Workers are seen on the construction site of the Hunutlu Thermal Power Plant in Adana, Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2019.
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Turkey-China relations: Ankara must balance complications on many fronts

Global ViewsYou are reading chapter 8 of the MERICS  Paper on China "Beyond blocs: global views on China and US-China relations". Click here to go to the table of contents.

Turkey has a serious foreign policy dilemma given current geopolitical developments. On the one hand, Turkey is a NATO member and relies on the Euro-Atlantic security alliance against regional and global security threats. On the other hand, Turkey’s political and economic expectations from membership of the West (as represented by NATO membership) have been challenged by Russian and Chinese political and economic influences in the last decade. Turkey’s foreign policy orientation is therefore being shaped by these new political, economic, and security conditions.

Status quo: Pulled between China’s economic benefits and Western security allies

China and Turkey upgraded their relationship to a “strategic partnership” in 2010, becoming political, economic, and security partners.1 Prior to that, China played a minor role in Turkish foreign policy as an emerging economic actor alongside countries such as Brazil, India and South Africa. Sino-Turkish bilateral relations have deepened since 2010, particularly in the economic field. However, their diplomatic status quo rests on two factors. First, the continued strengthening of economic ties. And second, a tacit understanding not to bring political disagreements to the table. All diplomatic activities are designed to protect this status quo.

Although each country prioritizes the economic relationship, there is much about the bilateral relationship that looks like a one-way street. For example, since Jiang Zemin’s visit in 2000, Chinese presidents have not paid an official visit to Ankara.2 Despite signing a “strategic partnership”, China does not view the relationship as a strategically significant one. Meanwhile, Turkey has paid several high-level visits to Beijing since 2000.3 Besides the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attendance at the opening ceremony of the 2017 Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) Forum in Beijing, he has paid four official visits to Beijing since 2014.4

Relations were strengthened by China’s display of support for Turkey’s elected government after the 2016 coup attempt, shown by a prompt visit from Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Ming three weeks later.5 President Erdogan’s speech at the 2017 BRI Forum’s opening ceremony was in part to show appreciation.6

However, Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghur population in Xinjiang remains a major cause of diplomatic tension.7 China has established internment camps to eradicate so-called “terrorism” in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).8 Except for a few official statements, Turkey’s government has not taken concrete steps against China’s new securitization policies in the XUAR. China is inclined to play the “Kurdish card” in response to Turkey’s official statements criticizing human rights violations in Xinjiang, effectively accusing Turkey of hypocrisy.9

Under pressure from recent developments in world politics and regional crises, China and Turkey’s current security status quo is fragile. Turkey belongs to the NATO alliance and is a candidate country to join the European Union. Although China has not directly targeted the Euro-Atlantic alliance as Russia has, there are several controversial economic and political issues such as human rights, democracy, and policies against the market economy. Furthermore, Turkey and China hold different positions on regional crises such as the Syrian civil war, the Nagarno-Qarabag conflict, Kosovo, and Cyprus questions. China also holds an entirely different position from Turkey towards Russian aggression in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. In the case of Syria, for example, Turkey’s ambassador Emin Onen has expressed dissatisfaction at China’s criticism of Turkish military operations in Syria.10

Sino-Turkish economic relations have improved greatly since 2001. Bilateral trade volumes were worth USD 32 billion in 2021, compared to USD 1 billion in 2001.11 However, Turkey has a trade deficit with China – imports are worth roughly nine times the value of Turkish exports. In 2019, capital goods worth around USD 7 billion made up the biggest share of total trade volume. Machines and electrical goods ranked second; they were worth approximately USD 6 billion.12 Compared with China and Russia, the EU was Turkey’s largest export and import partner in 2021. Approximately 33 percent of Turkey’s imports came from the EU, which took 41 percent of the country’s exports. By contrast, Turkish exports to China were only 2 percent of Turkey’s total export volume in 2021. However, China was Turkey’s largest import partner among individual countries. Russia was the second-largest import partner, taking goods worth approximately USD 29 billion; Germany was the third largest import partner with goods valued at roughly USD 22 billion in 2021.13

Foreign direct investment (FDI) is another important indicator of economic relations between China and Turkey. In 2021, China had 1060 registered firms in Turkey.14 Most made their investments between 2014-2019. Although China is not among the top 20 countries investing in Turkey, Chinese investors have vital interests there.15

Clearly, China continues to expand its economic activities in Turkey, regardless of the lack of transparency and reciprocity in bilateral economic relations. China’s import and export share in the approximately USD 800 billion Turkish economy does not indicate severe dependency. However, the quality of the economic partnership, especially regarding the lack of reciprocity and the sizeable trade deficit, could stir suspicions among Turkish economic and political actors. Although Turkey can compete with China in some traditional sectors such as textiles, it faces increasing competitive challenges in advanced technological sectors such as telecommunications and electrical machinery.

