage Turkish business circles to invest in China.

    This is also the logic behind the 2010 Strategic Partnership agreement. Turkish Trade Center in Urumqi and the Sino-Turkish Industrial Zone were designed to create a physical environment for Turkish businessmen to feel comfortable enough to invest in China. Users of these two centers are also offered incentives from both governments. According to TUSIAD (Turkey National Chamber of Commerce), there are a series of preferential policies offered to those who would like to utilize the Sino-Turkish Industrial Zone. Among these are the lowest rate of industrial land transfer, corporate income tax should be reduced and fixed to 15 % which is lower than its equivalent in Turkey, the real estate tax exemption, tariff exemption, financial supports, and infrastructure construction supports [5]. TUSIAD also points out that the price of electricity in Xinjiang is 38 % cheaper, industrial water price is 11 % cheaper, and the minimum salary of a technician is 36 % cheaper than it is in Turkey [5]. Similarly, DHL Global Forwarding Turkey introduced an airway/railway solution for Turkish customers who trade with China [5].

    Despite the advantages of the Industrial Zone in Xinjiang, both the Turkish Trade Center and The Sino-Turkish Industrial Zone have largely remained empty and inactive, at least in the first years.Footnote 1 Turkish bureaucrats assigned for this project point out the difficulty of convincing medium size investors to invest in China.Footnote 2 They provide two reasons why the Turkish state has not been able to convince private investors to open facilities in Xinjiang: (i) No matter how much the Turkish and Uyghur cultures and languages are similar, China is still an unfamiliar zone for the Turkish businessmen to invest; (ii) Those who are willing to invest in China still prefer to do so in the east coast of China in expectation of safer and higher profits.

  2. (2)

    Many analysts consider increased Chinese investment in Turkey as a welcome development that would help narrowing Turkey’s deficit vis-a-vis China. In fact, there is a visible increase in the numbers of Chinese companies, especially the state-owned ones, partaking in industrial and infrastructure projects in Turkey. Among them are communication projects such as Lenovo and Huawei claiming a significant share in the computer and phone sectors [26]), respectively; energy projects such as China National Technical Import and Export Corporation (CNTIC) involved in mining and hydropower plants [26], transportation projects such as the CNR China committing to the construction of Ankara-Istanbul speed train and the third land bridge across the Bosphorus in Istanbul [26].

    The Investment Support and Promotion Agency of Turkey reports that Turkey and China have agreed in 2012 on building a high-speed railway line between Edirne and Kars. The railway line is designed to pass through 29 provinces which will connect the east and west of Turkey. Due to this project, the travel time will reduce from 36 to 12 h. The cost of the project is estimated to be US$35 billion, where US$30 billion will be invested by China as part of an agreement with The China Civil Engineering Construction Cooperation. It will be integrated with the Trans-Asian Railroad Network to accelerate the speed of transformation. China also invested in Turkish Railways through the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars Railway Project. The investment amount was US$22 billion [26].

    Turkish Investment Agency Machinery Report reveals that Huawei, operating in five cities in Turkey since its first collaboration with Turkey’s leading mobile operators in 2002, is now serving as a management hub for nine countries in Central Asia and Caucasus with an investment of US$50 million [26].

    While Chinese investment is welcomed by the Turkish business circles, there are few caveats. The Turkish Investment Agency mentions that “Huawei employs 750 people, 85 % of whom are Turkish, as of 2012” [26]. Employment of Turkish citizens in Chinese enterprises is an important concern for many sectors. The Chinese investment in Turkey’s mining sector also faces the same dilemma [7].

Military Cooperation

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, a member of OSCE since 1975, and a staunch ally of the USA who often deploy missiles on Turkish territory in case of a security threat in the Middle East. Turkey’s military system is synchronized with those of other NATO members for both practical purposes and security concerns. Yet, Turkey has been in contact with China with regards to military cooperation since the early 2000s.

