Skip to main content

Iran

Historical Background

Sino-Iranian relations can be traced back thousands of years through exchanges along the overland and maritime Silk Roads. Contemporary relations, however, have their origins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with ties established between Iran and the Republic of China (ROC) in 1922. After 1949, Iran continued to recognise the ROC in Taiwan over the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and no formal relationship existed between Tehran and Beijing for many years. Beginning in 1966, as Iran pursued a more independent foreign policy and Sino-Soviet competition intensified, the two sides began a slow process of rapprochement that ended in the establishment of official ties in 1971. While substantial relations never developed, China conducted one of the last official state visits to the Shah of Iran in 1978, which turned out to be a major diplomatic faux pas. Mao Zedong’s successor, Hua Guofeng, arrived a mere six months before the monarchy was toppled by the Islamic Revolution, at a time when throngs of angry protesters against the autocratic Shah’s regime were already lining the streets. For this reason, the Islamic Republic of Iran was initially cold towards China in 1979.

Despite anger over China’s support for the hated dictator, the need for military hardware after Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980 and Iran’s increasing international isolation throughout the Iran–Iraq War (1980–88) made cooperation with Beijing almost a necessity. Along with Washington and Moscow, China sold arms to both sides during the conflict, but still managed to maintain good relations with the Iranian Government by providing critical missile technology. China’s participation in the reconstruction of the country after the war enhanced this positive relationship. During the 1990s, China invested money and expertise in high-profile oil, mining, and infrastructure projects—most famously, the Tehran Metro system. Sino-Iranian trade at this time primarily focused on heavy industrial and military technology—notably, the sale of HY-2 Silkworm and C-801 anti-ship missiles, which caused significant tension with the United States. Oil also became an increasingly important commodity in this period. China was a net oil exporter until 1993 and, as demand for petroleum imports in China grew, so did China’s appetite for Iranian oil.

Trade and political ties continued to develop throughout the 2000s and early 2010s. The Chinese Communist Party had begun to prioritise ‘Going Out’ and supporting energy and mining projects globally under leaders like Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, in a precursor to the era of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). As the Iranian nuclear program came under intense pressure from Western governments, US and European companies began to withdraw from Iran. Chinese firms found opportunities in this withdrawal and participated in more significant infrastructure projects, including the development of Iranian gas and oilfields and important utilities projects. Sino-Iranian relations during this time were closely tied to Sino-American relations: in times of tension with the United States, China ramped up cooperation with Iran and, as tensions decreased, it often cancelled or reduced those deals under US pressure. Still, this was not enough to throttle the development of Iran–China relations entirely and, by 2007, China had emerged as Iran’s top trade partner and, over time, as an important destination for its oil exports despite US sanctions.

In the past decade, trade has become the key driver of Sino-Iranian relations, as Iran tried to weather the economic storm brought on by the United States’ ‘maximum pressure’ campaign and China sought partners for its newly inaugurated BRI. Bilateral trade ties exploded from 5.6 billion USD in 2003 to a high of 51.8 billion USD in 2014, and Iran has been the target of several high-profile state visits, including one by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016, when he announced intentions to increase bilateral trade to 600 billion USD by 2026. China also continues to buy Iranian oil in violation of US sanctions. But despite these lofty goals, trade and investment have declined in the face of mounting US economic and political pressure, among other issues, especially since the reimposition of sanctions in 2018.

BRI Status

When the BRI was first announced in 2013, Iran–China trade and investment ties were on the decline, largely due to controversies and sanctions related to the Iranian nuclear program. By 2014, the situation had begun to create opportunities for Chinese companies, which started to replace Western companies that had pulled out due to the political situation. Iran also joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a founding member in 2015. Once the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), began in 2016, which led to an easing of tensions and reduced sanctions, China took more direct steps to negotiate a comprehensive plan for the advancement of the BRI in Iran. A flurry of memorandums of understanding (MoUs) were signed in 2016 and President Xi made a high-profile visit to promote trade ties, during which he directly linked Iran to the BRI in his speeches. In 2017, China’s CITIC Group agreed to provide a credit line of 10 billion USD to support water management, energy, environment, and transport projects in Iran.

