An Alternative Partner to the West? Turkey’s Growing Relations with China

By Zan Tao | Associate Professor - Deputy Director of the Center for Global Modernization Studies - Peking University | Oct 25, 2013
An Alternative Partner to the West? Turkey’s Growing Relations with China

The relationship between Turkey and China has rarely been a point of focus for international observers in the early twenty-first century. However, the landscape has recently undergone a dramatic change, with increasing numbers of symposiums, forums, panels, articles, columns, think tanks, and researchers focusing on Sino-Turkish relations in China or in Turkey. The change is mostly due to the impressive rise of both Turkey and China as powers on the regional and global level, respectively. Today, Turkey is the sixteenth largest economy and China the second largest. At the same time, they are more ardently looking at and listening to each other.

This essay begins with background on the relationship between Turkey and China. The second section examines two key issues affecting the current Turkish-Sino relationship—the imbalance of trade and the Uighur issue. In the conclusion, the position of China in Turkey’s international strategy is assessed.

The Turkish-Sino Relationship in the Twentieth Century

After the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, an official relationship emerged between Kemalist Turkey and Nationalist (Kuomintang) China. In the early twentieth century, Turkey was a model for Chinese reformists, revolutionaries, and even early Communists.[1] After the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, the diplomatic relationship between Turkey and Kuomintang Taiwan continued until the early 1970s.[2]

At the height of the Cold War, as a firm ally of the United States, Turkey actively participated in the Korean War. From a Sino-Turkish perspective, this event led to mutual negative perceptions.[3] The governing elites of Turkey maintained a staunch anti-Communist position, whereas the Chinese government, especially in the high Communism period of the 1960s, publicly declared support for the development of anti-American movements in Turkey. The mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, People’s Daily, also gave its support to Turkish leftists in one of its editorials.[4]

The establishment of an official, diplomatic relationship between the Turkish Republic and the People’s Republic of China occurred as late as 1971,[5] with the U.S. rapprochement with China as its backdrop. Since then, bilateral relations between Ankara and Beijing have improved, with reciprocal visits of high-level statesmen, lower-level members of parliaments, and delegations from ministries and other state agencies. In addition, numerous agreements on the economy, tourism, cultural exchange, and military cooperation have been signed.[6]

However, from 1971 to the late 1990s, the relationship between Turkey and China remained superficial. This changed at the beginning of this century, when Sino-Turkish relations “began to enjoy the most brilliant period in their history.”[7] Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to Turkey in October 2010 lifted the bilateral relationship to a strategic cooperative level.[8] In 2012, with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping’s visit to Turkey in February and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdoğan’s visit to China in April, the relationship between the two nations entered a “honeymoon” phase.[9]

Key Issues Concerning the Turkish-Sino Relationship

Economic Relations

The speed of trade development between Turkey and China is indicated in the charts below. Turkish exports to China amounted to $1.43 billion in 2008, and Turkey's imports from China were $15.6 billion in the same year.[10] In 2010 foreign trade volume between Turkey and China rose 36 percent, amounting to $20 billion. In 2011 and 2012, Turkish-Chinese two-way trade totaled $24.1 billion.[11]

Turkish-Sino Trade (in millions of U.S. dollars)[12]

However, the lopsided amount of trade and business between the two sides has made the Turkish government uneasy. Ender Öncü, the commercial counselor at the Turkish Embassy in Beijing, stated that Turkey should seek to diversify goods exported to China.[13]

Future competition between Turkey and China will involve their similar production structures.[14] A report on China produced by a Turkish research center, Etüd-Araştırma Servisi, shows that problems between Turkey and China will involve competition between the countries’ textile sectors.[15]

Data source: Turkish Institute of Statistics

The Uighur Issue

The Uighur issue is the most sensitive topic between Turkey and China, especially on the Chinese side. Turkey used to serve as a shelter for Uighur exiles and activists from the Xinjiang autonomous region in northwest China, and Turkey sympathized with the Uighur people’s resistance to the Communist government. However, with the development of stronger bilateral relations, the Turkish government, in its attempt to improve relations with China, has aimed to restrain the activities of the Uighurs who have migrated to Turkish territory. For example, following the visit of Turkish President Süleyman Demirel to China in 1995, the Turkish government issued a confidential circular signed by Prime Minister Mesut Yılmaz that pointed out that the Chinese government was uneasy about the activities of Turkish associations established by citizens of Uighur origin and forbade any minister or civil servant from participating in their meetings.[16]