In 1996, Turkey and China reached an agreement on purchasing of medium-range missiles to be jointly produced in Turkey [5]. This was the first attempt by Turkey to use the military technology of China which is outside of its traditional security network. In 2001, Turkey allowed an aircraft carrier, sold by Ukraine to China, to pass through the Turkish Straits even though the Montreux Convention restricts the passage of battleships of third-party countries not having a coast to the Black Sea [7]. In 2005, Turkey also expressed interest in space technology. Following these remarks, Turkey became a member of Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) in 2006 (TUBITAK Space Program) [17]. In 2010, Turkey invited Chinese military jets to military exercise in Turkey [24]. In 2012, “the Agreement on Cooperation for the Use of Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes” was signed. In 2013, Turkey agreed to buy missile defense systems from China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corp. (CPMEIC) [17].

Turkey’s current military relations with China have three pillars:

  1. (1)

    Turkey’s search for new sources of military technology transfer after the AKP government’s fall out with Israel, Turkey’s traditional ally with regards to military technology and equipment transfer.

    Turkey and Israel were military allies in the Middle East with Israeli army selling arms to and training personnel of the Turkish army until 2010s. The traditionally close relations between Turkey and Israel have been on a downward spiral since (now-President) Prime Minister Erdogan’s term. The deteriorating relations given the anti-Israel rhetoric of the AKP government hit a new low with the Mavi Marmara-flotilla incident over the delivery of (unauthorized) humanitarian aid in Gaza in 2010. Since then, the AKP government canceled all military agreements with Israel which means that it would need to replace its primary military partner. When Turkey un-invited Israel to the annual military training in Konya in 2010, it was interpreted as an early sign of a shift away from Israel [3].

  2. (2)

    Turkey’s search for cheaper sources of military technology and equipment transfer

    Having emerged relatively unharmed from the successive global crises, Turkey committed to a number of military and infrastructure projects. These bids attracted courtesans from both Europe—Turkey’s traditional allies—and East Asia. Japanese, Korean, and Chinese companies have competed over the construction of Turkey’s nuclear and hydro power plants and speed train railways. China won the bid for the construction of a nuclear plant in Turkey’s Black Sea port city, Sinop, in 2014.

    The purchase of military defense systems other than Turkey’s traditional allies generates more reaction in the international society. Turkey agreed to obtain medium-range missile defense system from China in 2012. NATO protested for non-compatibility and security. Erdogan later changed his mind which proves the point below.

  3. (3)

    Turkey’s current government’s balancing attempts in a multipolar world.

    AKP government’s foreign policy includes diversifying Turkey’s international alignments. While the top leadership often reiterates that Turkey’s commitment to the EU membership remains its primary alignment, several actions challenge the assumption that Turkey would remain under the Euro-American security umbrella.

    The decision to grant China the medium-range missiles deal can be regarded as such a move. This decision generated negative reactions among Turkey’s Western allies. The USA warned Turkey that it would bring it up in the next NATO meeting that Turkey, as a member country, is acting in a way to risk the collective security of the fellow member states. Ten months after the decision, Turkey declared that there were problems in the realization of the deal and they are now considering alternative proposals.

International Cooperation

China and Turkey both have foreign policies with global aspirations. China is omnipresent in many regional and international organizations that challenge the unipolar world order such as G-20 and SCO as well as the mainstream international organizations such as the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

China’s presence in the UNSC has grown critical in time. China criticizes the Western members of the UNSC for their interventionist policies under the guise of humanitarianism.

Besides China’s international organization behavior, it is also grouped among “emerging powers” such as BRICS. The “Beijing Consensus” term coined to describe the alleged Chinese alternative to neoliberalism was also enthusiastically appropriated by scholars and policy analysts who—either positively or negatively—were convinced that the Chinese experience constitutes a distinctively alternative model.

Turkey’s new multifaceted foreign policy orientation often brings the country in close contact with China. Turkey seeks China’s support in a number of issues on its foreign policy agenda. Turkey ran for non-permanent membership of the UNSC in 2014 and launched a short but aggressive campaign called “World is Bigger Than Five” criticizing the UNSC permanent members for dominating international politics. Erdogan, the person behind this campaign sought China’s support given the latter’s criticism of the Western members of the council, but this expectation remained unmet as Turkey and Syria severely disagree on the ongoing Syrian war.

