Security concerns remain main obstacle to Turkey’s relations with China

Security concerns remain main obstacle to Turkey’s relations with China

When the Çimtaş Group was first established in China in 2002, employing more than 450 Chinese nationals over time, one of their employees’ main problems was the robbing of their second or third-hand bicycles.
“We used to call the police to register official complaints. But today our main problem is finding parking space for our employees’ cars,” said Naz Türer, a board member of the group, illustrating the amazing changes that have occurred over the past decade in China.

Speaking at a conference organized last week by the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TÜSİAD), Türer explained how technology has become a part of daily life in China by saying she could pay for a “tuk tuk” (three-wheeler) even in the most remote places with her smart phone. “In China, food needs to be consumed fresh on a daily basis. The mothers of our employees order their fish daily via an application on their phones,” she said in another example.

It was interesting to hear how widespread technology is in Chinese daily life, while society’s access to information via the Internet is so restricted, with the Chinese government employing thousands to monitor and censor the Internet.

Türer also referred to Yiwu, the Chinese city that manufactures many of the world’s flags, and which earned a reputation for knowing Donald Trump would win the U.S. presidential election. How could they predict the Trump victory with limited access to information?

Searching on Google, I found that the fact that orders for Trump flags increased while those for Hillary Clinton decreased just before the election was enough for manufacturer Yao Dan Dan to predict an election victory for Trump. Mr. Yao considered himself a Trump supporter, as he made so much money because of him, but ironically he was not even aware that Trump had vowed to impose high tariffs on Chinese goods. The internet worked well to get flag orders from U.S. but it only partially worked to get information about Trump’s policies; quite a striking contradiction.

The conference in Istanbul was called “Understanding China, Doing Business with China,” and indeed Turks don’t know China very well. They typically have tremendous difficulty doing business with China; while there is actually no problem in importing goods from China, exporting goods to China is another story entirely.

The bilateral trade volume, which was at $1.7 billion in 2002, has reached $27 billion. However, there is a big trade gap. In 2015, while Turkey’s exports were only $2.4 billion, Chinese exports to Turkey reached $24 billion dollars. 

“This is not sustainable,” said Cengiz Kamil Fırat from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, speaking at the TÜSİAD conference.

Turkey would like to export more, attract more Chinese investments and see more Chinese tourists coming to the country. However, the Chinese government is a rather rigid partner and a tough negotiator.

For instance, as part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, an intercontinental trade and infrastructure project that aims to revive the historic Silk Road, Beijing has shown a lot of interest in the Kars-Edirne railway project connecting Turkey’s east to its west. China wants to net the project without entering bidding, but the interest rates it offers for credit it would provide is no better than the rates Turkey can get from other creditors.

But it is not only economic dynamics specific to China that make it difficult to try to get a more balanced trade volume. Political considerations are also key.

Beijing is extremely concerned by Turkey’s approach toward the Uighur Turks in the Xinjiang region of western China. It is irritated by Turks’ criticism of China’s treatment of the Uighur Turks; what is seen as sensitivity and legitimate criticism by many Turks translates to Chinese as tacit support for separatist terrorism.

Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan places huge importance on China, and although assurances are given at all levels to show cooperation, Chinese officials are not at all satisfied.

And they are not shy about showing their displeasure. Travelling to China remains extremely difficult for Turks, with almost everyone who spoke at the TÜSİAD conference saying that solving the visa issue should be a priority in relations between Ankara and Beijing.

Chinese authorities have been using the visa issue as a tool of harassment. I was told about cases of businessmen - who have been importing from China and travelling back and forth for the past 10 years – being subjected to police raids in the middle of the night at their hotel.

“We had some real political issues with Israel but our economic relations were never affected,” say Turkish officials.

China has another way of doing business. “I need full satisfaction on security issues. Only once I am fully satisfied will I push the button on boosting economic relations the way you want,” Beijing says.