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Turkey and China amid the Syrian crisis
China is clearly looking for a graceful "face-saving" exit strategy for its much criticized stand on a year-long Syrian crisis that has claimed thousands of civilian lives and sent thousands more across the border to Turkey for safe haven.

The last-ditch efforts by Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, seem to have offered that opening for a Chinese foreign policy that is continuously being bashed by the international community following its Feb. 5 veto decision as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, along with Russia, to block an Arab and Turkish plan pressing Assad to step down.

While Annan was in Beijing discussing his proposals with Prime Minister Wen Jiabao this week, I've been having heated exchanges with Chinese officials on whether or not Syria will have an impact on the growing bilateral ties between Turkey and China. Albeit with some similarities in principles, it is obvious that both sides have a completely different take on how to resolve the stalemate in the Syrian predicament, The main worry is whether this will have a spillover impact on the future of Sino-Turkish ties, considering that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan will be paying his first official visit to China starting on April 7.

China is looking to renew pledges of commitment to growing ties with Turkey during this landmark visit and do not want the Syrian crisis to dent what seems to be a promising prospect on Sino-Turkish ties. On the eve of this visit, Chinese officials made clear that the Syrian issue will have no bearing on bilateral ties between the two countries. They very much hope to flesh out the "strategic partnership" concept during high-level meetings with Turkish counterparts that will guide the momentum and the direction of future Turkish-Chinese relations.

Since China is determined to build ties on the basis of a strong cultural foundation for a sustainable relationship with a rising power in the Middle East, Turkey, I believe it is important to repair a rupture over the Syrian crisis. Otherwise the wound that the Syrian crisis created will linger on in the background as a source of tension and sideline much more important issues we need to sort out with the Chinese. Analysts and officials alike understand the gravity of the situation, and they have shown keen interest in understanding the motives behind Turkish foreign policy in Syria in order to assess the level of divergence.

Chinese officials are telling me that they have already been in talks with the Syrian opposition through embassy officials in Damascus and in Ankara and offered a standing invitation to host them in Beijing for further talks. They made clear that China supports the people of Syria, not the Bashar al-Assad regime, which has been cracking down on the opposition with brute force. In contrast to Russia, China has no sizable economic or military interests to protect in Syria, leaving them room to maneuver and a shield to deflect criticism of self-interest.

China understands that Turkey, as a neighboring country, has an important role to play in resolving the Syrian crisis and acknowledges it should have a more significant voice on the issue. It supports Turkish efforts to provide humanitarian relief to civilians and refugees, for which China contributed $2 million through UN agencies. It does not agree with Turkey on the sanctions regime, however, saying that sanctions would never work but would rather punish ordinary Syrians.

In their principles, Turkish and Chinese policies converge on many aspects but differ on the way to interpret them in policy. Both advocate non-interference from the outside, emphasize the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country and state that the fate of Syria should be decided by the Syrian people. But in practice, the policies differ dramatically.

Turkey believes none of these principles will be applicable in Syria soon if the regime continues to crack down on the opposition, setting the scene for sectarian and ethnic clashes. When that happens, it will draw countries in the region into the conflict and will be difficult to maintain the territorial integrity of the country after so much blood is spilled. Ankara fears Syria will be divided along sectarian or ethnic lines. While China is insulated from the civil war risk due to geographical distance, Turkey has the largest border with Syria. The urgency is more paramount for Turkey than China.

China does not dismiss these concerns and accepts that they are legitimate but worries that the way the international community acts on Syria may set a precedent for others in the future. As a multiethnic society that has issues with separatism in Tibet and Xinxiang provinces, China worries that foreign powers may exploit sensitivities in these regions for their imperialistic ambitions to divide China. It is definitely a fair question, which relates to Turkey as well. Having suffered from foreign meddling for centuries, Turkey should also worry that its own ethnic Kurdish problem or sensitive Alevi issue may be manipulated by foreign powers.

Whether the Syrian crisis might have had a negative impact on the image of China in Muslim countries where Sunni majority populations were outraged by the Chinese position remains to be seen. But it is obvious that Western powers lost no time in attempting to use that as a weakness against China. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the Chinese and Russian veto of a UN resolution on Syria "despicable." "They are setting themselves not only against the Syrian people but also the entire Arab awakening," she said of China and Russia, which have resisted Western, Turkish and Arab calls to push Assad from power.

That provoked a harsh response from China, with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying, "This is totally unacceptable for us." "China has always determined its stance on the Syrian issue proceeding from the peace and stability of Syria and the Middle East and from protecting the long-term, fundamental interests of the Syrian and Arab peoples," he said in China's defense.

Though it is located at a distance from Syria, China shares concerns that the civil war in the country may be a destabilizing factor across the Middle East, which it relies on heavily as the major source of oil. They raise the Iraqi and Afghan wars as well as the recent Libyan experience as bad examples of outside interference and fear the similar things may be replicated in Syria as well. That is why Chinese officials say they are hesitant to attend a "Friends of Syria" meeting in ─░stanbul next week. They want to give Annan's efforts for a politically negotiated settlement a chance.

I'm sure the Turkish prime minister's visit to China will be watched very carefully to see how the two countries will realign their policies with regard to Syria, preventing any damage to culture-based, long-term sustainable relations between the two countries located at the opposite ends of the old Silk Road.  (by today`s zaman)

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