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[Research Reports] Turkey-China Relations amid COVID-19: Has Turkey Truly Changed Its Policy?

Masaki Kakizaki (Associate Professor, Temple University, Japan Campus)
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Research Group on 'The Middle East and Africa' FY2021-#6

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

It is said that Turkey, which had been a vocal critic of the Chinese government's persecution of Uighurs, has changed its attitude amid the coronavirus outbreak. That is because the Turkish government has chosen Chinese-made vaccines as a trump card in its coronavirus strategy and that Turkey is becoming increasingly dependent on China economically. At the same time, Turkish authorities have stepped up their crackdown on Uighurs in Turkey and there are growing concerns that, if the Turkish parliament ratifies the extradition treaty signed with China, Uighurs will be sent back to China. This has led to widespread speculation that the Turkish government has shifted its Uighur policy in exchange for coronavirus vaccines and economic aid.

However, looking back at Turkey's relations with China from a medium- to long-term perspective, it can be seen that Turkey had already been seeking closer relations with China from the early 2000s, managing carefully the Uighur issue so as not to let it decisively worsen these relations.

The Diversification of Turkish Diplomacy and Approaches to China

The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), established in Turkey in November 2002, revised its foreign policy, which had been strongly directed toward Europe and the United States, and embarked on strengthening relationships with countries in the Middle East and Africa, Russia and China. In order to diversify Turkey's foreign policy, the AKP administration placed great emphasis on China from the outset, as evidenced by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's quick visit to China in January 2003, soon after the administration was inaugurated. At that time, Erdogan had been convicted of reading poems allegedly threatening the secularism that had long been a national policy of Turkey, and he was stripped of his eligibility for election. Therefore, when he visited China, he was not a member of the Grand National Assembly, even though he was the leader of the AKP. It was in March of that same year that he returned to politics and became prime minister.

Erdogan, who met with Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao in Beijing, said he defended China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and furthermore opposed all forms of terrorism. Naturally, this "terrorism" included a political campaign by Uighurs for independence from China. The two countries had already signed an agreement on cooperating to combat terrorism in February 2000, and the AKP administration inherited this agreement. China appreciated that Erdogan understood Beijing's fight against Uighur separatism.

Mutual visits by senior officials of the two countries subsequently increased, and relations deepened in the areas of politics, security, and trade and economy. In 2009, President Abdullah Gül visited China, traveling to Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in addition to Beijing. Naturally, the Chinese government must have agreed to the visit to Urumqi, which could be said to have been a reward for the Turkish government's pro-China policy. Speaking at a university in Urumqi, Gül said Xinjiang is 'a bond' between Turkey and China.

Repeated Criticism of China and Repairing Relations

However, the Chinese authorities suppressed the riots that erupted between Han Chinese and Uighurs immediately after Gül's visit to Urumqi. Turkey strongly protested since many people were killed or injured in the process. Prime minister at the time, Erdogan harshly criticized China for that 'genocide' and indicated his readiness to bring up Uighur oppression at the UN Security Council, of which Turkey was a non-permanent member at the time. Shortly thereafter, however, Turkey dispatched its Minister of the Interior, who was responsible for security and anti-terrorism measures, to China to confirm that it would not interfere in China's internal affairs, thereby preventing a further deterioration of relations. In 2010, the two governments signed a strategic partnership agreement, upgrading bilateral relations. In September of the same year, the two countries' air forces conducted their first joint military exercise. In 2012, Erdogan made an official visit to China which also included a visit to Urumqi.

In 2015, relations between the two countries became tense again when China protested the Turkish government's attempts to protect Uighurs who had fled Xinjiang to Thailand and Malaysia by issuing them passports. There were also widespread anti-Chinese demonstrations in Turkey after Chinese authorities reportedly banned Muslims living in Xinjiang from fasting during Ramadan. However, in July of that year President Erdogan met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in China, clearly stating that he opposed all terrorism and threats to China's sovereignty and territorial integrity in an attempt to quickly bring the Uighur issue to a close, as he had done in 2009. Furthermore, around this time, the existence of Uighurs within the ranks of the Islamic State (IS), an extremist group, had become a problem between the two countries, and Turkey began to deepen counter-terrorism cooperation with China.

