Turkey boards China’s new ‘Orient Express’

By Peter J Brown

The significance of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Ankara in early October was monumental, especially after the bitter words spoken in mid-2009 by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan following China’s brutal reaction to Uyghur rioting in Xinjiang.

Erdogan spoke openly of Chinese atrocities as he emerged as one of the most vocal and downright irate national leaders in the Islamic world in terms of his response to the Chinese government’s actions last year.

How times have changed.

As Wen extended his hand in Ankara, Erdogan must have winced a tiny bit, but that did not restrain his enthusiasm. Mindful of Turkey’s current dissatisfaction and even coldness towards its old allies, the US and Israel, Wen came to Turkey on a mission.

Unfriendly times between China and Turkey were ending, and Wen had arrived to put any ill-will to rest once and for all. BesidesTurkey, Wen stopped in Greece, Belgium, Italy, and briefly Germany on his trip. He was in Europe to participate in the latest Asia-Europe Meeting and China-EU summit.

China pledged a steady and predictable increase in bilateral trade with Turkey, and made clear its eagerness to invest in transportation, infrastructure, and communications projects. Overall, Wen’s visit was fruitful and timely from the Chinese perspective.

One of those projects demands very close attention. The old “Orient Express” was a luxury passenger train that ran from Paris to Istanbul. The 21st Century version of the “Orient Express” might carry passengers someday from Istanbul non-stop to Shanghai while immense freight trains use the same track. And while this futuristic train service may be a long way off, whenever and wherever railway plans take shape, geopolitical transitions are bound to occur in tandem.

Would the new “Orient Express” as a seamless, single gauge railway remain little more than a pipedream absent the deals announced in Ankara in October? The answer is most definitely yes. Will goods and people from Iran and Turkey travel together someday over a line extending all the way from Turkey across Central Asia to the coast of China? You can bet on it.

Plenty of support for new trains and tracks was included in one of the eight pacts signed by China and Turkey. Specifically, joint construction of a new 4,500-kilometer Turkish railway was approved in addition to the pair of high-speed train lines already under construction.

During his visit to Beijing in July, Turkish Minister of Transportation Binali Yildirim had shared his vision of a direct rail connection linking Turkey and China with Chinese Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun. It was Yildirim who rose to the challenge of reselling the concept to a decidedly receptive audience.

Erecting such a railway is not a new idea, and yet the Chinese had something else in mind as they listened intently and nodded politely. They were happy to have Yildirim pointed in the right direction for now and no doubt encouraged him because anything that draws Turkey and China closer together appeals to China for several reasons.

Yildirim and Zhijun wrapped up their important railway session by signing a memorandum of understanding which stressed bilateral cooperation and mutual outreach to other countries well. [1]

Keep in mind that a demonstration train between Istanbul and Islamabad was planned this summer – prior to the massive flood – as a followup to the August 2009 test service between Pakistan and Turkey featuring cargo containers bearing the seal of the Economic Co-operation Organization. Plans for scheduled service between the port of Bandar Abbas in Iran and Kazakhstan, along with upgrades to tracks between China and Kazakhstan are in process, too.

With China’s support – both financial and engineering – Iran, Pakistan and Turkey where a railway around Lake Van might need to be established could see their trade tripling once this project is completed. [2]

However, this joint railway activity was overshadowed by an announcement about the planned expansion of trade between China and Turkey along with the joint military maneuvers immediately prior to Wen’s arrival.

“We’ve set an ambitious goal of US$50 billion trade volume between China and Turkey in five years,” said Wen, who addressed Turkish concerns by promising that China would pursue “balanced and sustainable trade” by focusing on importing more Turkish products. Trade between the two countries totaled $10 billion in 2009. [3]

On top of the trade agreements, news of Chinese and US-supplied Turkish fighter planes flying and exercising together triggered a sonic boom which could be heard from Tel Aviv and Delhi all the way to Brussels and Washington, DC.

That Chinese fighter aircraft flew over Pakistani and Iranian airspace in order to get back and forth to Turkey in the first place was an event unto itself.

“This was the first time ever, a Chinese air force had a military exercise with a NATO country. So Turkish-Chinese relations are getting more and more upfront,” said political columnist Murat Yetkin. [4]

This happened amid signs of a significant shift in Turkish attitudes, including, among other things, a “Transatlantic Trends” survey released in September by the German Marshall Fund.

The survey showed that less than one in five Turks currently holds a favorable opinion of the US, and roughly one in four approves of the job performance of US President Barack Obama – down from half of the Turkish population in 2009.