The resumption of sanctions in 2018 after the unilateral cancellation of the JCPOA by the United States slowed progress considerably, but negotiations culminated in the signing of the high-profile 25-Year Iran–China Strategic Cooperation Agreement in 2021, which many analysts predicted would lead to investment worth 400 billion USD over that period—although there is no officially confirmed source for this figure. Iran subsequently joined the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2021. With the entry of Syria into the BRI framework and an uptick in Chinese gas and oil investment in Iraq, Iran has the potential to become a major hub for oil, gas, and goods transfers from China to the Mediterranean and beyond. Despite these predictions and Iran’s deeper integration into the BRI system, Iran–China investment seems to have fallen rather than grown in the period since the signing of the 25-year agreement.

Current Economic Relations

China has emerged as Iran’s top trading partner, main oil customer, and primary supplier of industrial manufacturing products. Beijing is also an important source of investment and foreign exchange revenue through the sale of oil, especially as it is the only government willing to purchase a significant amount of Iranian oil in defiance of US sanctions. Sino-Iranian economic relations must, however, be considered in the context of China’s relationship with other countries in the region and, in comparison, the rate of growth, level of investment, and depth of economic cooperation are either typical or, in many cases, lagging. China plays an outsized role in the Iranian economy mostly due to Iran’s international isolation and lack of alternative partners, which can create opportunities but also deter investment.

Trade: As Iran’s top trading partner, China is an important source of cheap consumer items and household goods. Despite substantial progress over the long term, there has been a recent trend of decline and stagnation. After peaking at about 51 billion USD in 2014, by 2019, Sino-Iranian bilateral trade was valued at about 19 billion USD, and fell further to 14.8 billion USD in 2021. The value of the oil trade is trickier to calculate, as it is officially reported as zero, but even the most aggressive estimates only claim about 38 billion USD in clandestine purchases since the beginning of 2021. This puts Iran on par with other oil-exporting states in the region, and substantially behind China’s main oil suppliers like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iraq, and Oman. Oil purchases have also varied considerably from year to year and even month to month, as China responds to various political and economic pressures. In the past five years, exports have fallen by 11% per annum overall, reflecting a trend in which Iranian companies returned to European suppliers after the JCPOA due to the preference of Iranian consumers for Western goods. Today, Chinese exports are increasingly focused on technologically advanced equipment, vehicles, and electronics. Vehicle and heavy industrial equipment exports especially have grown substantially, with China now surpassing the European Union as the main source of both, but the growth of Chinese exports in these areas has also slowed substantially in recent years.

Investment: China is an important source of foreign direct investment​​ (FDI) in Iranian transportation, telecommunications, heavy industrial, and natural resource development projects. Chinese FDI in Iran has increased significantly in absolute terms, from 468 million USD in 2004 to 3.23 billion USD in 2018, and continues to flow at a time when other sources of FDI, especially in the European Union and the United States, are deterred or restricted by sanctions. Most investment projects have focused on energy, from power plants to gas and oilfield developments. Major projects include the development of the Azadegan oilfields, which has been led by the Chinese National Petroleum Company (CNPC) since 2012, and the Yadavaran oilfields, where Sinopec has made significant investment. CNPC was also involved in the development of the South Pars natural gas field, but the project has repeatedly run into issues negotiating with the National Iranian Oil Company.

Investment has fallen considerably since the reimposition of sanctions in 2018. While some projects continue, overall, Iran has experienced a slowing and stagnation of Chinese FDI since 2018, with only 3 billion USD in investment in 2021—much lower than other Gulf countries in the same period and substantially lower than the predicted amounts. While the 25-Year Strategic Cooperation Agreement has called for increased investment in these key areas, it included no binding agreements, and such investment has not yet materialised.

