By Buğra Süsler
At the start of 2023, the Turkish government expressed an exceptionally open public criticism of China concerning the rights of the Uyghur Muslim community in China’s Xinjiang region.
Notably, in his end-of-year press conference in December 2022, former minister of foreign affairs Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu said bilateral relations between Turkey and China deteriorated because Beijing was “disturbed” by Ankara’s policy of “defending the rights of the Turkic Uyghurs in the international arena”. He openly criticized Beijing for not permitting the Turkish ambassador to freely visit the Xinjiang region and for trying to dictate the terms, and asked “why should we become a tool for China’s propaganda?”
Fast-forward to July 2023, China’s newly re-appointed minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi met with Turkey’s new foreign minister Hakan Fidan and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara to “enhance mutual strategic trust and deepen cooperation” between the two countries.
While the situation of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang remained on the agenda, Ankara seemed to have toned down its rhetoric and emphasised mutual gains from a stronger economic and political partnership with China. In Wang Yi’s meetings, there was a lot of focus particularly on strengthening cooperative mechanisms between Turkey and China in order develop coordination in various sectors including energy, trade and tourism.
It is not unexpected that the Turkish government seeks enhanced cooperation with China as the Turkish government needs capital inflow to deal with the effects of the economic crisis in Turkey.
Amidst soaring inflation and the Turkish Lira at a historical low, Ankara needs partners who are willing to invest in Turkey. Accordingly, it was reported that Wang Yi told his counterpart Hakan Fidan that Beijing would encourage more Chinese companies to invest in Turkey as a part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
One of the sectors that Chinese companies seem to be increasingly interested in is Turkey’s defence industry. Chinese foreign minister’s visit coincided with the International Defence Industry Fair (IDEF) held in Istanbul on 25-28 July 2023 where defence companies showcased latest technology products and services. A record number of Chinese companies attended this year’s fair seeking business and investment opportunities to expand their operations.
At the same time, strengthening cooperation with Turkey has benefits for China’s strategic objectives in the region. From billion-dollar construction and energy deals in Iraq to mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China has increased its engagement with the Middle East, challenging US influence in the region.
For Beijing, Ankara can be an important partner in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean. Overall, it is thus reasonable to expect a strong and continuous emphasis on mutual gains out of cooperation in Turkey-China relations in the foreseeable future.
Buğra Süsler is a lecturer in international organizations and international conflict and cooperation at University College London Political Science Department and Visiting Fellow and Head of Turkey and the World at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics