While still a NATO member, Turkey’s foreign policy orientation has made some decisive moves towards the East, shunning its decades long sole NATO – orientation. A graphic representation of this move has not just been Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Iran in Syria or Turkey’s S-400 defence system deal with Russia—which it did despite facing significant opposition from NATO and the US – it is has also been explicitly expressed through Turkey’s desire to get integrated in the new Eurasian geography of trade that China and Russia are building. Turkey is a country located on an extremely significant geographical location and Erdogan is well versed in playing this location to its advantage vis-à-vis both the West and the East. This is best expressed through an oxymoron i.e., Turkey being the first NATO member to buy S-400 system from Russia—NATO’s primary rival.
While Turkey is unlikely to completely shun the West/NATO, there is no gainsaying that its East-West moves on the geo-political chessboard leaves it in a far better position to manoeuvre and secure its interests than being solely on NATO board. In fact, Turkey’s desire to join BRI and Eurasian integration programmes serves the same purpose. By becoming a key strategic and territorial link between the two camps, Turkey aims to maintain strong ties with both continents i.e., Europe and Asia and that too without compromising its NATO membership. For Turkey, therefore, BRI is not just a new geography of trade and economics; it is also equally beneficial in geo-strategic terms.
When he was recently in China, Turkey’s Erdogan penned an editorial in China’s Global Times newspaper, detailing how Turkey is at the heart of BRI. To quote him:
“The Middle Corridor, an initiative led by Turkey, lies at the heart of the BRI. It is an important component of the project, which links Turkey to Georgia and Azerbaijan via rail, crosses the Caspian Sea and reaches China through Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.”
Emphasising how Turkey is a key to connecting China with the whole of Europe, Erdogan wrote: “As part of this effort, we have recently launched the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) Railroad Project. Other investment projects, which we undertake as part of the Middle Corridor, include the Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge over the Bosphorus, the Eurasia Tunnel and Marmaray, the 1915 Bridge over the Dardanelles, highways, high-speed railways, logistics hubs and communication infrastructure. Those projects will directly contribute to the BRI’s goal of connecting Beijing to London.”
While Turkey is aiming to connect with BRI and Eurasian landscape, it also wants to make sure that it is able to use its strong ties with the East as a diversification card vis-à-vis the West to carve out a foreign policy space independent of NATO. This is the logic behind Erdogan’s hit at the US and its consequent endorsement of a multipolar and rule based international order—a vision that China and Russia are strongly pursuing and using to challenge US unilateralism. Thus Erdogan wrote:
“Turkey shares China’s vision when it comes to serving world peace, preserving global security and stability, promoting multilateralism, and upholding the principle of free trade. The world seeks a new, multipolar balance today. The need for a new international order, which will serve the interests of all humanity, is crystal clear. Turkey and China, the world’s most ancient civilizations, have a responsibility to contribute to building this new system.”
The sense of ‘shared responsibility’ is starting, given that until very recently Turkey had been a vociferous critic of China’s alleged repression of Uighur Muslims. But during his China visit, Erdogan did not only refrain from criticising Uighur crisis but, taking a major policy turn, gave his support to Chinese Uighur policies. “It is a fact that the people of all ethnicities in Xinjiang are leading a happy life amid China’s development and prosperity”, Erdogan was quoted as saying.
While the mainstream western media has taken to interpret this turn as ‘betrayal’ of Uighur Muslims, for Erdogan this is more of his preference to nub his ideological battle as the champion of Muslims all over the world for a more pragmatic foreign policy approach that seeks cultural and economic relations than religious or ideological confrontation—a necessary step towards finding a strong foot in China and a stepping stone towards becoming a ‘middle kingdom’ between the East and the West.
Gradually but certainly Erdogan is taking Turkey to that very direction, evident clearly from his offer to mediate between the US and Iran to defuse the on-going crisis. This is also an offer that Erdogan could not have made without prior consultation with Russia and China, who see Turkey playing exactly this role between the two rival camps in future as well.
Geographically, Turkey lies at the territorial intersection of Asia and Europe. After playing for decades the role of a typical NATO country, Erdogan has finally brought his country’s foreign policy in a close ideational proximity with the country’s territorial location. It is only now that Turkey’s foreign policy matches its geographical location, an approach that would become even more clear in the years to come.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.