By Assad Bhuglah
Throughout history, the Ottoman rulers and the Chinese dynasty have maintained cordial relations. Though separated by geography and falling at the two extremes of the Asian continent, the two civilizations were connected by the old Silk Road, to such an extent that the Turkic Uyghurs form part of the officially recognized ethnic minorities of China who live in the Xingjian province. Following the collapse of the Ottoman empire in the aftermath of World War I and the emergence of modern Turkey, the Sino-Turkish relations have remained idle for long time. Turkey recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on 5 August 1971. Despite the fact that Turkey pursues One-China policy and recognizes the PRC as the sole legal representative of China, the Sino-Turkish relations have seen ups and downs mainly because Ankara’s NATO alliance and Beijing’s treatment to the Turkic Uyghurs.
Since the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016, Turkey has been looking east for new partners to decrease Ankara’s dependence on traditional Western allies. Despite China not being one of Turkey’s major trading partners in the 20th century, Sino-Turkish relations have grown significantly since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) came to power in 2002. In recent years, geopolitical factors have driven Turkey to pursue common interests with China, resulting in implacable pragmatism enabling both governments to compartmentalize the Uighur issue and strengthen bilateral relations in the economic domain. Increasing estrangement of traditional Western allies over Turkey’s domestic and regional agendas encourages Turkey to seek alternative partners and bodes well for Sino-Turkish relations. Moreover, the United States and European countries have limited the sale of arms to Turkey because of the Kurdish issue. In their stead, China became a reliable arms provider and helped Turkey to develop artillery and ballistic missile technology.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attended the One-Belt -One-Road(OBOR) Silk Route Forum hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping on May 14-15, 2017 in Beijing. It was the fourth time the two leaders have met in the last two years. The forum hosted the U.N. secretary general, the top officials of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)as well as the presidents and prime ministers of 28 countries and more than 250 ministers. President Erdogan stressed that the OBOR project (also called as Modern Silk Road), which was launched in 2013 at the initiative of the Chinese President Xi, would be of great importance the world in view of the fact that the purpose of this historic project is to develop a comprehensive infrastructure, transportation, investment, energy and trade network linking Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. President Erdogan underscored that Turkey's role as a geographical and cultural bridge between Asia and Europe throughout history will be of considerable importance and it will once again be registered that Turkey is a real junction point. The OBOR project aims to connect Asia, Europe, Middle East and Africa in terms of logistics and transportation via ports, railways, airports, electrical network and even fibre optic networks. President Erdogan announced Turkey’s readiness to provide all types of support to this global model for cooperation. And he noted that the initiative will contribute to enhancing the infrastructure plans and technical standards of the countries along the route, and will also boost the land, sea and air routes on a continental level.
According to Oxford Economics data, the project includes 65 countries, which account for one third of global GDP and 4.5 billion of the world's population. Within the scope of the project, it is stated that up to $304 billion has been spent. Turkey, which has accomplished many great infrastructural and transportation projects in recent years, can become an indispensable partner in the OBOR project. Tukey’s massive investment in infrastructural projects can be characterized as the continuation of the ancient Silk Road that controlled trade between Asia and Europe for centuries.
On the other hand, China is ready to discuss Turkey's membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO is made up of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The “Shanghai Five” was founded in 1996 and renamed as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) after Uzbekistan joined the group in 2001. Led by Russia and China, the SCO is the largest non-Western organization in Eurasia. India and Pakistan signed accession agreements in June and are slated to officially become members in 2017; Mongolia, Iran, Belarus, and Afghanistan are SCO observers. Turkey joined the SCO as a “dialogue partner” in 2012, during a summit in Beijing. China has expressed optimism over Turkey’s SCO membership. Russia may also back Turkey’s membership now that President Putin and President Erdogan have patched up their relations. But the intriguing question remains: how far can Turkey, a member of NATO, advance relations with the SCO’s leading members? Perhaps the largest hurdle if Turkey wants to join the SCO, is that it would have to leave NATO first. However, even if Turkey thinks of exiting, will NATO member states let it go? Turkey has one of the most powerful militaries in NATO after the United States. The Western Turkish city of Izmir hosts one of the five NATO headquarters and also hosts an important U.S. military airport. Based on its strategic location and longstanding alliance with the United States, Turkey serves as the linchpin to America’s security strategy in the Middle East and the Balkans.
Turkey’s inclination towards SCO is also prompted by its chance of joining the EU looks slimmer than ever after the failed coup attempt in July 2016. Turkey first applied to participate in the European Economic Community (EEC), the earlier incarnation of the EU, in July 1959, following Greece’s application in the same year. It signed the Ankara Agreement in 1963 and applied for full membership in 1987. Turkey was officially accepted as an EU candidate country in 1999, and accession negotiations started in 2005. In March 2016, EU members agreed to speed up membership talks to coax Turkey to stem migrant flows into Europe. But matters have remained there. The current internal dynamics within the EU, characterized by rise extremist and populist tendencies, does not seem to be good omen for Turkey being admitted as a member.
Turkey’s involvement in China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is high on Erdogan’s agenda. Turkey is extremely interested in the project, for two major reasons: bringing in more Chinese investment, and cementing Turkey’s place as a hub connecting Asia and Europe. This is viewed as a major winning card for Turkey, irrespective of whether it gets membership either in EU or SCO or both.