Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu arrived in China today for the first visit by a Turkish PM in nearly three decades, with the aim of increasing trade and business ties including sealing the deal with China for it to build Turkey’s second nuclear power plant (the first is being built by Russia). A stronger relationship with China is undoubtedly good for Turkey’s economy and Chinese investment in Turkey will help to maintain Turkish growth, particularly given the fears of a hard landing raised by Turkish economic performance in the last quarter of 2011, which dropped off considerably from the first three quarters. Closer ties with China will, however, present a different sort of problem related to Turkey’s growing influence in global politics.
Sunday’s article in Zaman about Erdoğan’s visit to Xinjiang noted Turkey’s hard line against Muslim Uyghur separatists and Turkish support for Chinese territorial integrity. This in some sense a difficult position for Turkey to take given the large contingent of Turkish Uyghurs, but in another sense it is reminiscent of Turkey’s position on its Kurdish population, as Turkey too wants to avoid a separate Kurdistan at all costs and thus is sympathetic to Beijing’s position. On other high profile issues involving the global community, however, China and Turkey are moving in separate directions. China has been following Russia’s lead in blocking a stronger international response led by the U.N. to the fighting in Syria, which puts it directly at odds with Erdoğan’s call for Assad to leave and his condemnation of the U.N. for not doing more to protect civilians from Assad’s brutality. There is virtually no chance of China coming along to Turkey’s position given China’s championing of the principle of absolute sovereignty and opposing all interventions on humanitarian grounds, which is one of the bedrocks of Chinese foreign policy. On Iran, Turkey seems to be slowly moving closer to the West’s position of suspecting that Iran’s nuclear program is not solely a civilian one, and this too puts it at odds with China.
For the Turkey of ten years ago, these differences with China would not matter. Turkey would have been happy to discuss little but increased trade and economic opportunities and left it at that. The Turkey of 2012 though has ambitions to be a global power, and has inserted itself quite starkly into the forefront of both the Syrian and Iranian issues. In addition, President Gül last week announced a new Turkish defense doctrine of being a “virtuous power,” and subsuming humanitarian issues in Syria or possible nuclear intransigence in Iran to new opportunities for Turkish business presents a conflict with this idea of incorporating justice and human values into foreign policy. This is a tough balancing act for Turkey to pull off, and it is one instantly familiar to anyone who has studied American foreign policy in the post-WWII era. The U.S. often finds its values and its interests at odds, and the trick is finding a way to reconcile the two and emerge with a foreign policy that advances the latter without entirely selling out the former. As Turkey becomes a larger and more responsible geopolitical player, it will find itself running into this problem with increasing regularity, and it will be interesting to see if Davutoğlu and Gül, who both often speak in the language of justice and virtue with regards to foreign policy, continue pushing these ideas over the next decade as Turkey faces an array of contradictions that it has largely avoided in the past. These next few days in China will particularly bear watching to see how Erdoğan and Davutoğlu reconcile their desire to gain Chinese cooperation on Syria with their push for Chinese investment in Turkey and a larger market for Turkish manufacturing.