The Chinese government made its move this week to find a place in the Turkish economy amid the lira currency’s ongoing downfall.
According to Beijing, Foreign Minister Wang Yi discussed greater economic ties with his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on Saturday, and the latter agreed that Turkey would “more actively” participate in the Chinese One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.
Turkey’s economy, already having taken significant damage following Islamic State attacks and a failed coup in 2016, has continued to decline this year as the United States expands sanctions on Ankara.
Washington sanctioned high-ranking Turkish ministers and has begun limiting trade with Turkey in protest of the ongoing arrest of Pastor Andrew Brunson, an American who preached the Gospel in Izmir, Turkey, for decades before being arrested in the aftermath of the failed coup in 2016. American authorities assert that Turkish prosecutors have not provided any evidence that Brunson is guilty of any crime, but President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has rejected calls for his release.
With the Turkish economy in jeopardy, Erdoğan’s administration appears to be turning to China for help.
The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported on Sunday that the two foreign ministers discussed further economic cooperation and that Wang asserted that China is supporting Turkey’s attempts to secure “national security, stability and economy.” Wang also noted that the Chinese leadership has confidence that, under Erdoğan, Turkey “will overcome their temporary difficulties, adding that China believes Turkey will develop in a stable way.”
“We are expecting to deepen cooperation based on mutual interests with China. We will join the ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative more actively,” Çavuşoğlu reportedly said in response, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
“One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) is a global infrastructure program that China alleges is intended to foster greater interconnectivity around the world by reconstructing the ancient Silk Road that bound Europe economically to Asia.
While the core intent of OBOR is to build ports, harbors, roads, and railways to connect Beijing to Western Europe, it consists of both the Silk Road Economic Belt and what China calls the “Maritime Silk Road,” which is the South China Sea. Through building harbors around the Indian Ocean, China claims it aspires to connect Africa to the Asian and European markets as well. Chinese officials have also insisted that Latin America has a role to play in OBOR, alleging that, as Spain once colonized the Philippines, Latin America is “traditionally” a part of the ancient Silk Road.
Idealistic as the theoretical aspirations of the project may be, the practical reality of OBOR is that China is heavily indebting developing nations by promising an influx of jobs to build the transportation hubs it promises. Handing these ill-equipped nations a predatory loan, China then fails to deliver on the jobs, instead shipping in Chinese workers. The projects end up costing far more than the nation can afford, forcing the country to hand the completed project to Chinese control. China has already seized a port in this way in Sri Lanka, and concerns are growing for projects in Kenya and Djibouti, which lies near the Arabian peninsula.
In the South China Sea, OBOR has manifested itself through the illegal seizure of territories belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia, where China has begun developing extensive military assets, allegedly necessary to protect trade there.
Turkey is the most strategically placed of the nations that straddle Europe and Asia, making it a prime target for the OBOR program. China’s state publication the Global Times went out of its way to make this argument on Monday, suggesting that allowing China to develop more projects on Turkish soil could be a good way for Ankara to negate the effects of its currently rough economic situation with the United States.
“Judging from the phone call between Wang and Cavusoglu, Beijing responded positively to Ankara’s wish to strengthen strategic communication. China and Turkey have new opportunities to deepen cooperation, especially with respect to the Belt and Road initiative,” the newspaper noted. “China and Turkey have no major disputes. … Turkey is facing realistic challenges, some of which are shared by China as well. Beijing should try to be partners with Ankara, as it is a beneficial choice.”
The Global Times spends much of its time addressing ethnic Chinese who do not like the idea of working with Turkey, particularly because it is a Muslim country now run by an Islamist president who has not hesitated to reprimand China for its repression of Islamic practices. China began banning public fasting during the Ramadan holiday in westernmost Xinjiang province in 2015. Xinjiang is home to most of China’s ethnic Uighur minority, who are a Turkic people and speak a Turkic language. Due to their ties to the Turkish people, Ankara loudly protested their repression at the time.
The Global Times claims that Chinese people “believe that among all the Middle East countries, Turkey has caused China the most trouble during the last 50 years,” largely because of their stance on the Uighur minority. “Some elements in Turkey encouraged separatist sentiment, helped some radicals from Xinjiang illicitly enter the Middle East, and made irresponsible remarks on the ethnic policy in Xinjiang,” it claims.
The solution, the state newspaper concludes, is manipulating Turkish politics to silence those who object to repression of religion in China.
“Shaping Turkey as China’s strategic partner can prevent Ankara from intervening in Xinjiang. An active policy toward Turkey should be reciprocal,” it asserts.
For now, the move appears to be working. In anticipation of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, Beijing has expanded its “political re-education camps” in Xinjiang, torture centers where devout Muslims are forced to endure communist propaganda, eat pork, and disavow their faith or face even more brutal measures. Estimates suggest that up to one million people are being contained in these “re-education camps” without being charged with any crime.
The Turkish government has yet to condemn these reports, though the state-run Anadolu Agency did publish a story on the matter this week.