The downward trend in Turkish-Chinese relations
It is impossible to recall how many times Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his capacity as prime minister and later as president has severely criticized Western leaders. He never held back when targeting Western leadership. He even called Germans Nazis.
Despite the rollercoaster nature in relations, 60 percent of Turkey’s exports remains towards the West, and it is the Western tourists that Turkey is relying on this year to break an all-time record of foreign visitors to the country.
By contrast, it looks like one diplomatic statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry was enough to make Turkish-Chinese relations take a nosedive.
On Feb. 9, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning China’s treatment of its ethnic Muslim Uighur people as “a great embarrassment for humanity.”
“It is no longer a secret that more than one million Uighur Turks incurring arbitrary arrests are subjected to torture and political brainwashing in internment camps and prisons,” said the statement from Foreign Ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy.
The persecution of the Uighurs is not new. What are relatively new are the claims voiced by U.N. officials that they are being held in “re-education camps.”
Muslim countries have especially been silent to the plight of Uighur Turks, fearing China’s reaction. That’s why Turkey’s statement immediately made it to the headlines of major news outlets.
What appears to have triggered the statement is the news of the death of a prominent Uighur poet in the hands of the Chinese.
“We’ve learned with great sorrow that dignified poet Abdurehim Heyit, who was sentenced to eight years in prison for his compositions, died on the second year of his imprisonment,” said the statement.
The poet was not dead. And a video footage of him even if from a jail was a major diplomatic embarrassment for Turkey. But for the Chinese, that was not enough. Following a harsh statement, they issued a travel warning to Chinese citizens travelling to Turkey.
Beijing did not stop there either. On March 1, their envoy in Ankara warned that Turkey risks jeopardizing economic ties with China if it keeps criticizing Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. And most recently, during the weekend, four Turkish businessmen were detained in China on charges of tax avoidance.
It is a well-known fact that China has zero tolerance against criticism, especially of its treatment of minorities. Still their reaction to just one statement appears to be disproportional. While the statement was one that could not be — looking from the Chinese perspective — taken lightly, China’s reaction might also reflect an accumulation of displeasure and downward trend in relations.
The activities of the foreign jihadist fighters of Uighur origin in Syria have been a continuous source of concern for the Chinese.
But there have been other factors poisoning relations. Turkey’s decision in 2015 to cancel a $3.4 billion tender provisionally awarded to China to develop a long-range missile defense system has probably left a bitter mark on the Chinese.
China’s “one belt one road” initiative could have provided a framework for the two capitals to develop relations. Yet despite being in economic difficulties and in serious search for alternative credits, Turkey could not find in China a healthy creditor. On the contrary, China’s investment model abroad, recently being named as a “debt trap,” based on providing funding in return for access to the country’s strategic assets, did not suit Turkey at all.
Despite all the challenges, Turkey has a deep-rooted relationship with the West. Those in favor of replacing it with other alternatives might have to think twice looking at the Chinese experience.