Turkey incessantly calls for international intervention whereas China voted against it in the UNSC. Previously, these two countries reacted similarly to the Arab Springs albeit for different reasons. Fearing a similar uprising domestically, China forcefully reiterated the non-intervention principle of the international system while Turkey’s objection against the West’s support for the Arab Spring revolutions was rather to help the friendly regimes in the Middle East. As the Esad regime in Syria was not an ally of the AKP government, the foreign policy positions of Turkey and China fell apart. This fall out with regards to the Syrian issue soured the relations between Turkey and China.

China explicitly opposes Turkey’s membership to SCO while Russia appears to be more sympathetic. China has a number of reasons for that: SCO does not have the administrative structure and institutionalization to absorb widening by including new members. Besides, the candidate countries almost invariably have conflictual relations which would complicate intra-organizational coherence. For instance, if Turkey becomes a member, there is no reason why India would not. However, Pakistan is also a candidate state and having both India and Pakistan in the same regional organization creates an environment conducive to deadlock.

Turkey, who will assume the G-20 presidency in 2015 uses the opportunity to raise multipolarity arguments. The former Foreign Minister-current Prime Minister Davutoglu urges G-20 to transform itself away from an exclusive club of privileged countries—only larger in size than G-2 and G-6- to a platform where all the smaller powers of the international system could advocate their interests:

“The G20 agenda in that sense should represent not only 20 countries but a global agenda. Therefore the relation between G20 and non-G20 countries is as important as the relations of G20 members,".Footnote 3 This statement came in the wake of a Chinese power competition show with the USA in the APEC meeting in Beijing, EAS meeting in Myanmar, and G-20 meeting in Australia.

As the above sections demonstrate, the Turkey-China relations carry high potential for improvement especially due to the mutual intentions while contentious areas do exist. On such a delicate balance, what will be the factors that will shape the future of bilateral relations within the context of a new regionalization in Asia?

The next two sections will look into the domestic sources of Turkish foreign policy towards China. The role of the public opinion and opinion leaders in the media, and the differing interests and attitudes of relevant state institutions shape the prospects of Turkey-China relations.

Turkish Public Opinion towards China

Public Attitude Towards China: Evidence from Public Opinion Surveys

Public opinion is one of the major domestic sources of foreign policy. The actors that contribute to the shaping of the public opinion and the public attitudes as a result of these opinions are two dimensions of the effect of public opinion. With regards to the making of public opinion about China in Turkey, Colakoglu [6] categorizes the opinion leaders as business circles, bureaucrats, the ruling party elite, the nationalist (pro-Uyghur) circles, and political Islamists and explains their approach to several China-related issues. All these opinion-maker communities disseminate their views through their media channels. As a result of exposure to these and other opinion sources, Turkish public opinion demonstrates considerable contradictions with regards to its perception of China.

In order to demonstrate Turkish public opinion towards China, this study utilizes two sets of internationally known survey data sources: Pew Global and German Marshall Fund (GMF) Transatlantic Surveys (Tables 1 and 2). While both surveys suffer from lack of consistency in the questions over the years and several other methodological biases, they still provide us with a measurable dataset.

Table 1 GMF transatlantic survey 2013
Table 2 Pew global 2013

According to the GMF Transatlantic Survey [25], 72 % of Turks find Chinese world leadership undesirable with 63 % having negative views about China. A majority of Turks “choose Asian countries” over the USA (39 %) but only 34 % of Turks would choose China over the USA. Forty-one percent of Turks think that China is more of an economic threat than opportunity (31 % sees as opportunity). However, 60 % of Turks do not see China as a military threat.

Overall, there is a contradiction in Turkish public perception towards China: the general attitude towards China appears to be negative, while Turks responded to more specific questions (such as economic and military threat or opportunity) not necessarily more negatively than their responses for other major powers.

The reason behind this conflicting attitude is the multiplicity of sources that shape Turkish public perceptions of China. Media, official statements, textbooks, and peer interactions shape public opinion. These factors frame knowledge-interpretation schemes while forming opinions. This paper claims that media frames are one of the most powerful and direct sources that can explain conflicting public attitudes toward China in Turkey.

