ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey risks jeopardizing economic ties with China if it keeps criticizing Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, China’s envoy to Ankara warned, just as Chinese firms are looking to invest in Turkish energy and infrastructure mega-projects.
Last month Turkey broke a long silence over the fate of China’s Uighurs, saying more than one million people faced arbitrary arrest, torture and political brainwashing in Chinese internment camps in the country’s northwestern Xinjiang region.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu repeated Ankara’s concern at a United Nations meeting this week, calling on China to respect human rights and freedom of religion.
China has denied accusations of mistreatment and deems criticism at the United Nations to be interference in its sovereignty. Beijing says the camps are re-education and training facilities that have stopped attacks previously blamed on Islamist militants and separatists.
“There may be disagreements or misunderstandings between friends but we should solve them through dialogue. Criticizing your friend publicly everywhere is not a constructive approach,” said Deng Li, Beijing’s top diplomat to Ankara.
“If you choose a non-constructive path, it will negatively affect mutual trust and understanding and will be reflected in commercial and economic relations,” Deng, speaking through a translator, told Reuters in interview.
For now, Deng said that many Chinese companies were looking for investment opportunities in Turkey including the third nuclear power plant Ankara wants to build.
Several Chinese firms including tech giant Alibaba, are actively looking at opportunities in Turkey after the lira’s sell-off has made local assets cheaper.
In addition to Alibaba, which last year purchased Turkish online retailer Trendyol, other companies holding talks included China Life Insurance and conglomerate China Merchants Group,, Deng said.
Deng said Chinese banks wanted to invest in Turkey, following the lead of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) which bought Tekstilbank in 2015.
Chinese investment in Turkey would help narrow Ankara’s gaping current account deficit, which stood at $27.6 billion last year. Turkey’s trade deficit with China alone stood at $17.8 billion last year, according to Trade Ministry data.
In January, Turkey’s Finance Minister Berat Albayrak said it was “impossible” for Turkey to maintain such a trade deficit with China and other Asian countries, saying the government was considering taking measures.
Deng said he did not expect Turkey to take protectionist steps. “Both countries are strictly against such policies, and both economies need an open world economy,” he said.
He also called on Turkey to adopt Chinese payment platforms such as WeChat and AliPay. “People don’t want to pay in cash and the population here is very young so they wouldn’t have trouble adapting to new technologies,” Deng said.
Good diplomatic and political ties, however, would remain crucial for developing economic ties and attracting more Chinese investment, he said, adding that he had raised the issue with Cavusoglu on Tuesday, a day after the foreign minister’s intervention at the United Nations.
“The most important issue between countries are mutual respect,” he said. “Would you stay friends if your friend criticized you publicly every day?”
Editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean