What are the keys to strengthening Turkey-China relations?

Relations between Turkey and China have seen many ups and downs between 1949 and today, but the two still have many mutual interests to cooperate on. China occupies a strong position in the global economy. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is one of the most significant indicators of its rise. The BRI has pushed Beijing to establish good networks of economic and political cooperation between different regions of the world. Turkey occupies one of the most important geo-economic and geostrategic positions for these cooperative networks. Turkey is a key player in ensuring the success and effectiveness of the BRI.

There is no doubt that the Chinese BRI offers significant opportunities for Turkey, as the two nations need stable economic, energy, security and strategic partnerships that will facilitate development. Turkey signed the BRI MoU in 2015 with China and aligned its “middle corridor”. The corridor, officially known as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), indicates Turkey’s goal of developing connectivity with China through the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The Middle Corridor trade route project connects China to Europe via Turkey by highways and railways. Turkey believes the corridor is a complement to China’s BRI, under which the two nations can develop win-win cooperation.

Turkey and China are ready to join the Middle Corridor and the BRI. As President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pointed out, “the middle corridor…is at the heart of the BRI, and Turkey will continue to work with Chinese friends to integrate the middle corridor into the BRI.” Chinese President Xi Jinping also said that “the two sides will promote synergy between the joint construction of the Belt and Road Initiative and Turkey’s Central Corridor Project.”

Many scholars believe that since Turkey accepted the BRI, it has witnessed significant infrastructure investment from China, which has led to better understanding between the two states. In this joint initiative, Turkey and China are working hand in hand for a common goal, which is to boost economic and trade relations.

It’s not just the BRI that helps national infrastructure projects. There are several Ankara-funded infrastructure projects in the Middle Corridor area, such as the 1915 Çanakkale Bridge and the Edirne-Kars high-speed train, which are under construction. But Ankara is seeking more Chinese investment in transport, mining and energy.

The West and “the trap”

There are also critics of the Middle Corridor and the BRI. Some scholars have expressed their belief that China will never allow Turkey to overlap the Middle Corridor with the BRI. Others believe that Turkey is falling into the Chinese “debt trap”. Ankara has a long history of good relations with the West. Most Western countries, including the United States, see the BRI as a strategic move by China. This may pose a new challenge for Turkey to overcome. Critics may have forgotten that Ankara always follows its national interest and, as an independent sovereign state, it has faced many challenges and managed them successfully. Turkey and China are ready to deepen comprehensive cooperation to advance bilateral relations. And the BRI is, without a doubt, an attempt to forge closer relations between the two nations.

During the recent visit to China, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu appreciated the positive role of economic, trade and investment cooperation and interconnection between Turkey and China in enhancing the economic strength of the Turkey.

During their talks, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said, “China appreciates Turkey’s unique role in regional and international affairs and is willing to strengthen multilateral coordination and cooperation, jointly safeguard a genuine multilateralism, to promote the democratization of international relations and to safeguard the common interests of emerging market economies”. The two diplomats agreed that Ankara and Beijing should commit to building mutual trust and support. Both parties should support each other in safeguarding their respective interests in sovereignty, security and development. BRI is a long-term commitment that takes time to see results. Due to COVID-19, the world is facing several financial crises. Similarly, Ankara’s financial resources have become limited and it would be advantageous for Turkey if it continues to calibrate its visions on the BRI with those of China.

Whether one agrees with the strategy or not, the Middle Corridor and the BRI have created significant momentum in Turkey-China relations. If they maintain the same momentum, it will boost their development, which could lead to new highlights in their bilateral relations.

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Sharon P. Juarez