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Turkey: Erdogan, In China For Trade Talks, Likely To Be Sounded Out On Uighur, Iraq Issues

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, today began a four-day visit to China aimed at restoring balance in bilateral trade ties. The visit, organized at Beijing's initiative, will also provide Chinese authorities with a firsthand opportunity to sound out Turkey's new leadership on its foreign-policy agenda two months after early legislative polls that saw a government with Islamic roots come to power.

Prague, 14 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As he did from 7 to 11 January when he toured the Turkic former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading an impressive delegation to China with no fewer than 100 government officials and businessmen. Erdogan's agenda includes talks with Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji and Communist Party leader Hu Jintao.

Although Erdogan holds no official position in current Turkish state structures, he is generally seen both at home and abroad as the man pulling the strings of Prime Minister Abdullah Gul's cabinet. Many Turkish analysts see Erdogan as the county's next head of government after parliament late last month overturned a constitutional ban barring him from public office because of an earlier conviction for alleged religious sedition.

Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is rooted in Turkey's political Islam, won a landslide victory in the 3 November elections amid Turkey's worst economic recession since 1945.

Since then, Erdogan has visited a long list of countries, China being only the latest. Besides Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, he has also traveled to the United States and a number of European capitals to lobby for Turkey's membership in the European Union.

Beijing has provided no details about the talks expected between Erdogan and Chinese leaders. But analysts believe China may want to sound out its Turkish visitor on a number of thorny issues.

Turkey and China established diplomatic ties in 1971, but relations over the past 30 years have been uneasy, mainly because of Ankara's alleged support of Uighurs, Muslim separatists in China's northwestern Turkic Xinjiang Province.

Since China's Communist Party came to power in 1949, Xinjiang has witnessed a near-constant separatist struggle, punctuated by several waves of street protests and bombing campaigns.

Chinese authorities have responded by using ethnic cleansing, mass arrests, summary executions, and deportations to quell the separatist movement. In the process, they have driven hundreds of thousands of Uighurs away from their native region, mostly into neighboring Central Asian states.

Under pressure from Beijing, Ankara in February 2000 agreed to sign a security-cooperation agreement committing each signatory to take measures against separatist activities affecting the territorial integrity of the other side.

Despite the agreement, China has remained suspicious of Turkey's ties with Xinjiang's 20-million-strong Uighur minority, a stance Zhu reiterated on 17 April 2002 during a visit to Ankara. It is unclear what, if anything, Erdogan can do during his China visit to ease Beijing's concerns.

Timur Kocaoglu runs the Center for Strategic Studies at Istanbul's Koc University. He told RFE/RL the Uighur issue is likely to tarnish Chinese-Turkish relations for many years to come. "I don't think Erdogan's visit to China will produce any breakthrough in Turkish-Chinese relations, and I guess [Turkish leaders] will have to make [the trip] to China many more times to establish a sound relationship with [Beijing], because there are problems between the two countries, especially over the issue of the Turkic population of Xinjiang," Kocaoglu said.

The AKP has so far carefully avoided bringing forward any religious issues on either its domestic or international agenda.

Analysts believe the Chinese had more reason for concern about Ankara's alleged support of its Uighur minority under Turkey's previous government, which included the far-right Nationalist Action Party of Deputy Prime Minister Devlet Bahceli. But they say Beijing is still eager to sound out the new Turkish leadership regarding its intentions toward Muslim separatists in northwestern China.

Mehmet Ogutcu is a Paris-based Turkish foreign-policy analyst and a specialist on China. He said Beijing might be concerned that Turkey will fail to stick to its official commitment to cooperate in cracking down on Uighur separatism, especially since China is not specifically mentioned among the new Turkish cabinet's foreign-policy priorities. "This [concern over where Turkey stands on separatism] is related not only to Xinjiang but also to Central Asia. Yet, the first impressions we get from press reports and from the discussions [Erdogan had] in Central Asia is that this government does not have any intention [of providing] support or of [declaring] support in any way to religious movements there. They don't want religious issues to take the forefront, and I think it needs to be seen in the longer [term] to what extent this government will try to deal with religious issues there. But certainly, from the Chinese point of view, they will try to find out whether Mr. Erdogan's party could play a role in moderating fundamentalist forces in the region," Ogutcu said. Ogutcu said China is also likely to probe Erdogan on his stance on the Iraq crisis.