Aid and Other Finance: Official Chinese foreign aid is difficult to come by, and the line between aid and loans is often blurry. For example, China has provided loans and technical knowhow for projects in Iran that improve the quality of life of Iranian citizens, which the country otherwise lacked the capacity or capital to complete, including the Taleghan water conservation project and the creation and expansion of the Tehran Metro. Beijing also has a long history of providing charitable aid to the Red Lion and Sun Society via the Chinese Red Cross in the wake of natural disasters, especially earthquakes, as it did after major earthquakes in 2002 and 2017, for example.

Chinese technology and willingness to provide advanced systems have been key to the development of numerous Iranian industries. This is especially true in defence, where weapons acquired from China have become valuable sources of military technology, which Iran has often reverse-engineered and used to produce its own native variants, especially missiles. China is also a key supporter of the expansion of Iran’s internet censorship and social surveillance capacity, reportedly providing much of the technology for sophisticated internet monitoring and the development of the National Information Network, a heavily controlled intranet system designed as an alternative to the internet for domestic use. Chinese companies also may have provided cameras with facial-recognition technology to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that are being deployed during the unrest following the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini in September 2022 to identify protestors, though these reports are unconfirmed.

Key Controversies

Despite Tehran’s enthusiasm for Chinese capital, technology, and diplomatic support, Sino-Iranian relations remain a contentious topic with the Iranian public. For many, economic relations with China mean more competition from Chinese products and businesses. Chinese goods are widely considered to be of inferior quality, and the subject can stir strong emotions about standards of living. Controversies also have arisen over China’s support for Iran’s internet censorship efforts, with some newspapers like the reformist Etemad dubbing further restrictions on access ‘Chinese-style internet filtering’. Cooperation with China can also arouse populist fears fuelled by the lack of transparency surrounding negotiations and commitments. Fears of becoming overly dependent on China are sometimes expressed in exaggeration and rumour, including inaccurate reports that China would purchase the Iranian island of Kish, station 5,000 troops in Iran, and dump radioactive waste in its desert, which spread on social media when a draft of the 25-year agreement was leaked in the summer of 2020. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (in office from 2005 to 2013) has been vocal in his criticism of the secret nature of these talks, even though his own government engaged in similar ventures.

Behind the veneer of official enthusiasm, Iran–China relations have not always proceeded smoothly. On several occasions, China has cancelled its commitments to Iran in the face of US pressure and out of a desire to be seen as a ‘responsible stakeholder’ on nuclear proliferation, as it did in 1997 when it abandoned efforts to build Iran’s nuclear power industry and cancelled the sale of two 300-megawatt power plants. This has led to a perception that China is a fair-weather friend among both Western analysts and Iranians critical of closer relations. It is true that China balances its alliance with Iran against the need for smooth relations with the West and Iran’s neighbours, many of whom are hostile, and against the image it wishes to project internationally. For their part, Chinese academics, policymakers, and businesspeople are also often hesitant to fully commit to Iran. Chinese businesses have historically had trouble dealing with the Iranian Government and have repeatedly faced their own abrogated contracts and abrupt cancellations. One such example was when the National Iranian Oil Company suspended a CNPC contract to develop the North Pars natural gas field in 2011, in part due to perceptions that the Chinese company was insufficiently committed to the development of the South Pars field that was already under way. CNPC pulled out entirely in 2019 under US pressure. Other issues include fears of being caught up in legal difficulties due to the sanctions, especially after the arrest of Huawei chief financial executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018 on charges related to evading those sanctions. The subject of closer Iran–China relations is also controversial with the Western media, which often portrays the two as part of a ‘new axis of evil’ that seeks to oppose or overthrow the US-led global security order. The recent 25-year agreement elicited an especially strong response in both the US press and the US Government, with news outlets uncritically repeating unconfirmed reports of a 400-billion-USD investment. Despite the depiction of Sino-Iranian relations in the press, evidencepoints to a substantially more limited relationship in practice, and does not support the idea that massive investment is forthcoming.

In-Depth Sources

Azad, Shirzad. 2017. Iran and China: A New Approach to their Bilateral Relations. Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Lexington Books.

