China, Turkey seek closer ties

We have known for some time that the leadership in the Turkish and Chinese governments has a political commitment to boost bilateral ties, mostly motivated by the desire to earn dividends from joint business deals not only in their respective home markets but also in specific industries in third countries. This has inevitably called for close political coordination on a number of outstanding issues as well.

This subtle cooperation reached a peak yesterday when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a landmark visit at the invitation of his Turkish counterpart. His visit certainly signals that the groundwork for strengthening ties has solidified to the extent he feels comfortable and ready to make an appearance in the Turkish capital. During his stay in Ankara, the Chinese premier signed about a dozen bilateral agreements in several fields, such as energy, telecommunications, transportation, health and foreign trade.

As expected, Wen’s visit made headlines in Turkey and was picked up by international wires. Surprisingly, though, another high-profile Chinese visit back in April went largely unnoticed although it was a precursor to Wen’s appearance. A high-level Chinese delegation headed by Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China — the innermost ring of power and de facto top power organ in the country — came to Turkey in April to sign four agreements in the fields of tourism, construction and energy.

China’s eagerness to cultivate special ties with Turkey partly comes from the acknowledgement that the Turkish market will serve as a stepping stone for higher-end Chinese products to the European market. Sometime ago I remember talking to Yüksel Mermer, the CEO of the Mermerler Group, which is Chery’s Turkish distribution partner, who said the Chinese carmaker is actively working on logistics for establishing a production line in Turkey to take advantage of Turkey’s customs union agreement with the European Union.

During our conversation, Mermer quoted Zhou Biren, Chery’s vice president, who said: “Being successful in Turkey will for us be a benchmark of our success in Europe. This is because Turkish customers have similar tastes to customers in the EU. For this reason, Turkey is the first step toward entering European markets, which is our primary goal.”

The cooperation may also help diffuse cutthroat competition on the African continent between Turkish and Chinese contracting and construction companies. With much better quality and engineering skills, Turks have been able to overcome cheaper Chinese bids in competitive state tenders in some African countries. The close ties may pave the way for joint endeavors in third markets and ultimately benefit both the Turkish and the Chinese with a win-win situation: Turkish engineering skills coupled with competitive Chinese labor supply.

Unlike in the past, the Chinese Embassy in Ankara seems to have been engaged in much better public diplomacy in Turkey and tries its best to project a better image of the country to the Turkish people. Just last month, the Chinese ambassador to Turkey, Gong Xiaosheng, hosted a reception at the Ankara Hilton Hotel to celebrate the launch of China Today magazine’s Turkish edition with the participation of Turkish Foreign Trade Minister Zafer Çağlayan. The magazine, the first Turkish-language Chinese magazine in Turkey, intends to provide first-hand information to the Turkish public about China’s economy, culture and society.

All this economic cooperation has had spillover effects in politics and diplomacy as well. Both Turkey and China support diplomatic engagement in dealing with the controversial Iranian nuclear program and vehemently oppose any military action. Turkey holds a temporary seat on the UN Security Council of which China is a key permanent member, and both try to coordinate their positions on global issues as well. Turkish-Chinese military cooperation, which dates back to 1996, is currently growing to the extent that NATO-member Turkey acquired guided missile technology from China and the two powers held joint aerial exercises at Turkey’s training range in the Central Anatolian town of Konya last month as part of Anatolian Eagle military drills.

There are enough minefields, however, to derail the improving relationship between the two countries, and one needs to be extra vigilant to not inflame sensitivities on both sides. For example last year, we saw how events that took place in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region caused great anger among the Turkish public. The incident followed Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s historic visit to the region with the consent of Chinese officials. I distinctly recall how Turkish diplomats whom I talked to then pointed out that an “invisible” third hand had interfered to damage the growing ties between Turkey and China.

The Turkish people have little understanding of emerging China, which makes it difficult for politicians to resist public pressure that mounts in reaction to negative news coming from China. On that note, we may need more effective public relations campaigns by the Chinese in Turkey. The pro-Chinese imbalance in bilateral trade is always out there as one of the touchy issues that can easily be exploited by people who do not want to see China moving closer to Turkey. Regardless of all these traps, however, we have started to see an increasing divergence in approach by the Turkish political elite to China affairs. They no longer see the “Orient” through a Western prism and try their best to look beyond the Cold War mentality now.

In a nutshell, political will on both sides is evident. We just need to flesh out this commitment with concrete deals and anchor ties firmly to substantive cooperative agreements.

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