Can China and Turkey Build a New Silk Road?

By Anna Beth Keim & Sulmaan Khan

In a dark room in Istanbul's Topkap Palace Museum, four terracotta warriors stare at visitors. Part of The Treasures of China" exhibit, they're accompanied by jade carvings, pottery and other artwork on loan from the Forbidden City and other Chinese museums. On the wall, a large map depicts the historic Asian trading routes known as the Silk Road. "The ancient Silk Road," notes the introduction on another wall, was "a golden bridge across Asia and Europe" for more than 1,000 years, with "China as the starting point and Turkey as the terminal."

The exhibit is part of Turkey's 2012 cultural year of China in Turkey, but there's more to this exchange than nostalgia and cultural bonhomie. It's part of a broader project: the rejuvenation of a new geostrategic Sino-Turkish relationship harkening back to the age of the Silk Road network.

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The new Silk Road has potential for shaping Eurasia's future, yet is more a gleam in the eye than a vision fulfilled. Turkey's NATO ties and entanglement with ethnic brethren Uyghurs in China's Xinjiang province could also pose complications.

Relations between China and Turkey, NATO's easternmost member, began to improve in 1971, when Turkey recognized the People's Republic of China, yet only recently, with China's economic rise and Turkey's growing regional clout has the relationship taken on global significance. In 2010, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao made a landmark visit to Ankara during which the two sides agreed to strategic cooperative relations.

The first imperative for cooperation is commercial. Wen and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aimed to boost bilateral trade to $100 billion by 2020. Xi Jinping, then heir-apparent and now paramount leader of China, reaffirmed the commitment when visiting Turkey in 2012. Much of this new traffic could travel overland paths that overlap with the old Silk Roads, though this time with trains, not camels. Though each enjoys access to maritime trade routes, China and Turkey both have vast inland territories which could benefit from overland trade. In a recent interview with Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman, Turkish Customs and Trade Minister Hayati Yazıcı painted a glowing picture of how new transport infrastructure and energy corridors could spur trade flows across the Silk Road, bringing prosperity to all. Overland trade - especially if Turkish attempts to convince other Silk Road countries Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia Federation, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistann to simplify customs and border crossings prove successful - could reduce Turkey's trade deficit with China and serve Beijing's goal of developing growth in landlocked Chinese territories like Xinjiang, where Beijing is encouraging Turkish businesses to provide textiles and food processing, among other goods.

Chinese investment in Turkey is rising, too. A state-owned Chinese enterprise, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, is building a high-speed railway linking Ankara and Istanbul. Discussions on the construction of another railway connecting eastern and western Turkey are underway. If approved, the project would cost $35 billion, with Beijing providing $30 billion in loans. This is not altruism. With plans to connect China and Turkey by rail underway, a line running across Turkey could give China swift connections all the way to London. The new Silk Road would be the grandest stretch of a global trade highway.

China and Turkey share a wariness of American power. Despite Turkey's security ties to the US, popular opinion in the country sees America as an oppressive superpower. Implicit in Wen's expressed desire to work with Turkey in multilateral forums to safeguard the interests of developing countries was a portrayal of the US as a unilateral cowboy, opposed to the interests of developing countries. Joint military exercises between China and Turkey heralded Wen's visit, and China and Turkey could counter American power. It would be difficult for Washington to isolate Iran economically, to take one example, given that both Turkey and China envision any new Silk Road including that country.

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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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