Ehteshami, Anoushirvan. 2022. ‘Asianisation of Asia: Chinese–Iranian Relations in Perspective.’ Asian Affairs 53(1): 8–27.

Figueroa, William. 2022a. ‘China and the Iranian Revolution: New Perspectives on Sino-Iranian Relations, 1965–1979.’ Asian Affairs 53(1): 106–23.

Figueroa, William. 2022b. ‘Performative Diplomacy: Iran–Republic of China Relations, 1920–1949.’ Iranian Studies 55(2): 379–403.

Garver, John. 2006. China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post-Imperial World. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

Green, Will and Taylore Roth. 2021. ‘China–Iran Relations: A Limited but Enduring Strategic Partnership.’ USCC Staff Research Report, 28 June. Washington, DC: US–China Economic and Security Review Commission. Link.

Greer, Lucille and Esfandyar Batmanghelidj. 2020. Last among equals: The China–Iran partnership in a regional context. Occasional Paper Series, No. 38, September. Washington, DC: Wilson Center. Link.

Harold, Scott W. and Alireza Nader. 2012. China and Iran: Economic, political, and military relations. Occasional Paper OP-351-CMEPP. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation. Link.

Hongda, Fan. 2022. ‘China–Iran Relations from the Perspective of Tehran’s Look East Approach.’ Asian Affairs 53(1): 51–67.

Mackenzie, Peter. 2010. A Closer Look at China–Iran Relations: Roundtable Report. September. Arlington, VA: CNA China Studies. Link.

Saraswat, Deepika. 2022. ‘Iran’s Ties with China: Synergising Geoconomic Strategies.’ Case Analysis, 7 July. Al Dhaayen, Qatar: Arab Center for Research & Policy Studies. Link.

Scita, Jacopo. 2022. ‘China–Iran Relations through the Prism of Sanctions.’ Asian Affairs 53(1): 87–105.

Shariatinia, Mohsen. 2011. ‘Iran–China Relations: An Overview of Critical Factors.’ Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs 1(4): 57–85.

Theobald, Simon. 2020. ‘“We Deserve Better”: Ideologies of Deservingness and Status in the Interpretation of Chinese Goods in an Iranian Bazaar.’ Iranian Studies 53(5–6): 947–61. Yu, Zhen. 2020. ‘China’s Foreign Aid to the Middle East: History and Development.’ Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 14(2): 301–21.

Cover Photo: Tehran. Credit (CC): Loizeau, Flickr.com.

Turkey

Background

Sino-Turkish relations were highly strained between 1949 and 1971 because China and Turkey were on opposite sides of the Cold War. As part of the US-led military coalition, Turkish troops fought against the People’s Volunteer Army deployed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) during the Korean War (1950–53). Participation in the Korean War facilitated Turkey’s membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952. As part of the PRC’s ‘people’s diplomacy’, Radio Peking’s Turkish-language section, founded in 1957, aired daily broadcasts to Turkish-speaking people about Maoist ideology, China’s socioeconomic transformation, and China’s official policy towards its Muslim minorities. Following the Sino-American rapprochement (based on their shared hostility to the Soviet Union), Sino-Turkish relations began to normalise and the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1971. Despite diplomatic ties, the two countries’ economic relationship remained extremely limited during the 1970s.

Sino-Turkish economic ties started to flourish following China’s Reform and Opening Up after 1978. Since the 1980s, the Turkish Government has encouraged Turkish capital to invest in China to profit off its large domestic market. However, the continuing significance of the United States and Europe in Turkish foreign policy prevented the formation of a coherent regional policy towards Asia. Moreover, compared with firms from the Global North and East Asia, Turkish firms’ penetration of the Chinese market has been limited. Similarly, Chinese companies have not gained a strong foothold in Turkey compared with Western companies. Turkey currently imports more diversified, higher value-added products from China, whereas Turkey’s exports to China are overwhelmingly primary low value-added commodities. China is one of the biggest contributors to Turkey’s current account deficit.

