China has ordered the closure of its consulate in the Turkish city of Izmir, which Beijing’s Ambassador in Ankara, Deng Li, linked to Turkey’s criticism of the ongoing suppression of the Uighurs – a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim minority group that numbers 15 million people who live mainly in China’s western Xinjiang Autonomous Region – by the Chinese Communist Party.
Izmir is Turkey’s third-largest city and bastion of the country’s republican secularism. The Aegean coastal city, previously known as Smyrna until 1930, was the birthplace of Homer and played an important role in eastern Mediterranean trade. The closure of the Chinese consulate is significant as Izmir is poised to be the last port on China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.
“In the context of China’s One Belt One Road initiative, Izmir is the last port before the European Union,” Jak Eskenazi of the Aegean Exporters’ Associations told a local business magazine.
Beijing has vehemently denied that it is carrying out a repression campaign targeting the Uighurs and dismissed reports that China’s feared intelligence services are rounding up members of the Uighur community and placing them concentration and re-education camps throughout the Xinjiang region.
A potential drawn-out spat between Turkey and China could have major economic implications for the former, particularly at a time when the Turkish economy is in free-fall.
China’s economic leverage in Turkey is on the rine and several Chinese firms, including tech giant Alibaba, are actively looking at opportunities in Turkey after the lira’s sell-off has made local assets far cheaper. Since the lira’s collapse, Alibaba has already taken over Turkey’s online retailer Trendyol.
Chinese banks are also looking to invest in Turkey, following the lead of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China which bought Istanbul-based Tekstilbank in 2015.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insists that Ankara remains committed to forming a major strategic partnership with China, in the context of One Belt, One Road, and despite the issue of the persecution of China’s Uighur population.
“The fact that we have a problem with China on one issue should not necessarily hinder our cooperation on other matters,” Cavusoglu said at a conference in Ankara. “We still plan link China’s One Belt, One Road with our own Middle Corridor Initiative so that a direct line between London and Beijing could be set up.”