ANKARA // China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping praised Turkey's growing role yesterday in trying to resolve regional issues such as the Iranian nuclear dispute and Middle East conflicts.
In Turkey on the last leg of a trip that also took him to the United States and Ireland, Mr Xi is almost sure to succeed Hu Jintao as Chinese president in just over a year.
He was feted by US leaders eager to see China import more from the United States but in Turkey yesterday, he was greeted by protests outside his Ankara hotel by some 60 Turkic-speaking Uighurs from China's north-western Xinjiang province.
Waving the flag of East Turkestan, pale blue with a white star and crescent, the protesters burnt a Chinese flag and a poster of Mr Xi before police moved in to disperse them.
Rights groups accuse China of abuses during a crackdown after Uighur riots in 2009 and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan then described the events as a "genocide".
Mr Xi said China had made great strides to raise the living standards of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang.
Turkey and China are at either end of a political and economic axis stretching along the old silk road though Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan. Both have strong, sometimes competing economic interests in the region.
Turkey, now the world's 16th biggest economy and only second to China in growth last year, has projected itself as a stable Muslim democracy, making it a key player at a time of turmoil and unrest in the Middle East.
"A member of the G20 with a growing economy and an important country in the Middle East, Turkey has for a long time tried to bring stability and development to the region and played an active role in trying to solve 'hot' issues," Mr Xi told Turkey's Sabah newspaper listing Afghanistan, the Iranian nuclear and Middle East peace efforts.
Turkey has sought to mediate between the West and Iran in a dispute over Iran's nuclear programme and has broadly shared China's opposition to stronger sanctions against Tehran.
But on Syria their positions have been sharply at odds.
While Turkey has taken a leading role in pressuring Syria's President Bashar Al Assad to step down, China, along with Russia, this month blocked a draft UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab plan urging him to quit.
China has also not decided whether to accept an invitation to discuss Syria with other world powers this week in Tunisia, a meeting Turkey's foreign minister will attend and Ankara hopes will keep up pressure for Mr Al Assad to step down.
Mr Xi met President Abdullah Gul on Tuesday and signed six bilateral economic agreements. He will later travel to Istanbul to meet Mr Erdogan, who is recovering from surgery at home there.
Today, Mr Xi attends a business forum in Istanbul, where he is likely to be assailed by exporters eager to try to bridge a gaping trade gap.
China is Turkey's 15th biggest export market with nearly US$2.5 billion (Dh9.1bn) of Turkish goods sold there last year, a rise of 8.7 per cent. But $21.6 billion worth of Chinese goods were imported to Turkey in 2011, up 26 per cent from 2010.