Geopolitics: Navigating the middle path between great powers

US-China rivalry may bring economic disadvantages for Turkey. Global economic tensions triggered by US-China trade wars may create economic uncertainty for Turkey; for instance, when the US began to limit steel and aluminum imports through higher tariffs, Turkey felt the impact of restrictions.16 Another concern is that China and the US might tighten their trade policies against third countries in order to counter each other. Turkey is also a logistics, trade, investment, and finance hub. A global economic crisis and decline in trade and investment could be a serious blow to the Turkish economy.

US-China rivalry also confronts Turkey with a geopolitical security dilemma. Turkey has security commitments to NATO. Especially in the last couple of years, China has raised its voice against the NATO alliance and criticized NATO’s position towards Russia. This creates severe geopolitical risks for Turkey’s eastern and Black Sea borders. For the time being, Turkey has not directly taken a position against either side in this rivalry. Turkey’s hedging strategy has created a space for both political and economic interests. Turkey may turn toward a more aggressive approach against Russia and China if the rivalry goes forward.

Another geopolitical risk has arisen from China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Although Turkey’s middle corridor strategy coincides with China’s BRI strategy, China’s rising political and economic influence in nearby regions has the potential to threaten Turkey’s national interests – for example, if China’s economic influence in Northern Iraq and Syria were to turn into political and diplomatic influence. In the Syrian civil war, in ways opposed to Turkey’s national interests, China has used its veto power several times in the UN Security Council.17 Moreover, BRI-linked debt traps or economic dependency (as seen in Pakistan and Sri Lanka) in nearby countries could pose fresh security headaches for Turkey.

Perceptions: Turkish views of China are generally positive, with some reservations

According to the Pew Research Centre, 37 percent of Turkish people surveyed held favorable views of China in 2018, far higher than the 20 percent approval rate for the United States.18 Public perceptions of China have improved in the last decade. China’s public diplomacy efforts through China Radio International and the Confucius Institutes have contributed to bettering its image in Turkey. Five Confucius Institutes currently operate in Turkey to teach Mandarin and promote good cultural relations. While the first Confucius Institute opened in 2008 in Turkey, Yunus Emre Institute, which is Turkey’s most influential public diplomacy tool, finally opened in China in 2021 after lengthy bureaucratic procedures were overcome.19

Apart from diplomatic relations, China and Turkey improved inter-governmental relations, establishing close bilateral ties in issues such as economics and politics. Opposition parties favor improved economic relations with China but have reservations on political issues, notably Uyghur civil and human rights.20 Turkey’s Good Party (İyi Parti in Turkish) published a report in December 2021 on human rights violations in the XUAR.21 It also urged the Turkish parliament to recognize the “Uyghur genocide.”22 The Future Party (Gelecek Partisi in Turkish) has held several public events to give prominence to Uyghur voices.23

Turkish business circles view China positively, though there are reservations about the lack of reciprocity. TÜSİAD (Turkish Industry and Business Association), one of Turkey’s most influential business-oriented NGOs, has set up Shanghai Network to promote Turkish private sector opportunities in China.24 MÜSİAD (Independent Industrialists and Businessmen’s Association) has also opened several branches, including in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, to boost Sino-Turkey-China commercial relationships.25

Outlook: Turkey needs to do some rebalancing due to China's involvement in regional issues

To sum up, there are three mainstream policy narratives require revisions regarding China in Turkey. The first, and most influential, concerns economic relations. Reciprocity in bilateral trade relations and the trade deficit are the most significant controversies between China and Turkey. Approximately 90 percent of total trade consists of Chinese imports to Turkey, giving rise to concerns about negative impacts on Turkish domestic producers.

The second, contested policy is related to political controversies between China and Turkey. For years, China accused Turkey of “protecting” Uyghur “terrorists” in Turkey and being a terrorist conduit to Syria.26 Turkey has responded to these accusations by highlighting China’s human rights violations in the XUAR.27 Although Turkey prioritizes economic relations, political controversies create tension in domestic politics. Turkey is under pressure from the Uyghur diaspora living in Turkey and from domestic public opinion. Turkey should review the global, regional and domestic political cost of the Uyghur question. Given the strong accusations of human rights violations in XUAR, Turkey could support international efforts to end violations such as China’s network of internment camps in the XUAR.

The third contested policy relates to geopolitical considerations stemming from China’s influence in nearby regions, such as Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans. China’s economic influence in all three areas has grown. Turkey has taken a neutral stance towards China’s opposition to Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war. In Central Asia, Turkey has increased its own influence through new partnerships such as the Organization of Turkic States.28 In the Balkans, China’s outreach risks generating instability in economic and political relations. On the other hand, collaboration with the EU may provide Turkey and the region with a stable and peaceful environment. Economic priorities, political disagreements, and geopolitical uncertainties complicate the future of Turkey-China relations. Therefore, for Turkey a balancing strategy in bilateral relations with China is not only an option but a rational necessity.

