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The Beijing-Ankara axis: the end of Turkish pan-Islamism?

The growing economic and geo-strategic interests of Peking in the Anatolian Peninsula, where the Bosphorus is one of the nerve centres of the Chinese project of economic integration of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have induced Ankara, in recent years, to review certain of its positions. In particular, the Uyghurs - a Turkish-speaking minority of Muslims living in the autonomous region of Xinjiang - have been given a new role as the "leader" of Sunni Islam, which has been its political mantra since Erdoğan came to power.

If we compare the Turkish president's words from 2009 - when he was prime minister at the time - when he defined Beijing's repressive actions against the Uighurs as "genocide"[1], with the statements he made 10 years later[2] following his first state visit to China, it is clear that in recent years Sino-Turkish relations have come to involve a number of interests that have led Ankara to prefer a less intransigent attitude on this issue.

Erdoğan's new "flexible" line, in addition to re-emphasising the internal opposition [3], has been interpreted by the 50,000 or so Uyghur political refugees living in Turkey today as a betrayal of the thousand-year-old ties that unite the Uyghur community with the Turkish people, both ethnically and culturally. From this perspective, the Sino-Turkish extradition treaty of 2017, considered by the "Uyghurs World Congress" [4] as the legal route in Chinese hands to "bring home" Uyghur dissidents, can be read as the turning point of Turkish policy with respect to the Uyghur case. This inclination is in contradiction with the ideological direction of pan-Islamist republicanism, through which Ankara, since the rise of Erdoğan, continues to pursue the goal of positioning itself as the leading political actor of Sunni-rooted Islam.

The meeting [5] between Erdoğan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on 25 March provided further confirmation of Turkey's change of course with regard to the Uighur case. Despite the West's unanimous condemnation of Beijing's controversial measures, the Turkish leader not only avoided the topic, but also stressed Ankara's support for the CCP's policies on countering domestic terrorism, alluding to the issue of Uyghur separatism. Wang Yi himself affirmed the importance of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs as the basis for safeguarding relations between the two countries.

The Turkish rapprochement with the People's Republic is also partly the result of the progressive deterioration of relations between Turkey and the West, with a clear reference to the controversial actions undertaken by Ankara in recent years: from interference in the Libyan and Syrian framework, to the disputes with Greece and Cyprus concerning Turkish exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean.

It is precisely the political isolation and the crisis of the Turkish lira in 2018 - a crisis exacerbated by EU sanctions and US duties on steel and aluminium imports [6] - that have inevitably accelerated the process of Sino-Turkish unification, giving China the opportunity to step into the vacuum created by the rift between Turkey and its own NATO allies.

With the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding [7] in 2016, Ankara was incorporated into the Chinese project of the BRI, with all the advantages that come with it: first and foremost economic. In July 2018, China's state-owned Bank for Industry and Commerce came to the aid of the Turkish economy with a $3.6 billion loan [8]; in 2019, it was the Development Bank that granted a $200 million loan [9] to the Turkish Bank for Industry and Development.

The Sino-Turkish axis of the last decade has revolved around the trade expansion project launched by Beijing, where it has an ambivalent function. If, on the one hand, in the eyes of China, Turkey is a fundamental geostrategic pawn in the chessboard of the new Silk Road trade routes, on the other, the huge amounts of Chinese capital - aimed at financing numerous infrastructural works - have allowed Ankara both to recover from the monetary crisis and to undertake projects parallel to the BRI itself, regaining the regional influence that had partly waned during the economic crisis. In this perspective, the completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway, an infrastructural component of the Turkish Middle Corridor project [10] - supported by China - could, in the long run, make Ankara the main Sino-European commercial hub, coming to compete with both the BTK corridors. Most of the land trade between China and Europe currently passes through these corridors: the northern one (Trans-Siberian line) and the southern one through Iran. The BTK, which today guarantees the mobility of more than a million passengers and the transport of 6.5 million tonnes of goods a year [11], has a dual significance: on the one hand, geostrategic, as it bypasses US sanctions against Tehran, and on the other, logistical, as it would reduce travel time between Beijing and Istanbul to just 12 days [12], compared with 30 days for the northern corridor.

