Thanks to war in Syria, which turned Turkey from the state of rivalry to Iran to be a friend not only to Tehran and Beijing but also to Moscow, playing a pivotal Middle Eastern role.
To diagnose how Turkish-Iranian ties affect Turkish-Chinese and Iranian-Chinese relations, due attention should be given to the strategic cooperation amongst the three. Turkish-Chinese diplomatic relations were established more than four decades ago.
Diplomatic relations between China and Turkey were established on August 4, 1971. The two countries have worked on strengthening bilateral relations as announced in October 2010 in the Turkish capital Ankara.
In March 2013, China announced it had bid to build Turkey’s second nuclear power plant, estimated at $20-24 billion. In October 2013, a Chinese company won a Turkish military tender for the purchase of a long-range missile system, the first time China has sold missiles to a NATO member state.
What is Turkey seeking to achieve with China? Turkey has traditionally sympathized with the Uygurs’ demands, inter alia, for race, religion and cultural roots. In July 2009, a crisis broke out between China and Turkey due to the deaths and injuries of the Uygurs in clashes with some Chinese extremists. Turkey demanded that the matter be presented to the Security Council, which China rejected, describing it as interfering in other country’s “internal affair.”
Since then, Turkey and China sought to strengthen their bilateral relations as Ankara realized that due to the Syrian issue and terrorism in Iraq, oil and gas supplies will be badly affected, having huge impact on Turkish industries.
Thus, Turkey planned to benefit from the economic strength and industrial and technological progress of China in all fields. On the other hand, China would like to take advantage of Turkey’s active regional and international role in various issues, mainly at the Gulf level and of Turkey’s strong relations with neighboring Central Asian countries.
On the other hand, with the election of Chinese president, Xi Jinping, in March 2013, the new leadership of China has been expected to give further impetus to efforts to strengthen the strategic partnership between the two countries.
Although Turkey has been a member of the NATO since 1952, this has not prevented the development of Turkish relations with ChinaShehab Al-Makahleh
China’s foremost foreign policy in the Middle East was non-interference in domestic affairs of other sovereign states. This justifies why China focused on business and trade relations with other countries, mainly in the Middle East region by establishing cordial ties without any bid of interventionism.
However, through its allies such as Iran and Turkey, China started having a bigger influence at economic, political and military levels, chiefly Iran and Turkey: Iran as an arm to the Gulf and Africa, and Turkey as another arm to southern Europe and Central Asia.
Although Turkey has been a member of the NATO since 1952, this has not prevented the development of Turkish relations with China. During the visit of the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to Ankara in October 2010, China and Turkey issued a statement on the establishment of strategic cooperative relations between them where Wen met with then Turkish President Abdullah Gul.
The two sides voiced readiness to boost economic and trade cooperation, enhance trade exchanges between the two countries and to promote joint ventures in the fields of energy, education, culture, sports, tourism, media, security and national defense.
At that time, Iran was in very good ties with both countries and every accord was welcomed by Tehran as this helps nourish the Iranian economy through trade activities between China and Turkey via Iran to bail out the sanctioned Iranian economy.
In the economic sphere, the two countries agreed to increase their annual trade volume to $50 billion by 2015 and $100 billion by 2020. Some of these deals benefited the Iranian economy indirectly through pro-Iran businessmen based in Turkey.
When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the then prime minister, visited China in 2012, the first by a Turkish premier to China in 27 years, he discussed with his Chinese counterparts the Iranian nuclear activities and other regional issues of concern to both Ankara and Beijing.
What was remarkable on that visit is the nuclear cooperation agreement signed between China and Turkey. In March 2013, China announced it had tendered a bid to build Turkey’s second nuclear power plant.
Military experts point out that the beginning of military relations between China and Turkey dates back to 1973 when Ankara appointed Ismael Gurgen as a military attaché in Beijing. This history was significant.
In the course of deterioration of Israeli-Turkish relations due to war on Gaza in 2008, Washington refrained from participating in air force drills in the absence of Israel. The Turkish Air Force conducted joint exercises with the Chinese in 2010 in which Washington expressed concern.
The recent military cooperation between China and Turkey has attracted attention. In October 2013, China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (SPMIEC) won a $4 billion Turkish military tender, the first time China has sold missiles to a NATO member state. The deal is a long-range FD-2000 long range air defense missile system.
China won the deal to compete with the United States, France, Italy, Germany and Russia, the main arms importers to Turkish army. The deal raised objections from the US as the S-400 is raising many questions on the relationship between Turkey and the other NATO members.
Washington has informed Ankara that this has been a surprise from a NATO member to choose the deal with a Chinese company that has been subject to US sanctions for being accused of violating the Non-Proliferation Treaty with both Iran and North Korea and to give consent to the deal with Russia for the S-400 which is also under sanctions.
According to military experts, the importance of Turkey’s new missile system is that for the first time Turkey will have a long-range defense system, even though it has been a NATO member since 1952.
In addition to the fact that Turkey preferred Chinese missiles to American and Western weapons, these Chinese missiles cannot be operated within the NATO defense system or within the collective framework of military cooperation with Western countries. This makes it hard to orchestrate a defense system for the NATO with Turkey.
Turkish support for Uygurs
The points of disagreement between China and Turkey on some issues, a difference of views and dissimilarities in the management of some files, does not reach the stage of hostility or affect the course of good relations between the two countries. We recall that among the most prominent of these issues is the Turkish support for the Uygurs in China.
Turkey sympathizes with Muslims of the Xinjiang region in northwestern China, especially the Uygurs, who reside in East Turkistan (about 1.828 million square kilometers). This explains why China has opened channels with the Turkish government to contain the Muslims in China as 90 per cent of them have Turkish roots.
Chinese-Turkish cooperation and Chinese-Iranian collaboration stem from reports that 10,000 to 20,000 Uygur militants are living in Idlib province in Syria fighting in the ranks of the Ahrar al-Sham. China is concerned about their return to China as they would be a high security threat.
Thus, China is coordinating with both Turkey and Iran as well as Russia to prevent these Chinese militants from returning back home as they are dangerous extremists.
Shehab Al-Makahleh is Director of Geostrategic Media Center, senior media and political analyst in the Middle East, adviser to many international consultancies. He can be reached at: @shehabmakahleh and @Geostrat_ME.