Staunch sympathizers for Uighurs in Turkey are against this policy transformation, and they adopt an economic as well as political argument. For them, China is an economic giant that is only using Turkey as a springboard (sıçrama tahtası) to relay Chinese products to the European Union. They also argue that the principle that a country should not interfere in the domestic affairs of an ally country is an “illogical excuse.”[17]

An example that demonstrates the sensitivity between Turkey and China in regard to this issue is the 2009 riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, in which more than 200 people lost their lives (in China the riots are referred to as “the July 5th incident”). In the aftermath of the incident, a deputy from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) resigned from the Turkey-China Interparliamentary Friendship Group. In addition, Turkey's industry and trade minister called on Turks to boycott Chinese goods to protest the continuing ethnic violence. After demonstrations in Ankara and Istanbul, Prime Minister Erdoğan said, “These incidents in China are as if they are genocide. We ask the Chinese government not to remain a spectator to these incidents.”[18]

Erdoğan’s remarks aroused widespread rage among Chinese people, particularly Chinese youth, who voiced their disapproval on the Internet,[19] and China demanded that Erdoğan retract his accusation. Later, a phone conversation between China and Turkey's respective foreign ministers reaffirmed the importance of Turkish-Chinese relations, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said that Turkey did not intend “to interfere with the domestic affairs of China.”[20] In November 2010, Davutoğlu toured China for six days and met with his counterpart, Yang Jiechi. Among the joint initiatives the foreign ministers created was a Turkish industrial zone in Xinjiang and a pledge to jointly crack down on separatism and terrorism, including anti-China separatist activities in Turkey.

In Yitzhak Shicor’s study on the Uighur issue as it relates to Turkey and China, he explores the key historical events that relate to the current dispute.[21]  Despite this contribution, Shicor’s assertion that the Uighurs “in no way represent an existential threat” to China is problematic. There is no doubt that the Chinese government views anything endangering the regime’s stability as a threat—such as ethnic conflicts and national separatism, and Xinjiang has been defined as part of the core interests of China.[22] In fact, “the July 5th incident” and other small-scale terrorist attacks have put Xinjiang at the forefront of China’s “stability maintenance” (wei wen) movement.

Turkey’s concession to Chinese pressure on the Uighur issue may be an indication of its understanding of how sensitive the issue is to China. In addition, Turkey has similar concerns, such as Kurdish terrorism and separatism and the Northern Cyprus problem. As such, it is hard for Turkey to maintain a double standard on similar issues.[23] Yet this should not be read as proof that Turkey will completely share China’s view on the Uighur/Xinjiang issue. This is because the segment of the Turkish public concerned with its “fellow men” of “Eastern Turkistan” will always pressure politicians to take a more supportive stance vis-à-vis the Uighurs.

Turkey's Foreign Strategy: How China Fits


Turkey has undergone a transformation from a security-oriented state to a trading state.[24] Sinan Ülgen defines a trading state as one that emphasizes the role of economic interdependence in its foreign policy, in contrast to states that rely on military capabilities and hard power.[25] Since the end of the Cold War, by pursuing the status of a “central country,” Turkey’s position as a “frontier country” for the West has diminished.[26] Turkey’s adoption of an export-oriented growth strategy, its increasing trade and investment volume, and the rise of “Anatolian tigers” (the small- and mid-sized yet dynamic enterprises of the trading cities of inner Anatolia) have led to the emergence of a trading state.

Bearing in mind Turkey’s large increase in trading volume and its trade deficit with China, it is understandable that Turkey regards the rise of China as an opportunity. In 2007, Turkey’s ambassador to China, Oktay Özüye, said to a Chinese magazine: “In Turkey, both politicians and businessmen regard the rise of China as a chance instead of a threat. So we are actively working hard to look after chances of cooperation with our Chinese partners.”[27]

Strategic Relations

The multidimensionalization of foreign diplomacy is a prominent feature that characterizes Turkey’s recent international strategy. Mostly due to security concerns and also partly due to its ideological orientation, Turkey used to be a Western-oriented nation, often ignoring other nations, especially those in the East. However, in the late 1980s, a tendency to pursue a more balanced strategy emerged. During the AKP’s time in power, this orientation has only increased. Writes Ülgen, “Ankara’s lessened preoccupation with issues of survival and territorial integrity has thus significantly reduced the West’s leverage over Ankara’s policy choices.”[28] Some in the West also claim that Turkey is drifting away.[29] The official government line on this drift is that Turkey is conducting its foreign policy “autonomously.” As Davutoğlu would put it, “We do not receive instructions from any other powers, nor are we part of the others’ grand schemes.”[30]

This multidimensionalization of Turkish foreign diplomacy means that Turkey is attaching more importance to the Middle East and the Far East. What most concerns China is Turkey’s relations with Central Asia and the possibility of its military cooperation.