Media Framing of China in Turkey

Based on this theoretical background, the specific methodology used in this study is (i) Determining the recurring themes in news pieces through repetitions, main arguments and themes, referencing styles, and the sources used, and (ii) Analyzing the assumptions behind the arguments in the news pieces. This analysis asks the following questions: What do these frames asses as important? (e.g., “China’s economic growth”) Which assumptions are these frames built upon? (e.g., “China’s military buildup would inevitably cause an aggressive foreign policy”) What world view do these frames support? (e.g., “China is a threat”). In other words, this study aims at analyzing the relationships among frequency, visibility, and content.

The sample case for this study is composed of news pieces that appear in the Hürriyet within the year of 2011 (Tables 3, 4, 5, and 6). Hürriyet is the best-selling national newspaper in Turkey which does not necessarily fall into any political categories that Colakoglu offers above [6]. In other words, Hürriyet does not consistently provide the point of view of nationalist, political Islamists, or Maoist cleavages. Therefore, the news pieces in Hürriyet Daily News provide a frame that reflects the average opinion towards China. The year 2011 is chosen to reflect the changes in the attitudes of the general public towards China after the policy change in 2009 and prior to the opening of Turkish Trade Center and Sino-Turkish Industrial Zone in China. The analysis of public opinion just before the opening of these two trade and investment centers can provide us with the reasons why these attempts failed to meet expectations.

Table 3 The number of China-related news in the Hürriyet world news section (2009–2012)
Table 4 The number of China-related news in the Hürriyet national news section (2009–2012)
Table 5 Hürriyet world news section, number of China-related news in different news categories (2011)
Table 6 Hürriyet national news section, number of China-related news in different news categories (2011)

News in three categories were analyzed for this study: world news, economics news, and columnists. The sources are opinion pieces/interviews, news pieces with a stated author, and news pieces with anonymous authors (which are mostly translations). The frequency of the news and the framing of important attributes constitute the two pillars of the analysis.

The news attributes in the news pieces analyzed are both positive and negative. Among the positive attributes are “growing economy,” “planned economy,” “challenging [the US],” “independent foreign policy,” “new military technology,” and “record numbers.” Among the negative attributes are “threat [to local producers],” “scandal,” “human rights,” “lack of control [over production processes],” and “alarming.”

A comparison of the language of the news related to China reveals differences in the tone of the news provided by different sources. World news tends to have either positive or neutral frames as they are either translations or are about topics that Turkey does not have an interest at stake. For example:

Landing of a group of Japanese political activists onto the islands whose sovereignty is disputed between Tokyo and Beijing created controversy (no author, Hürriyet, 19 August 2012).

On the other hand, a news piece in the national news section reads:

Global Times, the Chinese newspaper infamous for its nationalist rhetoric, claimed that there are Uyghur activists fighting in Syria (no author, Hürriyet, 29 October 2012).

Alternatively:

The head of the mining products exporters association in the Aegean region, stated that many public buildings, including hospitals use imported granite stones, and criticized that these granite stones [imported from China] contain radiation levels above the legal limit (authored piece, Milliyet, 11 June 2012).

As the evidence above demonstrates, the news is framed according to its sources and sections. For instance, there are no expert views or official views to frame news pieces in the economy or world news sections while political news are framed in a nationalistic discourse. In contrast, the economy section news never refers to the Xinjiang issue. The translated news on China, in particular, are not subject to direct framing. In other words, it is not a systematic endeavor but a result of the multiplicity of actors involved. This paper will conclude with a discussion of the reasons behind the seemingly contradictory framing of China-related news.

Domestic Actors in the Shaping of Turkey’s Relations with China

The rise of China motivated many countries, especially those on the “margins” of Asia to formulate comprehensive policies outlining how they would develop their relations with China, such as Australia’s 2012 White Paper on Asia.

Turkey, however, does not have such a coherent state policy. While the top leadership demonstrates determination to improve relations with China, the state institutions, which would be instrumental in the realization of this goal, function with different institutional and political motivations.

There are a number of government offices with different agendas. The President’s office during Gül’s terms saw Xinjiang as a “friendship bridge.” The Turkish ambassador to China during the signing of the 2010 strategic partnership was a former advisor to then President Gül who was known for his explicit support for the improvement of the relations with China. Ambassador Esenli personally attended the policy-making process that produced the Turkish Trade Center in Urumqi and Turkish Industrial Zone in Kashgar [5].

