Turkish leader 'will focus on China ties'

He will try to boost relations during visit and will likely sidestep Uighur issues: Analysts

Despite widespread Turkish anger over China's treatment of Xinjiang Uighurs, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to sidestep the issue during a mission to deepen ties with Beijing later this month.

Mr Erdogan, whose country is holding the rotating G-20 presidency, is flying to China in preparation for a G-20 summit in the southern Turkish resort of Antalya in November, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said last week. Analysts say the trip, expected to begin on July 28, will be a chance for Mr Erdogan to cast himself as a senior international leader and to call for closer ties between Ankara and Beijing.

"The visit to China is a good opportunity for him to show himself as an important leader of a regional power," said Mr Behlul Ozkan, a political scientist at Istanbul's Marmara University. "Close relations with China are to demonstrate Turkey's strengthened self-confidence."

But recent attacks directed against Chinese interests in Turkey have complicated matters. The violent protests in Istanbul, targeting the Chinese consulate, a Chinese restaurant and a group of Korean tourists that attackers mistakenly believed to be Chinese, came after reports surfaced saying China had banned fasting for Uighur Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

Mr Erdogan condemned the attacks as "provocative", while the official Anadolu news agency ran a story from Xinjiang saying there was no pressure on Muslims there.

In recent years, Turkey and Mr Erdogan have criticised Beijing overtreatment of the Uighurs, a Turkic people that many Muslim Turks feel close to. On his first China trip in 2012, Mr Erdogan began with a visit to Xinjiang, but there is no indication that he do so this time.

In 2009, Mr Erdogan angered Chinese leaders by accusing Beijing of committing "genocide" in Xinjiang.

Mr Ali Akkemik, an economist at Kadir Has University specialising in East Asia, said Beijing was wary of Turkey's approach. "China is concerned about Turkey's meddling in the Uighur issue," Mr Akkemik told The Straits Times. "Recent incidents will impact relations, there will be less tourists from China."

Given that sensitivity, Mr Erdogan "is not going to make a big deal out of this", said Mr Ozkan of Marmara University.

Instead, Mr Erdogan is likely to push for closer economic ties. Turkey has been stuck with a huge deficit in its trade with China, importing about US$25 billion (S$34.2 billion) in goods last year, while exports stayed at US$2.8 billion.

Mr Akkemik said Turkey depended on so-called intermediate products such as plastics and industrial chemicals from China, which had "become one of the most important partners for the Turkish economy to survive". He added that it was difficult for Turkey to address the imbalance, because the country lacks natural resources and has no big high-tech export sector.

Meanwhile, Turkey is looking for more Chinese investment. In May, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China bought Turkey's Tekstilbank for about US$250 million.

Mr Ozkan said some aspects of Turkey's China policy were more about giving messages to Ankara's traditional partners in the West.

Mr Erdogan has spoken publicly about a possible application by Turkey to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation while ending its long-standing bid to join the European Union. But he has not followed through.

"The idea behind this is to increase Turkey's bargaining position towards the West," Mr Ozkan said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2015, with the headline 'Turkish leader 'will focus on China ties''. Print Edition | Subscribe