As a member of NATO, Turkey used to receive military equipment and technology from the West. But Turkey is increasingly dissatisfied with the stringent arms policies of the United States. As a result, Turkey wants to share technology with China, especially missiles.[31] In September 2013, news outlets reported, “U.S.-Sanctioned Chinese Firm Wins Turkey Missile Defense System Tender.” The same source noted that the Chinese firm would co-produce (with the United States) $4 billion in long-range air and missile defense systems and that Turkey had rejected bids from Russian, American, and Europeans firms.[32] This news upset some Western policy makers, whose opinion was that Turkey was “sending a message to the West by choosing China for [its] defense system.”[33]

In addition, Turkey became a “dialogue partner” of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2012. While Turkey offers the SCO its position of a bridge to the West and its cooperation with China in the field of counterterrorism, it is hard to discern what Turkey gains from the SCO, especially considering that the SCO is, in the words of one writer, "still an organization very much in search of a mission." Turkey's bid to become a dialogue partner can be read as "a step with unclear practical consequences but substantial symbolic import," meaning that it “court[ed] the non-Western world, where there is increasing unhappiness with the U.S./Europe-dominated world order.” The SCO is seen as an attempt to counter this order.[34]

However, Turkey’s pursuit of a balanced strategy does not mean that it will leave the West for the East. In fact, history teaches us that when Turkey feels frustrated with the West, it turns to the East. For instance, in the 1970s, the relationship between Turkey and Western nations deteriorated due to the Cyprus crisis. With Turkey’s 1974 military intervention in Cyprus, the United States implemented an arms embargo, and Ankara developed relations with Arab neighbors, socialist nations, and non-aligned countries.[35] Since the AKP took office in 2002, the opinion that “the West is losing Turkey” has also occasionally been heard.[36] This claim has been legitimized by Turkey’s refusal to let the United States use its military base in 2003; the impasse between Turkey and Israel due to the Marmara flotilla event; and the stalemate of Turkey’s EU accession process.

In the same manner, when troubles in the East become irresolvable, Turkey turns to the West. The Cold War and the current crisis in Syria are examples, with Turkey firmly in the Western camp. In fact, since the “Arab Spring” of 2011, especially in light of the deteriorating situation in Syria, Turkey has adjusted its gesture toward the West. The Syria crisis poses a threat that Turkey cannot confront by itself. Facing the prospect of a weak and divided state next door, the United States will be an “indispensable ally,” writes Soner Çağaptay. “Ankara now wants to work closely with Washington in order to shield itself from the instability of [Syria]…Another factor that drives Ankara's rapprochement with Washington is Turkey's proxy war against Iran in Syria.”[37] With Obama brokering a rapprochement, Turkey and Israel restored their relationship earlier this year,[38] and during this process, by finally accepting NATO’s missile umbrella, Turkey reaffirmed its stance in the Western camp.[39]

Soft Power

Turkey's capacity for influence lies in its soft power. As E. Fuat Keyman has argued, although Turkey has no power in regard to pursuing regime change in the Middle East, “[it] is a country with a seriously strong capacity to achieve [a] regional and global transformation through soft power for good and democratic government of society, for economic development, and for making a contribution to the development of civil society.” He notes that this capacity is found in Turkey’s fields of state-building, nation-building, and economic development.[40]

Indeed, Turkey’s comprehensive influence in Central Asia has been established mainly through soft power. Historical links of ethnicity, language, culture, and religion are present between the two areas. Turkey’s potential influence in China in this aspect is the attraction of Chinese Muslims to it, mainly Uighurs and mainly intellectuals. In spite of Turkey’s claim that it has given up pan-Turkism from the time of Kemal Ataturk or the “unity of the Turkic World” of the AKP era,[41] its attraction among Uighur people is becoming more and more pronounced.

