Can China and Turkey Build a New Silk Road?

By Anna Beth Keim & Sulmaan Khan
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One multilateral forum where Ankara and Beijing might cooperate is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Central Asian pact comprising China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The SCO has demanded that external - read American - influence leave the region. Turkey, currently a SCO dialogue partner, seeks full membership - natural considering its linguistic, cultural and religious ties to the Central Asian states. The SCO also offers Turkey energy links with resource-rich Central Asian countries and Russia.

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In an ideal world, a modern Silk Road would usher China and Turkey into a new era of prosperity. The countries in between would thrive on swift trains bearing goods, the oil and gas flowing freely as the investors. And they could tell imperialist powers with one voice: "Back off."

But there are roadblocks. One of China's goals in the SCO has been to thwart dissident Uyghurs in Central Asia. An ethnic group in Xinjiang, the Uyghurs are Turkic-speaking Muslims. But where Beijing sees Uyghur rebels undermining China's territorial integrity, Turks mourn their "religious brothers'" suffering at Chinese hands. A large number of Uyghurs have found refuge in Turkey; some burned the Chinese flag outside Xi Jinping's hotel during his visit. When Uyghur riots broke out in Xinjiang in 2009, Erdoğan declared Chinese policy "a kind of genocide." Erdoğan later tried to mollify Beijing, but the issue isn't fading.

Second, there is the question of how to deal with the US. Washington retains strong interests in Central Asia: Its own Silk Road policy aims to counter Russian influence in the region. China, wary of Russian power in Central Asia despite the SCO's united front, should be sympathetic. But it sees itself, not Russia, as America's target. For all its anti-Americanism, however, Turkey remains a NATO member. If it becomes a member of SCO, Turkey would be in the odd position of demanding that its military partner, the US, leave a geostrategically vital region. Ankara may not find it easy satisfying both Washington and Beijing.

No single issue crystallizes Ankara's dilemma as clearly as the Syrian crisis. As Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council defeated attempts at sanctions on Syria, the violence spilled into Turkey. Ankara, having already clapped its own sanctions on the Assad regime, turned to NATO for Patriot missiles and accompanying troops.

China remains intractably opposed to interference in Syria's internal affairs. Xinhua, China's official news agency, described Turkey's real motives for installing the Patriots as "grappling with Egypt for influence in the Middle East...deterring Kurdish armed forces at home... and getting on the good side of the EU and NATO."

Such suspicions might be overcome. But eagerness to travel the new Silk Road remains uncertain. Turkish traders, whatever their sympathy for their religious brothers, remain more eager to do business on China's east coast than in Xinjiang. A mere 97,000 Chinese tourists came to Turkey in 2011, compared with 900,000 to France. "The other European places are more famous - and people think this is still Asia," explained a young Chinese visitor at the Topkapı Palace.

States can promote friendship and cultural affection, but as with the original Silk Road network, relationships depend on people willing to travel. It will take more than a few terracotta warriors to blaze a path between Ankara and Beijing.

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Anna Beth Keim is a writer and a Mandarin-English translator. Sulmaan Khan is a writer and a historian of international relations. © 2013 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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