China and Turkey Reprise the Silk Road

By Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen

First published in the South China Morning Post April 23, 2012

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent visit to Urumqi, Xinjiang, was a dramatic turnaround for a leader who just over two years ago had characterised the Chinese response to riots in the same city as “simply put, a genocide”. Now he has shifted his pose, reaffirming “the one-China policy” and speaking in Shanghai of the “cultural similarities” between the two countries. Engendered by an increasingly eastern-facing Turkish posture, this shift highlights a Eurasian axis that invites closer attention.

As two developing countries with good manufacturing capacity and large labour forces, China and Turkey were long able to grow independently of one another. Both were export-driven economies, but they did not directly compete for markets.

Where they did meet on the international stage, there was often tension. This was bound up with Erdogan’s tendency to favour the Uygur side of China’s ethnic quagmire in Xinjiang.

But times change. Earlier this year, Chinese leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping stopped off in Turkey, and now Erdogan has become the first Turkish head of state to visit China in 27 years. Behind this is a recognition that trade between the two nations is picking up, and, increasingly, their global interests align.

Both are uncharacteristically active in diplomacy in the current Iranian and Syrian stand-offs. But more interesting is China’s eagerness to encourage Turkish investment in Xinjiang – very surprising given Erdogan’s previous statements.

A main rationale behind this shift is recognition of the complementary roles the two powers play in Central Asia. Economic development, and the political stability it produces, is one of China’s main goals in the region. This is seen as essential to ensuring future tranquility in Xinjiang. Turkey contributes to that, with aid and educational programmes to Central Asia.

Chinese state-owned enterprises are busy constructing the components of a so-called Eurasian Land Bridge across the region, an East-West network of road, rail and other trade infrastructure. Turkish trucking, construction companies and traders in the region will be some of the first to reap its benefits.

Perhaps at some point, Chinese and Turkish interests will end up awkwardly rubbing up against each other, but, for the moment, the two fastest growing economies in Eurasia are reprising their historical roles as the two ends of the fabled Silk Road.

Raffaello Pantucci is a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West. Their joint research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com

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