Another way in which Turkey’s soft power in China is evident is the recent establishment between Turkey and China of close cooperative links in the field of Islamic education. In fact, China is not comfortable with the more extreme teachings of Islam, whether from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, and “sees the Turkish version of mystic, inner-oriented, and peaceful Islamic teachings as a bulwark against extremism.” [42]


The rapid increase in bilateral trade between Turkey and China, the two countries’ closer relationship in the fields of culture, tourism, and the military, and Turkey’s acceptance as a “dialogue partner” in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are not necessarily leading to the establishment of a substantial strategic relationship, though leaders of both countries have spoken of such a partnership since 2010. Rather, Turkey’s turn to the East is not a strategic shift, but is a way of keeping a balance between the West and the East. Due to its substantial needs that the West can provide, from security to technology, Turkey is still anchored in the West.

For Turkey, the importance of China lies mainly in economics, especially considering that China has become Turkey’s third largest trade partner in the last decade, after Russia and Germany. But the huge trade deficit on the Turkish side should not be forgotten. The Uighur issue will also be very hard, if not impossible, to eradicate from the Turkish-Sino relationship. Based on these considerations, it is safe to conclude that for Turkey, China is a potential partner but not an alternative partner to the West.[43]

This contribution is part of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute.

[1] Dong Zhenghua, “Chinese Views of Atatürk and Modern Turkey,” Uluslararası Konferans: Atatürk Ve Modern Türkiye, Ankara Üniversitesi Siyasal Bilgiler Fakültesi, ed. (Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi Basımevi, 1999), 669-675.

[2] Selçuk Çolakoğlu and Arzu Güler, “Turkey and Taiwan: The Relationship Seeking Its Ground,” USAK Policy Brief, No. 2, August 2011.

[3] Çağdaş Üngör, “Perceptions of China in the Turkish Korean War Narratives,” Turkish Studies 7, 3 (September 2006): 405–420.

[4] People’s Daily, 5 May 1960.

[5] On August 4, 1971, with a signed protocol between Turkey’s ambassador in Paris, Hasan Esat Işık, and his Chinese counterpart, Huang Chen, the diplomatic relationship between Turkey and China was established. At the time, the first Nihat Erim government was in office and the Turkish minister of foreign affairs was Osman Olcay.

[6] Ülke Raporu: Çin Halk Cumhuriyeti (ÜRÇHC), Etüd-Araştırma Servisi, 2006, 24-26.

[7] Selçuk Çolakoğlu, “Turkey’s East Asian Policy: From Security Concerns to Trade Partnerships,” Perceptions 17, 4 (Winter 2012): 146.

[8] “China, Turkey to Establish Strategic Cooperative Relationship,” China Daily, 8 October 2010,

[9] Zan Tao, “Zhong guo wai jiao ban tu zhong de tu er qi” (Turkey on the Map of China’s Foreign Affairs), Dong Fang Zao Bao (Oriental Morning), 10 April 2012.

[10] “Turkey-China Trade Relations Weaken as Crisis Hits,” Today's Zaman, 19 March 2009.

[11] The data is from the Turkish Institute of Statistics (TÜİK).

[12] The data is from the Turkish Institute of Statistics (TÜİK).

[13] “Turkey-China Trade Relations Weaken as Crisis Hits.”

[14] According to the Global Trade Negotiations homepage, “Turkey Summary” (2004), Turkey’s principal exports are textiles and clothing, followed by agricultural products, iron, steel, and machinery.

[15]Ülke Raporu: Çin Halk Cumhuriyeti (ÜRÇHC); Turkish Daily News, 24 May  2008.

[16] “Başbakanlık'tan gizli Doğu Türkistan genelgesi,” Hürrieyt, 4 Şubat 1999.

[17] Nuraniye Hidayet Ekrem, “Türk-Çin İlişkilerinin Gelişmesi,” Uzak Doğu-Pasifik Araştırmaları Masası, 22 August 2006,; see also Necip Hablemitoğlu, “Türkiye-Çin İlişkilerinde Gözardı Edilen Bir Boyut: Hükümet-Çin-Doğu Türkistan,” Yeni Hayat Dergisi, No. 57, 4 October, 2009,

[18] “Mass Rally in Turkey to Support China's Uighur,” Presstv, 13 July 2009,

[19] “ 网民批土耳其总理:做暴力犯罪分子帮凶没好下场!” (Netizens Delivered a Broadside to Turkish Prime Minister: Those Who Stand by Criminals of Violence Will Come to No Good End),;;

[20] “Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu Talks to his Chinese Counterpart on the Phone,” Anadolu Agency, 12 July 2009,

[21] For examples, Shicor chronicles the Ottoman sultans’ support of Yaqub Beg in the late nineteenth century, Uighur presence and activism in Turkey, and military cooperation between Turkey and China. Yitzhak Shicor, “Ethno-Diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations,” Policy Studies 53 (2009). 