Since then, Turkey has tightened controls on political activities by Uighurs and many activists have migrated to Europe. In 2017, President Erdogan appointed one of his aides as the next ambassador to China. It was the first time that a Turkish ambassador to China had been politically appointed. This can be considered evidence that Erdogan wanted to build stronger relations with China.

The Turkish Economy and China

In 2018, when the currency crisis broke out in Turkey triggered by its confrontation with the US administration led by President Donald Trump, Turkey became even more dependent on China. At Turkey's request, China provided loans to Turkey through state-owned banks and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In June 2020, Turkey settled trade with China using the renminbi for the first time under a currency swap agreement. In June 2021, China and Turkey signed a new currency swap agreement that increased the swap ceiling to $6 billion. Meanwhile, it was reported that Turkey's central bank had asked Britain, Japan, and other major industrial nations to set up currency swaps, but that these talks failed.

Burdened with short-term debts denominated in foreign currencies and a current account deficit, Turkey must always procure funds from overseas. However, investment from Europe and the United States has been on a downward trend due to the deterioration of its relations with the United States and concerns about Turkey's retreat from democratization. The country on which Turkey depends in this context is China. This also aligns with Beijing's desire to incorporate Turkey into its Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese capital is steadily increasing its presence in Turkey in such areas as infrastructure, transportation, energy, and ports. Nevertheless, the amount of investment from China is still small compared to that from the US and Europe, and Turkey is seeking more investment from China.

The AKP Administration and the Uighur Issue

As we have seen, it was clear before the coronavirus crisis that the AKP government, which has become increasingly dependent on China, was dealing with the Uighur issue carefully. An estimated 50,000 Uighurs have emigrated from China to Turkey, and conducted active anti-China campaigns for a long time. The Turkish people are also interested in the situation of the Uighurs, who are both Turkish ethnic and Muslim. News of the Chinese government's crackdown on Uighurs heightens discontent in Turkey, forcing the Turkish government to register a protest with the Chinese authorities.

However, after President Erdogan criticized the Chinese authorities for "genocide" in 2009, Turkey did not officially criticize China for the Uighur issue for another decade. The Turkish government broke its silence on the Uighur issue in February 2019. Amid mounting international criticism of China's Uighur policy, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement condemning "the assimilation policy [of the Chinese government] towards the Uighurs as a great disgrace to mankind". With unified local elections scheduled for the following month in Turkey, the AKP government may not have been able to turn its attention away from the Uighur issue, which is of great interest to voters.

However, President Erdogan himself did not directly criticize China, and, in a meeting with President Xi in Beijing in July of that year, he favorably appraised China's Uighur policy by saying, "Uighurs live happily in China's development and prosperity". He also said that Turkey would strengthen cooperation with China in counter-terrorism policies against extremism. In other words, this meeting followed the same pattern as in the past; Erdogan criticized China over the Uighur issue but then showed his understanding toward the Chinese position, preventing the deterioration of relations between the two countries.

Coronavirus pandemic and Turkey-China Relations

As Chinese vaccines continued to be promoted in Turkey, opposition parties there submitted a resolution to the Turkish parliament in March 2021 to recognize that the Chinese government had committed genocide against the Uighurs. However, the ruling AKP voted against the resolution while its coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party, abstained from voting, resulting in the rejection of the resolution.

In a telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi on July 13, President Erdogan stated that it was important for Turkey that Uighurs live in affluence and peace as equal citizens of China. At the same time, he showed a stance of respecting China's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This shows that the Turkish government has been carefully dealing with China while at the same time hoping that circumstances for Uighurs in China will improve.

It is true that Turkey has increased its dependence on China amid the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, the coronavirus crisis did not change the AKP administration's stance on the Uighur issue. The AKP administration, which attaches importance to building relations with China, has long struggled to prevent the Uighur issue from becoming a diplomatic issue with China, although it sometimes criticizes China domestically. COVID-19 pandemic did not reveal a shift in Turkey's policy toward the Uighurs but rather highlighted Turkey's persistent and sincere wish to prioritize its relations with China, despite its superficial criticisms against China over the Uighur issue.

(This is an English translation of a paper originally published in Japanese on September 15, 2021.)