06.07.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

In the Next Big Power Rivalry, Turkey Stands pro-US


As I pointed out in one of my previous pieces for NEO, a cardinal purpose that the US wants to achieve through bashing China and casting it as an inherent enemy is division of the world into blocs, creating a chain of ‘trusted partners’ and establishing a ‘network of economic prosperity’ under its own domination. Such a policy by the US is inevitably going to push smaller countries to take pro-US or pro-China position, although there will still be countries claiming to follow a ‘balanced approach.’ The spread of COVID-19 worldwide is also changing the world in an unprecedented way. With the already on-going rift between the US and China exacerbated by the pandemic and the US’ subsequent deliberate anti-China discourse, significant geo-political cracks have appeared—opportunities that countries like Turkey are aiming to grasp to position themselves at the intersection of post COVID-19 big-power rivalry and thus materialise their own ambitions.

Turkey’s direct military involvement in Libya is one example where the country’s leadership is in hot pursuit of a cherished Turkish dream of creating a ‘Neo-Ottoman’ empire. The US and Turkey, despite their many disagreements over the Kurdish question in Syria, are already ‘coordinating’ in Libya and Turkey’s recent military successes are likely to further encourage the US to take a pro-Turkey position.

The expanding cooperation in Libya is one example where the two NATO allies are ‘coming together.’ Turkey is also wilfully taping into the increasing US-China rift and increasingly positioning itself as a new and alternative ‘supply chain.’ This was indeed the agenda of the recently held Turkey-American Business Council virtual conference where Turkey’s vice president openly offered Turkey as the an “alternative supply chain”, saying that the pandemic has exposed “the importance of self-sufficiency and alternative supply chains”, adding that “the world economy will move from a single supply chain to a multiple supply chain” in the post-pandemic world, potentially providing significant opportunities to countries with advanced manufacturing bases, such as Turkey. A potential de-coupling between the US and China is thus an opportunity for countries like Turkey to push and occupy the space.

Turkey, as it stands, in not just seeking to make offers. In fact, it is actively lobbying to present itself to the US as an alternative supply chain, replacing China. The US senator, Lindsay Graham, who is close to Donald Trump and has a strong say on national security issues, is going to participate in another virtual conference organised by Turkish-American Business Council with an eye on utilising the worsening the US-China rift to bring a turnaround in their bi-lateral relations.

Significantly enough, this virtual conference is called ‘A Time for Allies to be Allies: Turkish American Global Supply Chain.’ Its purpose, as the head of Turkish-American business council explained in a letter to Graham, is to create “joint ventures in Africa [which] could be an exciting part of this plan. Not only would we be helping fragile economies that will need assistance in recovering, but we also would be striking a blow against Chinese designs in Africa and forging closer economic ties between Turkey and the US.”

Coupled with it is Turkey’s sustained effort towards improving its ties with the US’ top ally in the Middle East, Israel. Turkey’s pro-government newspapers have been systematically reporting ‘improving’ business ties between the two countries, coming at particularly a time when the pandemic led many Israeli businesses to shift Chinese orders to Turkey.

According to these reports, Turkey’s foreign trade volume with Israel has stood at around $5 billion-$6 billion since 2013, reaching a maximum level of $6.6 billion in 2019. Exports to Israel surged by 4.9% in the January-March period compared with the same period of 2019, reaching $1.1 billion. In the same period, imports from Israel decreased by 1.4% to $464.3 million. Thus, the foreign trade volume between the two countries, which was $1.5 billion in the first quarter of 2019, increased by 3% in the same period of 2020.

According to Turkey-Israel Business Council Chairman İbrahim Sinan Ak, eyeing Turkey as an alternative to China, “The crisis with China has shown many importers the cons of dependence on a single country for purchases. I believe that companies will act to expand their manufacturing options with several countries from now on.”

Israeli carrier El Al has now resumed cargo flights to Turkey. An El Al plane landed in Istanbul on May 24 for the first time since flights were halted following the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010.

There are, of course, other geo-political matters where Turkey and Israeli interests converge. Israel’s in-charge for affairs with Turkey, Roey Gilad, wrote a piece last month for the Turkish Halimiz news site saying that Iran’s presence in Syria worked against Ankara’s interests and that Lebanon’s Hezbollah group had played a dominant part in a battle in Idlib in which more than 50 Turkish soldiers lost their lives. The purpose of such reasoning is of course to provide a linchpin for greater geo-political convergence between the two countries.

As it stands, Turkey’s foreign policy is undergoing a major shift amidst the pandemic. The shift is big in that Turkey is not merely ‘choosing sides’ for the post pandemic world order, but also re-positioning itself in a way that can best suit its interests in both the Middle East and Africa.

Therefore, while Turkey may still be miles away, there is no gainsaying that it has turned its face towards the US and sees itself as a global ‘supply chain’ power, deeply allied with the US, countering the expanding Chinese presence and influence.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook