Three Chinese warships are have visited Istanbul while a Turkish vessel made a stop China, a "rare moment in naval diplomacy" while the two countries are navigating some rocky shoals in their military relationship.
The guided-missile frigates Linyi and Weifang and the supply ship Weishanhu arrived in Istanbul on May 24 for a five-day stay. (The Linyi and Weifang, recall, were the ships that recently took part in joint Russian-Chinese exercises in the Mediterranean and Russian Victory Day celebrations in Novorossiysk on the Black Sea.)
Meanwhile, a Turkish frigate, the TCG Gediz, visited the Chinese port of Qingdao from May 22-24. The TCG Gediz is on a long trip around the Far East, stopping in 14 countries, and although the stop in China has garnered the most attention, Turkish analysts saw the tour as part of a broader pivot to Asia. "As a Nato member, Turkey is sending everyone the message … that it can collaborate with everyone in the military field, not only with the allies of Western countries," Selcuk Colakoglu, vice-president of the Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organisation, told the South China Morning Post.
"The voyage shows Asia is increasingly more important for Turkey's foreign policy. [It] gives the message that Turkey remains a loyal ally to the West, but at the same time it will do its best to build stronger relations with the Asian countries," Altay Alti, a specialist in Asia at Bogazici University in Istanbul, told the newspaper. "It is also important to see that the frigate stops in almost every country on its route … Turkey is not choosing partners; it is trying to show it wants to engage with the region as a whole."
Turkish-Chinese military relations looked a lot stronger in 2013, when Ankara shocked its NATO partners by choosing a Chinese air defense system over American and European competitors. That blockbuster deal quickly started to unravel, however, as NATO allies pressured Turkey to change its mind, fearing that through the system China could gather sensitive NATO data. That issue remains unresolved, though Ankara has offered the American and European bidders to submit amended offers, and appears less and less likely to follow through with the Chinese deal. In September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan admitted that there were "disagreements" with China over the deal.
Still, the reciprocal visit is remarkable and rare: this is only the third time that Chinese warships have visited Turkey, and the last time a Turkish naval vessel visited China was four years ago. The coordination of the simultaneous visits appears aimed at showing strong ties, even if the reality under the surface is more complicated.