[22] Wu Xinbo, China and the United States: Core Interests, Common Interests and Partnership, Special Report 277 of the United States Institute of Peace, June 2011.

[23] Mehmet Ali Birand once warned those who support Xinjiang that China might exploit the Kurdish issue as a kind of revenge. “China's Kurdish Policy is Changing,” Turkish Daily News, 28 February 2006.

[24] Çolakoğlu, “Turkey’s East Asian Policy: From Security Concerns to Trade Partnerships.”

[25] Sinan Ülgen, “A Place in the Sun or Fifteen Minutes of Fame? Understanding Turkey’s New Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Papers, Carnegie Europe, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, No. 1, December 2010, 9-11.

[26] According to Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey is a “central country” both in a geographical and ideational sense. Its geographic location in the midst of political events that changed the course of world history gives Turkey this status. Further, “just as geography, history, too, may come to constitute a country as a central country.” Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Turkey’s Foreign Policy Vision: An Assessment of 2007,” Insight Turkey 10, 1 (2008).

[27] Oktay Özüye, “To Be a Good Role of Bridge between West and East: An Interview with Turkey’s Ambassador to China,” Business Weekly, 26 October 2007.

[28] Sinan Ülgen, “A Place in the Sun or Fifteen Minutes of Fame? Understanding Turkey’s New Foreign Policy.”

[29] E. Fuat Keyman, “Rethinking Turkish Foreign Policy,” Turkish Weekly, 27 May 2013.

[30] Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Principles of Turkish Foreign Policy and Regional Political Structuring,” Turkey Policy Brief Series, International Policy and Leadership Institute, Third Edition, 2012, 4.

[31] Nuraniye Hidayet Ekrem, “Türk-Çin İlişkilerinin Gelişmesi,” Uzak Doğu-Pasifik Araştırmaları Masası, 22 August 2006,

[32] “U.S.-Sanctioned Chinese Firm Wins Turkey Missile Defense System Tender,” Reuters, 26 September 2013.

[33] Sunday’s Zaman, 28 September 2013.

[34] Joshua Kucera, "Turkey Makes it Official with SCO," 28 April 2013,

[35] Selçuk Çolakoğlu, “Turkey’s East Asian Policy: From Security Concerns to Trade Partnerships,” 134.

[36] Soner Çağaptay, “The AKP’s Hamas Policy,”Hurriyet Daily News, 29 June 2010.

[37] Soner Cagaptay, "Syrian Crisis Leading towards Open Turkey-Iran Conflict,” 26 May 2013,

[38] Suzan Fraser, "Gaza Flotilla Victims' Compensation Discussed By Israel And Turkey," Huffington Post, 22 April 2013,

[39] Thom Shanker, "U.S. Hails Deal With Turkey on Missile Shield," New York Times, 15 September 2011; NATO, "NATO Deployment of Patriot Missiles to Turkey,"; NATO, "NATO Support to Turkey : Background and Timeline,"

[40] E. Fuat Keyman,“ Rethinking Turkish Foreign Policy,” Turkish Weekly, 27 May 2013.

[41] Mehmet Ozkan, “Turkey’s ‘New’ Engagements in Africa and Asia: Scope, Content and Implications,”  Perceptions 16, 3 (Autumn 2011): 125.

[42] It was reported that Turkey’s Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet Işleri Başkanlığı) and the Islamic Association of China (中国伊斯兰教协会) signed a protocol of cooperation on religious education in 2011. The same source said that every year a certain number of Chinese Muslim students would be sent to Turkey for further religious education, either in Imam Hatip schools or in theology faculties. Abdullah Bozkurt, “China Seeks Further Engagement from Turkey in Xinjiang Region,” Today’s Zaman, 1 April 2012; Duygu Bektaş, “Çin'den İmam hatiplere öğrenci,” İhlas Haber Ajansı, 17 February 2011,

[43] The author would like to express his deep gratitude to Ms. Mimi Kirk, Research Director of the Middle East Institute, not only for her help in editing this essay, but also for many provoking questions that pushed me to think deeply. The author also wants to use this opportunity to thank the support of the "Program for Junior Scholars" (qing nian ying cai ji hua, 2013-2016) of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Education.