NINGXIA — There are many reasons why China has been looking up to Turkey in the last couple of years and seeming very eager to develop close ties with this regional powerhouse that is strategically located at the crossroads of the Asian and European continents.
The main motivation on the part of China is the looming crisis on the horizon that the Chinese call Western capitalist aggression and a huge appetite for resources and markets. Beijing fears that the economic crisis in the West will draw further envy of its booming economy, prompting the US and European powers to come down very hard on China. They see Western grievances on human rights, blocking of market access and other issues as well-disguised attempts to pressure China into isolation and prevent her from developing into a superpower.
From the Chinese perspective, what is seen as the West meddling in their internal affairs carries a huge risk for the social cohesion and unity of China, threatening the territorial integrity of a country with 1.3 billion people. Chinese officials have realized there are too many soft spots in the country that can easily be exploited by foreign powers, and they have reacted very strongly to even hints of outside interference, as in the case of Tibet, for example. They know very well that China needs political stability to complete its economic growth while addressing regional disparities and income differences. They do not need distractions — be it from inside the country or outside — that would force the Chinese government to side with one country or another in a given conflict.
To accomplish this, China will need all the help it can get, and Turkey places well in long-term strategic thinking towards the consolidation of Chinese power. By Beijing, Turkey is seen as a key country where the energy-rich Middle East and Central Asia meet with an energy-hungry Europe and the resource-rich African market. Located on either end of the old Silk Road, it believes both China and Turkey will be able to develop faster if they pool their resources. Turkey, acting as a gateway for Chinese business in third markets, may also get richer in the process, Chinese officials say.
From the talks I have had so far here in the different provinces of China, I get the sense that the Chinese really put stock in trusting Turkey. They value the centuries-long civilization both Turks and the Chinese have enjoyed and say they feel more comfortable talking to Turks as they share a similar approach to and understanding of many issues. Both countries emphasize engagement and dialogue in solving problems, pay the utmost respect to the territorial integrity of countries, despise foreign military interference and denounce terrorism. China believes that Turkish help would assist them in better explaining Chinese concerns on a number of issues at regional and global platforms.
Another reason why China is keen to develop ties with Turkey is the latter’s rising profile among Muslim countries, from the Arab world to Far Eastern Muslim nations like Indonesia and Malaysia. With its economic boom, political stability and educational transformation over the last decade, as well as good mixture of democracy and Muslim tradition, Turkey sets an example to many Muslim-majority nations. There are two dimensions to Turkey’s influence on China in that respect.
First, China does not want to be seen competing with Turkey in third markets where Muslim governments are sensitive to Turkish interests. We saw how damaging it was for China when Turkish leverage clashed with Chinese interests in Libya, Sudan and other countries. Chinese officials do not want to risk confrontation in third markets where Muslims pay great respect to Turkey. If trends hold for the future, the same can be said very soon for the countries in China’s immediate neighborhood where Muslims constitute a majority in some countries. For that apparent reason, China proposes to the Turkish government that both work collectively in these markets for a win-win situation rather than risking cutthroat competition that would bleed each other.
The second dimension involves China’s internal matters, specifically Uighurs — a Turkic and traditionally Muslim ethnic group in China’s autonomous western Xinjiang region. There is no question about public sensitivity in Turkey to the Uighurs, and China knows that very well. To that end, the Chinese seem to have been expending a great deal of effort in the last couple of years to alleviate grievances in this region by pouring billions of yuan into the development of Xinjiang, replacing harsh Chinese rulers with easygoing ones to appease the Uighurs.
Incidents in 2009 between the Uighurs and the Chinese Hans in the region escalated into a crisis between Turkey and China, teaching both countries an important lesson. The incidents followed Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s historic visit to the region, with the consent of Beijing. Chinese officials suspect both the US and Russia conspired to fan unrest in the region in an attempt to derail growing ties between Turkey and China. Fortunately, both countries quickly recovered from the crisis and took the necessary measures to prevent it from happening again.
Attempts by China in recent years to bring attention to other Muslims in the country are also directed at alleviating the concerns of Muslim countries around the world. When the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) called on China to allow them to visit for a fact-finding mission on Muslim communities in 2007, China welcomed the request. A committee composed of delegates from 10 Muslim countries visited China to convey the demands and expectations of the OIC to Chinese authorities regarding Muslim minorities in the country. The current head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Mehmet Görmez, who was the deputy at the time, represented Turkey on the committee. Though the concluding report noted shortcomings on religious education and a lack in the supply of religious books, it praised China for opening up to Muslim countries.
In February 2011, a landmark agreement between Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate and the Chinese Islam Association to train and educate China’s imams marked the first contact between the two bodies. Under the agreement, students from China, where 23 million Muslims live, will return to their native land after studying in Turkey. The agreement also envisages current Chinese imams receiving in-service training in Turkey.
I was also taken to visit the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region last week, where more than 2.25 million Muslim Hui live, representing more than one-third of the total population of the region. Both Chinese officials and Hui representatives told me that Hui live with Chinese Hans without any problems. The government is determined to develop this impoverished northwestern region bordering the Gobi Desert and is pouring a lot of money into infrastructure, housing and job creation. The government frequently brings delegations from Muslim countries to showcase that the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) is comfortable with the Islam practiced in its vast country. It wants to prove that past worries over divided loyalties are no longer a major concern for the unitary Chinese government.
For now, it seems both the Turkish and Chinese governments feel increasingly confident in consolidating this rapprochement with institutional framework agreements. To avoid major external distractions in the future, this cooperation must be protected and expanded because I believe it offers new opportunities not only for Turkey and China but for a whole other set of countries around the globe.