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Erdogan's Turkey is a high-risk partner

Frank Sieren / actJuly 24, 2016

Turkey is an important bridge to Europe for China. The countries cooperate closely despite strained relations over China's Uighur minority. The recent coup attempt came at an inopportune moment, DW's Frank Sieren writes.

Xi Jinping China Recep Tayyip Erdogan Türkei Treffen Peking
Image: Reuters/N. Han Guan

China's government released its first statement the day after the coup attempt in Turkey. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he hoped that Turkey's government would restore order as soon as possible. The statement was only made when it was clear that this would indeed happen. If the coup had been successful, it might have taken years before bilateral relations could be restored to their current level. Chinese President Xi Jinping (right in photo) and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left), get on well.

As a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and Central Asia, Turkey is strategically important for China's new Silk Road project. Beijing has been seeking partners and making investments along the ancient trade route for months. Istanbul plays an important role in Beijing's economic plans. It is not surprising that China is investing in Turkey's infrastructure and banking on stability so that it secures long-term access to the region and ensures a market for its goods.

In 2014, a Chinese-Turkish consortium built a $4.1 billion rail link between Ankara and Istanbul. The plan is to pump another $45 billion (41 billion euros) into a 10,000-kilometer (6,000-mile) high-speed rail link largely built by Chinese companies by 2023. At the most recent G20 summit in Beijing, the Chinese and Turkish energy ministers agreed to boost their cooperation on nuclear technology. This will be mutually beneficial, as China will give Turkey an insight into its research and will itself build the power stations in Turkey, thus keeping out any competitors. (France is the only European manufacturer of nuclear power stations.)

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 yearsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl

One strain on the relationship has been the situation with Uighurs in China's autonomous Xinjiang region. In the past, Erdogan has felt compelled to stand by the Turkic-speaking mostly Muslim Uighurs, whom Chinese officials accuse of separatism and terrorism. Uighurs and their allies have accused the government of cultural, political and religious repression.

Turkey and China have both felt the menace of the "Islamic State." On his trip to Beijing last year, Erdogan guaranteed his hosts that he and his government would act against any activity in Turkey that could harm China. However, the question that people in Beijing are asking themselves is how much this guarantee is worth if Erdogan's own army rises up against him: How much stability can this president really guarantee? China's confidence in Erdogan has been dented. The government will likely become more cautious.