Although NATO member Turkey has said it wants to do everything possible to avoid military action against Baghdad, it has very little leverage to influence Washington's decision on this issue. Moreover, the United States sees Turkey's military bases as a key element in the event of a war with Iraq. "I think one important thing [Erdogan will discuss in Beijing] is Iraq and the situation in the Middle East. The Chinese are increasingly sensitive to what is happening [there] because of their energy concerns. Since 1993, China has become a net importer of crude oil, and currently 30 percent of its oil requirements [are met] by imports, mostly from the Middle East. Chinese energy companies such as CNPC [China National Petroleum Corporation] or Sinopec have all invested in upstream petroleum fields in Iraq and Sudan. They have increasing trade [relations] with Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, some of them, according to press reports, in return for weapons. So Turkey is a key regional power to reckon with in this respect. Therefore, [the Chinese] would like to have consultations with Ankara on the future of the region," Ogutcu said.

Ogutcu said other foreign-policy issues that might surface during Erdogan's visit include Turkey's relations with Russia and energy projects in the Caspian region.

Ankara is involved in a U.S.-sponsored project to build a multibillion-dollar pipeline that will eventually pump crude oil from the Azerbaijani capital Baku to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. Construction of the conduit is expected to be completed by 2005.

The Baku-Ceyhan project is in direct competition with China's planned pipelines traveling from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to Xinjiang and from there to Shanghai.

Although this circumstance may be grounds for further competition between China and Turkey, it could also, paradoxically, bring them closer on some issues.

Ogutcu argued that the fact that both countries need stability in Central Asia might help them reach a comprehensive agreement on the Uighur issue. Turkey and China may also have a common interest in undertaking joint regional economic projects that may or may not exclude Russia, a country both Turkey and China see as their primary rival in Central Asia.

Kocaoglu, however, believes that in the short term, Turkish-Chinese relations are likely to focus on economic issues, first, because Turkey's new leadership has yet to develop a clear "political vision" for its foreign-policy agenda, and second, because it sees domestic economic problems as its top priority. "During talks the new AK[P] government [has had] with various countries so far, economic issues have [topped the agenda]. This government realizes that they won a [landslide] victory and came to power [thanks to] Turkey's economic problems. They are also aware that economic issues can bring [them] down. So, their main [concern] currently is how to solve Turkey's economic problems and win the hearts of the people who voted for them in the last election. And China is one of the big markets that Turkey is after," Kocaoglu said.

Trade volume between the two countries shows a clear imbalance in China's favor. Three years ago, Turkey imported goods worth about $2 billion from China, while the volume of Turkish exports to Beijing totaled only $48 million. "In the economic [sphere], I think the Turkish side will press very hard to correct the existing imbalance. But I think they will have to come up with some concrete proposals. It is not sufficient just to insist to the Chinese that we should balance trade relations. Currently, it is not only trade, but it is also in the investment field [where the imbalance is felt]. A lot of capital is [flowing out] of Turkey toward China for joint manufacturing facilities being established there, and Turkish commodities and products are not so much diversified. And in textiles, there is going to be a very fierce battle between Chinese and Turkish producers after 2005 when the World Trade Organization's [liberalization] agreement comes into force. Therefore, there are a great number of areas for talks between the two sides," Ogutcu said.

Ogutcu said there is an urgent need for strategic partnership between the two countries. Such an arrangement, he said, will help Turkey "diversify its international exposure" and not just "limit itself to single-level interaction with the EU and the U.S." Yet, Ogutcu cautioned, it may be some time before this objective, which had been a stated goal of past Turkish decision makers, can be achieved. "Steps have already been taken, but there is still a long way to go before both sides could fully trust each other. Also, China has some preferences, for example in the Middle East. It might prefer to work with Iran as a bridgehead to project its power to the Middle East of the [Persian] Gulf region, or with Iraq, Oman, Sudan, or Libya. They are developing some relationships there. Being an ally of the U.S. and [having] close relations with the EU, Turkey, in this regard, is not a natural partner for China," Ogutcu said.

But nevertheless, Ogutcu said Turkey should not delay further attempts to boost its relations with Beijing in order to be ready in 2020, when China is likely to become, as he put it, "the world's leading economic power." "In the case of China, we all know that patience and perseverance are needed," he said. "Therefore, Turkey needs to work now to develop a strategic partnership with China."