8 October 2012
Up to the present there has been predictable discussion of how China is perceived by Turkish public opinion. There has been frequent discussion of issues such as whether China is economically a threat or an opportunity and whether it could politically counter-balance Turkey’s relations with the Western world. But no one has paid much attention to the question of how the Chinese perceive Turkey. However awareness of Chinese perceptions of Turkey is extremely important for the way in which policy towards China is formulated in Ankara.
Bilateral relations between Turkey and China have developed rapidly in recent years with many events on academic, diplomatic, and commercial field. I have recently had the good fortune to be able to take part in joint academic events organised by the Turkish and Chinese institutions. One of these was a Seminar on External Relations of China and Turkey in Beijing on 4 September 2012 organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and the Center for Strategic Research (SAM) of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the three sessions of this day-long meeting, Chinese and Turkish academics not only discussed bilateral relations but also regional and global issues of interest to both countries.
Perceptions of Turkey
Chinese diplomats and academics regard Turkey as a country with a strategic location in the world and one which possesses political and economic stability. They think that China should definitely establish good relations with Turkey, partly because of its success at economic development and partly because of its potential. They are rather more uncertain about Turkey’s geographic position. Although the Chinese regard Turkey as an Asian country, they nevertheless cannot refrain from asking whether it is Asian or European. The Chinese were rather astonished to hear the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutođlu , describe it as “Afro-Eurasian” country. His emphasis on the fact that Turkey was a transborder country between regions and that it shared its culture with several regions increased the respect which they feel for it.
Turkey’s new approaches to foreign policy developed after 2000, such as ‘Zero Problems with Neighbours’ and ‘Turkey the Pivot Country’ are perceived by Chinese academics and diplomats as a policy of orienting towards the East, i.e. Asia, and this is favourably receive. Indeed this policy of Ankara’s is described as ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ by the Chinese. At the CASS meeting we heard papers on the policy Neo-Ottomanism which Turkish officials in no way endorsed. However the Chinese do not regard the policy critically, they take it to be a part of the opening to the East. Indeed the Chinese and Westerners are agreed on this point. In particular the criticisms of Turkey heard at their height in the Western media in 2010 about ‘an axis shift’, are regarded and indeed applauded by the Chinese as a policy of rapprochement with the East. From this angle, it may be observed that Ankara’s theses about there not being an axis shift are inadequately accepted in both the East and the West.
Views on the Arab Spring, NATO, and the EU
Turkey and China are in full agreement on the need to maintain the international peace and stability developed in the last decade and to ensure balanced and just economic development across the world. The most important point of divergence between them occurred in 2011 i.e. with the Arab Spring and particularly the developments in Syria. The Chinese are absolutely unanimous that the developments in Syria are a game played by American imperialism against the Assad regime. The Chinese barely pay any attention to the fact that the Assad regime oppresses its own people, and even uses violence against them. As far as the present situation goes, it is clear that China will never consent to outside intervention in Syria through the UN and particularly by NATO. In the Chinese view, NATO is a military organisation which came into being during the Cold War and today serves American imperialism and Turkey should not be a member of it. The Chinese are rather concerned by the policy, announced by President Obama, of having the US counter-balance China in the Asia-Pacific region and they think that regardless of whether the Democrats or the Republicans win the 2012 Presidential elections, American policies will not change very much.
The Chinese adopt rather a sarcastic mien when they discuss the European Union (EU) and the crisis in the euro zone, saying that the EU does not have a bright future and that they themselves enjoy the comfort of being citizens of the world’s second largest economy. Greece is the only example they give when saying that the future of the countries of Europe is not bright. The Chinese say that Turkey’s place is not in the EU, just as they say it is not in NATO and that they cannot understand why Ankara is persisting over membership of an EU which is still in crisis.
The Chinese approach notions like “the ascent of China” or “China as the world’s second power” or “China the superpower of the future” with some doubtfulness. Whether you talk about this to Chinese diplomats, or academics, or journalists, the all will say that as China they make no such claims. They emphasize that as China their only worry is economic development and being of service to world development and that they have absolutely no expansionist intentions. They believe that the people who come out with such expressions actually intend to damage China’s economic development. But they have no hesitation about stressing that any kind of problem or possible economic crisis which China might run into in the course of its development would affect the whole world and not just China. So China is both warning that if the rest of the world were to put a spoke in its wheel, it would suffer for it too, and also issuing a veiled threat. It takes care to keep a low profile on the international scene, trying especially to use soft power when it acts. It is careful to refrain from words and actions which would foster the perception of a political, military or economic Chinese threat in the rest of the world and among countries which are its neighbours.
A Sensitive Point: Xinjiang
Xinjiang was still the most sensitive topic in bilateral relations. The Chinese object to the use of the name ‘East Turkestan’ even in Turkish language and regard it as tantamount to advocating the partition of China. The Chinese only use the expression East Turkestani terrorists when referring to separatist Uyghurs. One senses that there is a Chinese policy of equating the expression ‘East Turkestan’ with terrorism. In other words just as when al Qaeda is mentioned, world public thinks of terrorism, there is an attempt to have the mentioning of ‘East Turkestan’ associated with terrorism. They see separatist Uyghurs as American agents. The Chinese recognize that Turkey does not have any intentions of breaking up China and do not object to the idea that the Uyghurs must be given a positive role in developing relations between two countries. There have been favourable developments on the Chinese side in opening up the region to Turkey. These include the starting of direct flights between Urumchi and Istanbul; the signing of a protocol with Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs for the training of Chinese Muslim clergy, both Uyghur and Hui, in Turkey; and moves to establish Turkish-own industrial complex in Urumchi. Turkey bears in mind the limitations on its own capacity and believes that the improvement of the situation of the Uyghurs depends on the overall development of Sino-Turkish relations. However there are still differences of approach between the two sides on the subject of whether East Turkistan/Xinjiang is the original homeland of the Turks or has belonged to China throughout history.
One interesting presentation made during the CASS seminar concerned perceptions of China in the world. This suggested that Turkey was one of the countries with the most unfavourable view of China. For example in 2010, only 18% of Turks viewed China favourably, making Turkey the country most negatively disposed towards China. Turkey is followed by India with 25% and Japan and Germany with 34%. They attribute the unfavourable Turkish view of China to Xinjiang. A further point of interest is that they link Germany’s unfavourable view of China to the influence of the Turkish community living in that country. But it is not really possible that the Germans could harbour suspicions about China simply because the Turkish community in Germany looks unfavourably at it. However Chinese public opinion is emphatic that Turkish perceptions of their country are unfavourable. Chinese people think that by being interested in the Uyghurs, Turkey is interfering in China’s internal affairs.
Finally, it is clear that the Chinese regard Turkey’s friendship as important for building a strong future. They want to create a strong partnership with Turkey and not just in the Mediterranean and Black Sea Basins, but also in Central Asia and Africa. It is interesting that they see Turkey as their strongest competitor in Africa. They follow very closely Turkey’s political, economic, and cultural activities in that continent. The Chinese are very curious about how a country like Turkey could have increased its influence in the whole of the African continent so greatly in a period of only ten years. So if in the years now ahead of us, Sino-Turkish relations develop further and deeper, it should surprise nobody.