Turkey’s reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Cautious diplomacy

Turkey openly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and voted in favor of the 2 March UN General Assembly resolution demanding Russia immediately end its military operations there and withdraw to internationally recognized frontiers. However, Turkey did not support the US and European sanctions against Russia.

Turkey’s policy towards the war is “cautious diplomacy” as it has close relations with both Ukraine and Russia. Turkey has sought to play a mediating role in this crisis rather than aligning itself with either side. It is a policy compatible with Turkey’s national interests in the short term.

However, Turkey’s mediation role cannot be sustained indefinitely as Turkey also has responsibilities as a NATO member. Turkey has stated several times that it would act together with NATO member countries to fulfill these responsibilities. These positions are not related to the policies of China regarding the Ukraine war, and the conflict has limited to no impact on Turkish views on China.


1 | Foreign Ministry of China (中国外交部). 2021. “China-Turkey Relations(同土耳其的关系) Accessed: February 22, 2022.

2 | Çolakoğu, Selçuk (2013), “Turkey-China Relations: Rising Partnership,” Ortadoğu Analiz Nisan 2013, Cilt: 5, Sayı: 53, pp. 32-45.

3 | Temiz, Kadir (2022), “An Illustration of Sino-Turkish Relations: The Cyprus Question,” Insight Turkey Winter 2018 / Volume 20, Number 1.

4 | Beyaz, Zafer Fatih. Anadolu Ajansı (2020). “Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan, 150. resmi yurt dışı ziyaretini Almanya'ya yapacak,” January 18. Accessed: May 25, 2022.

5 | Kabakci, Fuat. Anadolu Agency (2020). “China supported Turkey after 2016 coup bid.” July 24. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

6 | Presidency of the Republic of Türkiye, 2017. “A New Era will be Heralded in Our Region Based on Stability and Prosperity.” May 14. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

7 | Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Republic of Türkiye, 2019. “Statement of the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Hami Aksoy, in response to a question regarding serious human rights violations perpetrated against Uighur Turks and the passing away of folk poet Abdurehim Heyit.” February 9. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

8 | Uyghur Human Rights Project (2022), “Coerced Kinship: The Pomegranate Flower Plan and the Forced Assimilation of Uyghur Children.” January 27. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

9 | Nurettin Akçay, “Amid Tensions With Turkey, China Is Putting the Kurdish Issue in Play,” The Diplomat, December 04, 2021. Accessed: March 16, 2022.

10 | Keegan Elmer, “Turkey hits back at China’s call to stop military action in Syria,” South China Morning Post, October 21, 2019. Accessed: March 16, 2022.

11 | Turkish Statistical Institute (2022), “Foreign Trade Statistics,” Accessed: February 22, 2022.

12 | World Bank (2022). “China-Turkey Trade Relations” Accessed: February 22, 2022.

13 | Turkish Statistical Institute (2022), “Foreign Trade Statistics,” Accessed: March 19, 2022.

14 | Ministry of Industry and Technology, The Republic of Türkiye, “Foreign Direct Investments,” Accessed: February 22, 2022.

15 | Lerner, George Marshall (2020) “China to the Rescue in Turkey?” The Diplomat, July 3. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

16 | “Turkey vows to defend domestic steel, aluminum exporters against additional US tariffs,” Hürriyet Daily News August 12, 2018. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

17 | Michelle Nichols, “Russia, backed by China, casts 14th U.N. veto on Syria to block cross-border aid,” Reuters, December 20, 2019. Accessed: March 19, 2022.

18 | Pew Research (2018), “China’s Public Perception in Turkey,” Accessed: February 22, 2022.

19 | “Yunus Emre Institute Opened in Beijing,” Yunus Emre Institute, June 18, 2021. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

20 | “CHP MP: Uighurs Shouldn't be Sacrificed for Relations with China,” Bianet News Desk, January 17, 2020. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

21 | “The Human Rights Report on China Uyghur Autonomous Region,” İyi Parti, December 14, 2021. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

22 | “IP to urge Turkish Parliament to recognize 'Uyghur genocide,'" Daily Sabah, February 28, 2021. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

23 | “Gelecek Partisi "Doğu Türkistan Farkındalık Toplantısı" düzenledi,” Independent Türkçe, October 18, 2020. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

24 | “TÜSİAD China Network,” Accessed: February 22, 2022.

25 | Kabakci Fuat. (2018). “MÜSİAD, Türkiye-Çin iş birliğini perçinleyecek,” October 22. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

26 | Hornby, Lucy and Zalewski, Piotr (2015). “China accuses Turkey of aiding Uighurs,” July 12. Accessed: February 22, 2022.

27 | Yürük, Betül (2021) “Turkey's UN envoy responds to Chinese allegations at Syria session,” Accessed: February 22, 2022.

28 | “Organization of Turkic States,” Accessed: February 22, 2022.


Global ViewsYou were reading chapter 8 of the MERICS  Paper on China "Beyond blocs: global views on China and US-China relations". Click here to go to the table of contents.


Kadir Temiz
Fulbright Visiting Scholar at George Washington University at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies