China, Turkey seek bridge over troubled waters of Mideast

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (right) shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu during their meeting in Beijing on August 3, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Roman Pilipey/Pool

Turkey appears to have forged an epic bilateral security agreement with China. Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, briefed reporters in Beijing on Thursday while on a state visit to China. He categorically stated that any security threat to China would be regarded as a threat to Turkey. Now, that’s what you call geopolitics at its very best.

My apologies for disrupting the euphoria, but here’s a brief history lesson. When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, Turkey vehemently opposed recognition of communist China, and instead forged bilateral ties with the Nationalist government that had limited itself to the island of Taiwan. Then came the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. When Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it became all too apparent that goodwill with Beijing wasn’t being contemplated in Ankara. The relationship between the two countries remained strained until 1971, when Turkey officially recognized the PRC.

It was in the 1980s when diplomatic exchanges and economic coordination between the two countries started to peak. But one issue disrupted the newly envisaged bilateral relationship: the Uyghurs. The same issue seems to have headlined the Turkish foreign minister’s press conference in Beijing. Turkey will make sure not to allow any sort of “anti-China activity inside Turkey or territory controlled by Turkey”, Cavusoglu said. The reference, of course, was to the Uyghur community in China.

It is important to note that Uyghurs are believed to have linguistic and cultural ties with Turkic people. Thousands of Uyghurs have reportedly fled China to find refuge in Turkey over the past few years. Alarmingly, many (the number has been estimated as high as 5,000) have joined terrorist outfits such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and offshoots like al-Nusra and other smaller outfits in the Levant.

Turkey has also agreed to designate the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as an international terrorist group. The movement is run primarily by Uyghur separatists who have established ties with al-Qaeda. Moreover, despite the Turkish affinity with the Uyghur community, the Turkish government is eyeing restricting negative reporting on this issue, just to appease the Chinese.

Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, stated during the joint press conference that “deepening our collaboration on anti-terror and security is the most central part” of China’s relationship with Turkey. But hang on. Turkey, China and counterterrorism cooperation – can all of this co-exist?

Since the liberation of Mosul, all eyes have been on Raqqa. ISIS is supposedly having a hard time, and the noose has been tightened. But who will fight whom remains the question. China backs Bashar al-Assad to get the job done. Turkey, however, regards the Syrian president as a bête noire. The two countries are at opposite ends in terms of fighting the terrorists in the Middle East. Where and how, one may ask, has the idea of counterterrorist cooperation been conceived?

Here’s another, much more significant, roadblock. In March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on an official visit to China. Elaborating on the relationship between Israel and China, he stated that the cooperation between the two countries was a “marriage made in heaven”.

Israel was the first country in the Middle East to recognize the PRC. Israel, in addition to the United States and the European Union, enjoys a substantial trade relationship with China. Interestingly, Israel’s two strategically placed ports, Ashdod and Eilat, are vital for China’s Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East.

Chinese investors have recently poured large sums of money into Israel’s economy. In addition to ventures by Internet giants such as Alibaba and Baidu, Bright Foods, a Chinese food company, has spent in excess of US$1 billion in Israel. Also, Israel is the largest supplier of agricultural technology to China. Bilateral cooperation and trade in lieu of agriculture is slated to reach $450 million within the next two or three years.

This is something that just wouldn’t go down well with Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan needs to understand this. From a $600 billion trade deal with Iran to investment to the tune of $45 billion for the establishment of Egypt’s new capital city, China has plans for every country in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

China and Turkey are fishing together in the troubled waters of the Middle East. Will they succeed? It’s highly unlikely that they will. There are too many roadblocks, too many hurdles for them to sail through together unscathed.

Economic cooperation, rather than security agreements, might very well do the trick for Turkey. It will make sure to bring the Chinese investment home, and forget about geopolitics – for the time being, of course. Money talks, after all.

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