Since 1949, the Uyghur question has remained a critical issue, periodically straining bilateral relations. Given the long-lasting cultural and historical bonds between Turks and Uyghurs, the Chinese Government’s policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region have considerably shaped public perceptions of China in Turkey. Moreover, a considerable Uyghur population emigrated from China to Turkey after 1949, and this diaspora is an important factor shaping the countries’ diplomatic relationship. As of 2020, more than 50,000 Uyghurs lived in Turkey—the third-largest Uyghur population globally after China and Kazakhstan.

This has considerably shaped the Turkish Government’s policies towards China. At the end of the 1990s, the Turkish Government’s support for Uyghur nationalism became more reserved. Despite hosting Uyghur nationalists and denouncing the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang, developing economic relations with China came to be prioritised. Overall, both highly critical (and sometimes openly confrontational) public opinions in Turkey towards China’s Uyghur policy and Turkish businesses’ desire to have warm relations with China have influenced the Turkish Government, occasionally leading to significant vacillations in the country’s China policy. For example, following the Ürümqi riots of 2009, then Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan labelled the event ‘almost a genocide’ against the Uyghurs, and declared Turkey would grant a visa to the then president of the World Uyghur Congress Rebiya Kadeer. Only a year later, in September 2010, the Chinese and Turkish governments issued a Joint Declaration on the Establishment and Development of a Strategic Relationship of Cooperation. While criticisms of the PRC’s treatment of Uyghurs remain strong in Turkey, the effect on Turkish policymaking has considerably weakened during the past decade primarily because of the Turkish Government’s increased expectations that China will help diversify Turkey’s economic relations and reduce its (still significant) economic dependence on the West.

BRI Status

After mutual declarations of the importance of economic integration and the signing of the strategic cooperation agreement in 2010, Turkey officially joined the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2015. Owing to the rising trade volume between China and Eurasian countries, its logistical proximity to the European Union, and the importance of Central Asia and the Caucasus for contemporary Chinese investment, Turkey came to be hailed as an important member of the West Asia corridor of the BRI. Turkey’s location is particularly significant for the transportation projects facilitated by the BRI—informally called the ‘Iron Silk Road’—which aim to establish uninterrupted transport links between Beijing and London through investment in projects such as the Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia and the Baku–Tbilisi–Akhalkalaki–Kars railway. To this end, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two countries in 2016 to harmonise the BRI and Turkey’s Middle Corridor initiative and to cooperate on key projects.

With the Middle Corridor initiative, Turkey aims to establish a regionwide railway network originating in Turkey and reaching Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and others) via Transcaucasia (Georgia and Azerbaijan). To date, the Baku–Tbilisi–Akhalkalaki–Kars railway, Marmaray (the world’s first undersea railway), and the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge are the most prominent cases of Sino-Turkish cooperation under the BRI. Turkey has not been among China’s top investment destinations: according to the American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker, which keeps track of China’s announced overseas investment projects worth more than 100 million USD, between 2013 and 2020, Turkey ranked twenty-third in terms of total Chinese announced investment among the 80 BRI member countries included.

Current Economic Relations

Trade: Trade volume between China and Turkey was more than 22 billion USD in 2019, with a 20-billion-USD trade deficit on the Turkish side. Turkey’s imports from China were worth almost 113 billion USD between 2014 and 2019. In contrast, its exports to China amounted to 13 billion USD during the same period, making China one of the most significant contributors to Turkey’s current account deficit. In 2019, Turkey’s imports from China and exports to China accounted for 9.29% and 1.74% of its total imports and exports, respectively. During this period, Turkey’s main imports from China included electrical machinery and devices (5.23 billion USD), as well as machines, mechanical devices, and tools (3.89 billion USD). Mineral products were Turkey’s primary export product to China, worth a total of 1.3 billion USD. As of 2020, Turkey had become a leading supplier of marble to China.

