While there is a lot of enthusiasm in the Joe Biden led Washington regarding reining Ankara back in the US-led western alliance, it remains that the wedge that today exists between the two countries may be too wide for Biden and Erdogan to fill through their leveraging their ‘old friendship.’ For one thing, Turkey’s troubled ties with the US in particular, and the West in general, are not simply a result of some general policy differences between them over, for instance, the US support for Kurdish militias in Syria. Such differences are, in fact, structural and symptomatic of deep-seated political and ideological differences that exist between the two countries. Turkey, as it stands, is no longer the secular, westernised and a staunchly anti-Soviet state that it was during the hight of Cold War. Contemporary Turkey is being led by an Islamist regime, which not only espouses ambitions to expand Turkey’s influence to the erstwhile Ottoman territories in Asia and Africa, but does not hesitate to use its military muscle to materialise its foreign policy goals as well. At the same time, Turkey espouses to attain a sufficient level of autonomy from the West to pursue its national interests, even if it entails establishing relations with the US’ primary competitors like Russia and China.
For the US, however, reining Turkey back in the Western fold is precisely important for its growing ties with Russia and China. Whereas Turkey has developed reasonably string defense ties with Russia through its purchase of the state-of-the-art S400 missile defense system, its relations with China, despite Turkey’s criticism of China’s treatment of its Muslim population in Xinjiang, are growing fast enough to unsettle policy makers in both Washington and Brussels. Stopping Ankara from developing too deep and too strong ties with China, therefore, is immensely important for the Biden administration, which is already taking decisive steps to revamp its tussle with China.
On December 3, 2020, the first freight train carrying goods from Turkey to China began its 12 days journey, passing through two continents, two seas and five countries to deliver its cargo to China. In March 2021, the third export train from Turkey to China was sent along the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway corridor.
Turkey’s growing association with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a direct result of Turkey’s own growing economic needs and its need to attract trade and investment with and from China. This has been necessitated not only by Turkey’s consistently bad ties with the West, but also by how western companies have been staying away from Turkey discouraging investment and pumping billions of dollars out of Turkey.
It is, therefore, logical to see Turkey developing strong trade ties with non-Western economies. Since 2016, China and Turkey have signed 10 bilateral agreements. China is already Turkey’s second-largest import partner after Russia. It invested US$3 billion in Turkey between 2016 and 2019 and intends to double that by the end of next year.
China’s direct investment in Turkey is apart from how cash inflows from China have helped Erdogan to maintain his grip on domestic politics and avert political backlash.
Turkey’s growing association with China’s BRI is also evident from the fact that Turkey and China, since at least June 2020, have been using yuan to settle payments for Turkish imports from China. Bi-lateral trade volume totalled US$21.08 billion between China and Turkey in 2020, with imports from China recording US$18.49 billion, accounting for 9.1 percent of Turkey’s total imports. Mutual trade is growing at an unprecedented pace ever since the railroad from Istanbul covering a distance of 8,693 kilometers across Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Kazakhstan to reach the Chinese city of Xi’an became operational at the end of the 2020. This has already led to a whopping increase of almost 44 per cent in bilateral trade in the first three months of 2021, reaching US$8 billion.
Therefore, while it makes perfect sense for Turkey to massively expand its existing rail networks and position itself as an indispensable link dominating the ancient Silk Roads from China to Europe, it makes little to no sense for the same Turley to sacrifice its strategic position to win certain military favours from the US, especially the access to F-35 programme, or Turkey’s role in European politics. Both the US and the EU have nothing substantial to offer to Turkey to completely wean it away from China and Russia. On the other hand, Turkish policy makers have a strong sense that Brussels will be permanently biased against Turkey, given Greek and Cypriot membership in the EU.
Therefore, while Washington and Ankara may be able to dig up some ground with regards to the settlement of crisis in Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, there is no denying, given the depth of Turkey’s ties with both Russia and China, that Turkey and the US would have a very hard time finding a common ground against countries that the Biden administration is aiming to enlist allies against. In other words, while Ankara may be willing to ally with the US in certain geo-political conflicts, it is extremely unlikely, and may even be completely unwilling, to provide a support in the US’ ‘Cold War’ vis-à-vis China.
Given the nature of the regime in Ankara – which espouses to make Turkey a leading player – what the US can hope and the best it can do is continue to exploit Turkey’s ambitions of autonomy as much as possible to its advantage. If Washington continues to persist in making Turkey unconditionally comply with the US agenda, the Biden administration would most likely find itself in a wrong territory facing a seriously disadvantageous geo-political scenario where the very states it is aiming to counter have already developed strong enough ties to resist such pressures.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.