“Positive views of US leadership (have) really plummeted,” said Ian Lesser, a senior policy analyst at the Fund who worked on this survey.

The benefits of European Union membership are no longer so obvious to the Turkish people, the survey shows, and the ranks of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supporters are diminishing rapidly as well with only one in three valuing the Turkish membership in NATO as something important to Turkey’s security.

Turkey is one of the key players most aligned and most sympathetic with Iran. This is reflected by the fact that only one in 10 Turks at best, according to the survey, endorse the use of military force to prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.

In describing “Turkey’s estrangement from the West,” Lesser is not anticipating Turkey’s withdrawal from NATO, but he does predict that Turkey’s “trajectory may not be the same as it was, and that could cause problems in the future.” [5]

The future is now, if Turkey’s stance at the mid-October meeting of foreign and defense ministers of NATO member countries in Brussels is any indicator. Turkey told the US “that Iran and Syria should not be cited as threats for NATO’s planned missile shield,” according to a Turkish Foreign Ministry official who declined to be identified. [6]

Evidence of growing nervousness in the US over Turkey’s change in attitude surfaced a few days later, when US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates addressed the American Turkish Council in Washington, DC. Gates confided that a few years ago, it was his opinion that the US-Turkish partnership was one that, “had not received the attention and priority that it deserved.”

“I do believe we have made progress in our relationship, even as it has come under stress in recent times. As with all friends, we have had some disagreements – for example, Turkey’s vote this spring on Iran sanctions, and we continue to urge Turkey to maintain a constructive relationship with its neighbor Israel,” said Gates. “Nonetheless, even as our views and approaches on some issues may differ, we are allies, we share fundamental interests in the region, and our goals remain the same.”

Gates also attempted during his speech to prod Turkey into being more receptive to the missile defense plan – known as “Phased Adaptive Approach” – that the US wants NATO to implement.

“This approach offers a territorial missile defense system based on proven technologies that can be adapted to meet future dangers and protect a steadily increasing swath of NATO territory,” said Gates. “As the threat from ballistic missiles grows, so will the scope and effectiveness of NATO’s defenses against them.”

This is a multi-phase program which will start with the deployment by the US of sea-based SM-3 interceptor missiles aboard US ships stationed around NATO territory by late 2011. This will be followed by the placement of ground-based SM-3s in Romania by 2015. The final phases involve the deployment of more advanced interceptors, along with the creation of another missile interceptor site in Poland.

“Under the NATO umbrella, allied nations could participate with systems of their own and would collaborate in developing rules of engagement and other key decisions that implement missile defense,” said Gates. “The Phased Adaptive Approach has been thoroughly studied. It is effective, it is affordable, and it can be fielded quickly.”

Gates proceeded to address a perception that has emerged which suggests that Turkey’s leaders are under enormous pressure from the US to support the US blueprint for NATO.

“The US has engaged Turkey in political and military dialogue on its potential technical and operational contributions should NATO adopt this approach,” said Gates. “Contrary to some press reports, we are not pressuring Turkey to make a contribution. But we do look to Turkey to support NATO’s adoption at the Lisbon Summit of a territorial missile defense capability.” [7]

Turkey is well aware that its decision will impact its relations not only with the US and its NATO allies, but with Russia and Iran as well.

Author James Traub recently described Turkey as a country that wants to be an ally of the West and at the same time, a regional power “in a region deeply suspicious of the West.”

Most of all, “when Turkey is forced to choose among these roles, the neighborhood tends to win out,” said Traub. [8]

And this is a neighborhood which is looking more favorably in China’s direction, too.

Tickets for China’s new “Orient Express” may not go on sale for a decade or more, but China had one thing to say to Turkey in October, and that was, “All Aboard.” It is now clear that Ankara was not left standing at the station.

1. Turkey calls on China for strategic railway cooperation, World Bulletin, Jul 7, 2010.
2. China to Turkey train to launch this year, Railway Gazette, Apr 12, 2010.
3. Chinese premier assures Turkish businessmen of growing trade, Xinhua, Oct 9, 2010.
4. China, Turkey Deepen Ties During Rare Visit, Voice of America, Oct 11, 2010.
5. Recent Study Shows Turkey Turning Away from West, Voice of America, Oct 6, 2010.
6. Turkey says NATO missile defense system should not target any country, Xinhua, Oct 16, 2010.
7. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speech, US Department of Defense, Oct 18, 2010.
8. All Roads Lead to Istanbul, Foreign Policy, Oct 15, 2010.

Peter J Brown, a freelance writer from Maine USA, was born in Ankara.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication andrepublishing.)

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