Investment: The Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey (TCMB) reports that Turkish foreign direct investment (FDI) stock in China totalled more than 66 million USD in 2019. Turkish expert Altay Atlı reports that since the TCMB only records capital officially registered as crossing the border from Turkey to mainland China, Turkish FDI in China is significantly undercounted, and the real figure is likely to be closer to 1 billion USD. Nevertheless, even this upper-bound estimate falls well below Turkish FDI in Western countries. In 2019, Turkish FDI stocks in Austria, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands were around 2 billion, 3.2 billion, 3.8 billion, and 17.5 billion USD, respectively. The TCMB reported that Chinese FDI stock in Turkey amounted to 1.18 billion USD in 2019; according to the Ministry of Industry and Technology in Turkey, as of January 2021, this remained virtually unchanged at just over 1 billion USD. Official sources rank China twenty-first among the highest investors in Turkey, contributing only 0.6% of total FDI stock in 2019. Turkey’s formal entrance to the BRI and the subsequent initiation of highly publicised BRI-affiliated projects, such as Kumport Terminal (a modern container facility in Turkey’s Ambarli Port Complex), have resulted in an unprecedented increase in the flow of Chinese FDI to Turkey, from 30 million USD in 2014 to its historical peak of 451 million USD in 2015. However, when Chinese FDI in Turkey is situated within the larger picture, even at its highest point it was dwarfed by investments from other countries and even that volume of investment thus far has not been sustained. Chinese official data differ in some regards from those of Turkey but tell a similar story of fairly erratic investment flows, which are much lower than those of other major investing countries (see chart below).

(Source: Chinese Ministry of Commerce)

Still, in recent years, Chinese investments in Turkey have received wide attention in the media. Examples include investments by Huawei, OPPO, and Haier in production facilities and research and development institutes, Xiaomi’s opening of a factory in Istanbul in 2021 through a partnership with the Finland-based Salcomp company, Ali Baba’s acquisition of the Turkish retail company Trendyol, and Turkish Tekstilbank’s acquisition by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). Yet, investments in the transportation and energy sectors have suffered significant setbacks. For instance, Chinese firms were set to become majority shareholders in the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge and the North Marmara Highway (both major transportation projects). However, the acquisition of the company ICA that operates these projects was cancelled in March 2022.

Some Chinese investments have triggered labour and environmental protests. For example, the largest Chinese investment in Turkey recorded by the American Enterprise Institute dataset to date is Harbin Electric’s partnership with Turkey’s Hattat Holding for the construction of a coal-fired power plant in the western Black Sea region in 2013 (the total planned investment was 2.4 billion USD). The project met strong resistance from the local population over its negative environmental consequences, its licence has been cancelled by state councils multiple times, and construction is at a standstill at the time of writing in April 2022. In another instance, 170 workers of the Xiaomi–Salcomp factory in Istanbul were laid off in September 2021 as part of the management’s effort to prevent unionisation. In March 2022, another 110 workers were laid off. While the management says recent layoffs are due to its plans to downsize production, workers say they were fired for demanding better living and working conditions. 

Most of the Chinese investment in Turkey occurs in low-productivity and low-skill sectors and reflects the demands made by China’s domestic import interests in Turkey. In 2019, 1,075 Chinese-invested firms were operating in Turkey, according to data collected by the Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges of Turkey (Türkiye Odalar ve Borsalar Birliği). In terms of the number of firms, the top sectors were wholesale and retail trade, light manufacturing, and mining, with 32.37%, 11.25%, and 10.96%, respectively.

Aid and Other Finance: There is no official source tracking Chinese aid and financing in the form of export credits and loans to Turkey. According to AidData, various Chinese institutions financed 59 projects in Turkey between 2002 and 2019. Four Confucius Institutes have been opened in Turkish universities (two in public universities and two in private ones), and some other minor educational assistance activities are provided to Turkish schools. The ICBC, the China Development Bank (CDB) and the Bank of China have been the major actors in the Turkish economy in terms of the number of financial deals. Finally, AidData records seven export credit entries between 2002 and 2014 in the energy, communications, and transport sectors. The two biggest export credits, which totalled 1.3 billion USD, were used for the construction of Turkey’s Ankara–Istanbul High-Speed Railway and product purchasing and services from Huawei Technologies by Turk Telecom.

