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Xi and Erdogan focus on economic ties, shelve Uighur row

ISTANBUL -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's state visit to China at the end of July was something of a high-wire act. Part of his mission was to get Chinese companies on board with large-scale infrastructure projects in Turkey. But he was also there to ask that China respect the human rights of the country's ethnic Turkic population.

     These ethnic Turkics, or Uighurs, reside in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, in western China, where discontent with Beijing has often bubbled to the surface.

Treading carefully

Turkey is in a bit of a tight spot. It averaged 3.4% annual growth from 2007 to 2014, a steep drop from the 7.2% average it experienced from 2002 to 2006. Its main trade and investment partner, the European Union, is also running out of steam.

     Turkey, the crossroads between Asia and Europe, now wants to enhance its relations with the nations to its east. China, for its part, would like to engineer what it calls a new Silk Road Economic Belt so that its exports can more easily make their way to Europe.

     While in China, Erdogan hailed China's plan and made sure to point out that Turkey would be a willing participant.

     But he also had to address the Uighur situation.

     "It seems they have found a middle way for now regarding the Uighurs," said Selcuk Colakoglu, vice president of Ankara-based think tank USAK. "The visit was instrumental for rebuilding trust between parties and repairing damaged ties."

     Of course, Colakoglu continued, "the Uighur problem is the soft underbelly of Turkey-China relations."

     Diplomatic ties have been tense since the end of June. Around that time, the Turkish foreign ministry summoned Chinese ambassador to convey "deep concern" over media reports that China had banned fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It also strongly condemned the Thai government for sending a number of Uighur refugees back to China against their will.

     The situation escalated, triggering an attack on the Thai consulate in Istanbul and increasing harassment of East Asian tourists and residents in Turkey by Turkish people assuming their targets are Chinese.

     The usually outspoken Erdogan was careful to avoid drawing the ire of China ahead of his key visit. "A considerable number of the images and reports circulating in the media have either been [fabrications] or wrong, opening the door to exploitation," he said in Turkey in July.

     Erdogan was more diplomatic than he was in 2009, when violent clashes between Han Chinese and Uighurs led to scores of deaths. Erdogan labeled the killings as "genocide," drawing harsh criticism from China.

     During the late July's visit, Erdogan received China Islam society members, including Uighur and Hui Muslims, in Beijing. He later told Turkish press that Chinese officials welcomed Turkey's sincerity and related contacts with the delegation. 

     "China allowing such a meeting shows there is a mutual understanding between the countries to address their Uighur problem," said Dr. Altay Atli of the Bogazici University Asian Studies Center. 

Better business

Sino-Turkish relations have come a long way in recent years. Chinese companies are now eager to play a larger role in Turkey's massive infrastructure and defense projects, while Turkey has become a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

    After wrapping up talks with Erdogan on July 29, President Xi Jinping and his Turkish counterpart attended a Turkey-China business forum the next day. At the forum, Xi said China wants to cooperate in future high-speed rail projects in Turkey and "play an active role" in the country's planned third nuclear power plant.

      Turkish officials have told the Nikkei Asian Review that Westinghouse Electric of the U.S. and China's State Nuclear Power Technology Corp. (SNPTC) in June presented a joint pre-feasibility report to Turkey's energy ministry. Offer includes both pressurized water reactor models of Westinghouse's AP1000 and SNPTC's CAP 1400 which is based on AP1000. Turkey is currently evaluating the report.

     The two leaders also agreed to continue negotiating the sale of a long-range air and missile defense system from China to Turkey.

     Turkey's NATO allies reacted negatively when it was announced in 2013 that the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp. had won the contract for the defense system with a bid of $3.4 billion. Negotiations have been continuing since then, with European and U.S. companies now also in the running.

      "We will see if the visit was a success or not by looking at the flow of Chinese investments and their involvement in large infrastructure projects in the coming six months or year," Atli said.

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