In contrast to an enthusiastic President’s Office, the Prime Ministry during Erdogan’s term seemed to act rather under the influence of the Uyghur lobby in Turkey. Some state agencies, especially those that were directly under the former prime minister, such as the Prime Ministry Information and Media Service, appear to be acting under the influence of the Uyghur diaspora whose lobbying efforts colors Turkey-Xinjiang relations. This agency releases press briefs that are in direct contradiction with the official position of the Foreign Ministry.

Both the Economy Ministry and the Foreign Ministry are proponents of improved relations with China, albeit for different reasons. The Ministry of Economy is mainly concerned with trade imbalance between Turkey and China whereas the Ministry of Foreign Affairs uses China in their diplomatic efforts to promote the Strategic Depth policy. These two ministries at times voice different priorities in Turkey-China relations. At times when China and Turkey differ on the international issues such as Syria, the Foreign Ministry’s distanced attitude towards China contradicts the Economy Ministry’s unconditioned motivation to develop economic relations.

These institutions all have Asia desks which produce policy reports on China for decision-making elite and also act as an advisory agency for those who would like to establish contact with China for private business, but it is important to note that employment in these desks is on a rotating basis. It means that the bureaucrats who develop a certain level of expertise on China-related matters would be replaced with new ones with no background in the region on a regular basis. This system curbs the knowledge accumulation.

Besides, Turkey has limited education facilities that would train experts on China as the chart below suggests:

University Program Location Year of establishment
Ankara University Sinology Department Ankara 1935
Ankara University Department of Japanese Language and Literature Ankara 1986
Ankara University Department of Korean Language and Literature Ankara 1989
Erciyes University Department of Japanese Language and Literature Erciyes 1994
Fatih University Department of Chinese Language and Literature Istanbul 1996
Erciyes University Department of Korean Language and Literature Erciyes 1998
Erciyes University Department of Chinese Language and Literature Erciyes 1998
Middle East Technical University Asian Studies Graduate Program Ankara 2008
Bosphorus University Asian Studies Graduate Program Istanbul 2012
Gedik University Asian Studies Center Istanbul 2013

Conclusion

The Turkish state would like to develop stronger relations with China both politically and economically. The Turkish state has made its intentions clear especially since the second half of the 2000s. High-level visits by President Gül and PM Erdogan in 2009 and 2011, respectively, demonstrate the political will at the top level to develop relations with China. The 2009 agreement serves as the legal base of enhanced relations between Turkey and China as it secures preferential treatment to Turkish investors if they want to invest in Western China, Xinjiang in particular.

However, much desired Turkish investment in Western China has not been realized since the opening of the Sino-Turkish Industrial Zone and Turkish Trade Center in 2012. One of the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm in the Turkish public is the mixed messages they receive from the Turkish mainstream media.

There are several reasons for the lack or inconsistency in framing of the China-related news in the Turkish media. One, as a legacy of the Cold War years, Turkish academia and the public sphere have remained overwhelmingly Western-oriented. One direct result is the lack of trained reporters and scholars to cover China-related news. The other reason is the plurality of actors involved in forming of public perception towards China.

While there is room for development in Turkey-China relations, the multitude of interests and institutional capacities demonstrate that an alternative regionalization that defines Turkey within a China-led Asia requires more than elite-level decisions.

To conclude by reiterating the definition of regionalization made at the beginning of this paper would help moving forward with novel conceptualizations of Asianization. As Duara [10] puts, a “region is not as a set of predetermined identities and boundaries but a network of interactions.” The relations between Turkey and China have been under heavy influence of international alignments and ideological discourses as well as elite-level policy initiatives. However, it has become evident that the two ends of Asia would only come together as a result of sustained interactions of the people of China and Turkey to form a region.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Personal interview, 2013

  2. 2.

    Personal interview, 2013

  3. 3.

    http://www.euronews.com/2014/11/14/turkey-pm-calls-for-a-more-inclusive-g20/. Accessed 3 July 2015.

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Ergenc, C. Can Two Ends of Asia Meet? An Overview of Contemporary Turkey-China Relations. East Asia 32, 289–308 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12140-015-9242-6

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Keywords

  • Turkey
  • China
  • Silk Road
  • One belt one road
  • Asianization
  • Public opinion
  • Foreign policy
  • Regionalization