Key Controversies

Two contradictory and highly controversial political forces have been driving Sino-Turkish relations in the past decade. First, the Uyghur question continues to raise tensions and fuel anti-PRC sentiment among the Turkish public. The Uyghur issue has become a focal point over which the opposition has come to question the Islamist and nationalist credentials of the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP). Many opposition parties have harshly criticised now-President Erdoğan for not taking an openly confrontational stance towards China in recent years, especially the Future Party (Gelecek Partisi), which was founded by splinters from the ruling AKP and is currently led by Ahmet Davutoğlu (Prime Minister of Turkey between 2014 and 2016 and Minister for Foreign Affairs between 2009 and 2014), and the Good Party (İyi Parti), which was founded by splinters from the ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party and is currently led by Meral Akşener (Minister for Internal Affairs in 1996 and 1997).

On the other hand, many pro-Western Turkish politicians and commentators have interpreted Erdoğan’s occasional use of anti-Western rhetoric, especially after the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2016, as evidence of Turkey’s split from the West and reorientation towards China (and Russia) (for a critical analysis of the Turkish Government’s changing geopolitical quests and anti-Western rhetoric, see this article and this article). In December 2021, President Erdoğan suggested the ongoing devaluation of the Turkish lira would offer the country an opportunity to pursue the ‘Chinese model’ of economic growth based on labour-intensive manufacturing. However, Erdoğan rapidly abandoned this rhetoric. The depth of Turkey’s ongoing economic integration with the European Union and the United States has put material limits on the AKP’s quest for geopolitical reorientation. Moreover, President Erdoğan and other high-level officials repeatedly stressed their commitment to NATO and other key Western institutions, and did not raise concerns regarding NATO’s 2021 declaration that ‘China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security’.

Finally, there have been rumours that Chinese banks, companies, and officials are actively pursuing involvement in the politically controversial Istanbul Canal project—an artificial sea-level waterway connecting the Black and Mediterranean seas. The project has been criticised by environmentalists because of its potentially devastating effects on Istanbul’s water supply and the surrounding ecosystem, while the political opposition maintains it is a rent-seeking project to attract international capital. While talk of Chinese financing for the project had subsided in the first few months of 2022, if this project was implemented in the future with Chinese investment, it would have a considerable effect on the political debates in Turkey regarding China.

Key Sources

Scholarly Publications and In-Depth Reports:

Bakır, Caner and Mustafa Yağcı (eds). 2020. Çin Bilmecesi: Çin’in Ekonomik Yükselişi, Uluslararası İlişkilerde Dönüşüm ve Türkiye [The China Puzzle: China’s Economic Rise, Transformation in International Relations and Turkey]. Istanbul: Koç Üniversitesi Yayınları.

Çolakoğlu, Selçuk. 2019. ‘China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Turkey’s Middle Corridor: A Question of Compatibility.’ 29 January. Washington, DC: Middle East Institute. Link.

Çolakoğlu, Selçuk. 2021. Turkey and China: Political, Economic, and Strategic Aspects of the Relationship. Singapore: World Scientific Publishing.

Ergenc, Ceren. 2015. ‘Can Two Ends of Asia Meet? An Overview of Contemporary Turkey–China Relations.’ East Asia 32(3): 289–308.

Gürel, Burak and Mina Kozluca. 2022. ‘Chinese Investment in Turkey: The Belt and Road Initiative, Rising Expectations and Ground Realities.’ European Review (Online first): 1–29.

Öniş, Ziya and Malimati Yalikun. 2021. ‘Emerging Partnership in a Post-Western World? The Political Economy of China–Turkey Relations.’ Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 21(4): 507–29.

Cover Photo: Istanbul, Turkey. Credit: @pedrosz (CC), Flickr.com.