The main problem between Turkey and China is a lack of communication, lack of knowledge about each other and a corresponding lack of trust, according to a young academic living in China.
However, Turkey's strategic importance has increased due to China's policy of reviving the Silk Road, said Umut Ergunsü, ahead of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Beijing this week and following increased nationalist anger toward Beijing over its alleged mistreatment of Uighur Muslims.
Give us a brief overview of Turkish-Chinese relations.
We have seen a change in China's global strategy, especially after Xi Jinping became president in 2013.
China wants to lead the world in some aspects. The Chinese want to create a leadership position in Asia.
They are also displaying an increasing interest in Central Asia and the Middle East. Although the Middle East is not a major focus of China, as it wants to play a bigger role in the international scene and because it sees a vacuum in the region, it is seeking to get more involved with this part of the world.
When we analyze Turkish-Chinese relations, we talk about the last 10 years. Before 2000, for China the main concern was the Uighur issue. For Turkey, China was a distant country with a big population.
Bilateral trade figures rocketed after 2000 when the trade volume between the two countries was around 1 billion dollars. Trade volume increased in parallel with Turkey's growth. In the words of a businessman, "We buy from China, we finish the product in Turkey, and we sell it to Europe." The main import items are intermediate goods. Also, the companies we used to buy intermediate goods from have moved to China. Last year, the trade volume reached $28 billion. There is a huge trade deficit. The ratio is 1 to 8.7. In 2014 the trade deficit was $22 billion in favor of China. That is 26 percent of Turkey's overall trade deficit. China tops the list of countries with which Turkey has a trade deficit. Last year China was second in terms of imports after Russia, the difference being only $300 million. So in the near future, China could top the list of countries for imports. But this increase in trade did not come as a result of political will from both sides but rather due to economic dynamics.
How about political relations?
It's not a straight line. There are ups and downs. In 2009 for instance, political relations made a nose dive when then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that what is happening in the Uighur region was almost a genocide. But when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao came to Turkey six month later [in 2010], relations were declared to be one of strategic partnership. Turkey is important traditionally for the Uighur issue; now it is changing because of the changes in the Chinese strategy for the Middle East and Europe.
But the most important issue still remains the Uighur issue. For the Chinese, when they hear East Turkestan [Islamic Movement] it is like us hearing the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party] PKK. For them it is a terrorist organization. They could freely operate in Turkey until 1995. But in 1995 the Turkish government, took a secret decision not to allow East Turkestan members to operate freely.
Why do you think such a decision was taken?
First it was because there was an organization that carried the potential of becoming radicalized and, second, Turkey had its own similar problem. Also when it came to issues like Cyprus, Turkey found China against Turkish positions.
Currently, China is intensively studying the Kurdish issue. They are very resentful that there are statements made by Turks on what they believe to be based on false information. It won't go like that. Their academics have started working on the issue; the Foreign Ministry has commissioned reports about it. When we look at the news produced by the Chinese state agency's bureau in Turkey, we see that they have been focusing more on that issue.
So is China looking for some political weapons to use against Turkey?
I think they are making preparations. They want the Turks to know that they could have something in their hands, too. So right now, they are at the stage of bridging the information gap about the issue.
Despite the 1995 decision, the Uighur issue keeps lingering over relations.
We need to see the difference between ordinary Uighurs and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. The latter is a separatist and, recently, a radicalized organization from the Chinese perspective. In Turkey, due to the lack of information or internal politics, it is seen as the representatives of all Uighurs. No one denies the oppression in the region, but the rest of the world makes a differentiation.
You mentioned radicalization; can you elaborate?
It is said that there is a population that is becoming radicalized in the south of the Uighur region. Since the beginning of this year, there has been a lot of criticism about Turkey. There have been reports that 300 Uighurs have joined the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, though Turkey and the Turkish government turn a blind eye to it. There are allegations that they obtained their passports from Turkey's Malaysian consulate and went to Syria through the Turkish border. They are afraid that when they come back, they could create a big problem.
Let me just note that on trade issues, Turkey is dependent on China and not vice versa. Turkey needs to buy these intermediate goods. China can buy the marble it gets from Turkey from somewhere else.
Do you think the latest flare-up on the Uighur issue will affect Erdoğan's visit to China?
I am sure it will be on the agenda, but it won't affect it that much. But there are common interests. Turkey has an important place in China's Silk Road project. Two of the three of the land routes that will connect China to Europe will go through Turkey, according to the Chinese ambassador in Ankara. China has been interested in infrastructure projects.
So is this changing the two countries' outlook toward each other?
Yes, but at the same time, there is a huge information deficit. We see China as the land of cheap goods and China sees Turkey as another Middle Eastern country. But it is true that nowadays they are trying to learn more about Turkey. There is relative stability in Turkey. How can it send one of the routes of the Silk Road through Syria or its traditionally good ally Egypt?
So on the one hand, there is a lack of information and, on the other, realities dictated by the Middle Eastern map.
The main problem in bilateral relations is lack of communication, lack of knowledge about each other and the lack of trust as a result. But Turkey's geo-strategic position, the fact that it is a regional, mid-sized power, and a secular country despite its Muslim population, increases the importance of Turkey in the eyes of China.
The Chinese want to strengthen their global stance and when they look to Europe and the West, first they see Central Asia and now Turkey, among other countries. They will advance toward Europe by expanding their zones of influence step by step. In that respect, Turkey has a key importance.
In Turkey there are very few academics working on China, and the information deficit makes the solution to the problems difficult. China is on the rise, but we need to understand what it is trying to do. We have no idea about their policies. We have neither a vision nor a strategy on China.