Ultimately, the Covid-19 pandemic has helped to give Ankara an increasingly ancillary role in relations with the People's Republic. Turkey, in fact, is among those countries that have benefited from what has been defined as the "Health Silk Road" diplomacy[13], i.e. the support network set up in record time by Beijing - sending medical teams, health devices and, not least, the Sinovac vaccine - to meet the needs of those countries that fall within its strategic and economic plans.


[1] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8145451.stm

[2] https://edition.cnn.com/2019/07/05/asia/turkey-china-uyghur-erdogan-intl-hnk/index.html

[3] https://www.voanews.com/europe/turkish-opposition-challenge-erdogan-over-uighur-silence

[4] https://www.uyghurcongress.org/en/uyghurs-in-turkey-face-an-uncertain-future-as-ankara-considers-the-fate-of-its-extradition-agreement-with-beijing/

[5] https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1864534.shtml

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/us/politics/trump-turkey-tariffs-currency.html

[7] https://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey_s-commercial-and-economic-relations-with-china.en.mfa

[8] https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/China-money-flows-into-Turkey-as-crisis-creates-opening

[9] https://www.tskb.com.tr/web/307-4340-1-1/tskb-site-en/en-hakkimizda/tskbden-haberler-en/china-development-bank-extends-usd-200-million-loan-to-tskb

[10] https://middlecorridor.com/en

[11] Secondo le stime del Middle East Institute, la BTK, nei prossimi anni, incrementerà la capienza annua portando a 3 milioni il numero dei passeggeri e 17 milioni le tonnellate di merci, https://www.mei.edu/publications/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-and-turkeys-middle-corridor-question-compatibility#_ftn4

[12] https://www.dailysabah.com/business/2019/11/06/first-train-from-china-to-europe-makes-silk-railway-dream-come-true-in-turkey

[13] https://www.kas.de/documents/282499/282548/MDS_China+Health+Silk+Road+Diplomacy.pdf/


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  • L'Autore

    Davide Shahhosseini

    Nato a Milano nel 1989, si è laureato nel 2019 al corso di laurea magistrale in "Politiche Europee e Internazionali" presso l'Università Cattolica di Milano, dopo aver conseguito la laurea “brevis” in "Organizzazioni Internazionali e Istituzioni Europee" presso l'Università degli Studi di Milano nel 2017.

    Dopo tre esperienze di vita all'estero tra Inghilterra, Turchia e Colombia, le quali gli hanno permesso di consolidare il suo interesse per le relazioni internazionali e l'interazione con le altre culture, decide di ritornare in Italia e dedicarsi a quella passione che, tra le diverse, si è sempre contraddistinta per l'ambizione che ne persegue: raccontare la verità attraverso la scrittura.

    Decide di unirsi a Mondo Internazionale, in quanto vede in questa giovane e ambiziosa associazione, una grande opportunità per convertire la passione di scrivere in un punto di inizio per il raggiungimento dei suoi obiettivi professionali.

    Attualmente ricopre il ruolo di author per le aree tematiche di "America Latina", "Sicurezza Internazionale" e per "Framing the World".




    Born in Milan in 1989. In 2019 he completed the Master's degree program in "European and International Politics" at the Università Cattolica of Milan, after having obtained a Bachelor's degree in "International Organizations and European Institutions" at the Università degli Studi in 2017.

    After three life and work experiences abroad in England, Turkey and Colombia, through which he had the opportunity to consolidate his interest towards international relations field, he decided to go back to Italy and devote himself to that passion which, among the many, has always stood out for its ambition: explaning the facts throughout research and objectivity.

    He joined Mondo Internazionale, as he saw this young and ambitious association as a great opportunity to turn his passion for writing into a starting point for achieving his professional aims.

    Currently he is author for the thematic areas of "Latin America", "International Security" and "Framing the World".

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Turkey Uighurs Belt and Road Initiative Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

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