Turkey’s closer ties to China ‘will be economic’ as Nato and EU retain share of loyalty
Suggestion by Turkish President Erdogan of shift to East overlooks strategic constraints – but China ‘may be only country to offer funds without preconditions’
China may have emerged as an alternative ally for Turkey while its relations with the US have deteriorated, but it is yet to become an all-out strategic partner for the country, with its security and economic policies still shaped largely by Nato and the European Union.
US-Turkey tension further escalated on Wednesday when Turkey announced it would increase tariffs on American rice, vehicle, alcohol, coal and cosmetics products.
The measure was a “retaliation for the conscious economic attacks by the United States”, Turkey’s vice-president Fuat Oktay explained, referring to the US’ decision last Friday to double its tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium.
The US also blocked its sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey as the country’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Monday, vowing stronger cooperation – hinting at a possible change in the status quo on the region’s security.
On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would like to form “a new alliance” with China, Iran and Russia to resist economic pressures imposed by the Donald Trump administration.
Some analysts predicted Beijing, while embroiled in a trade war with the US, may offer some financial assistance to Turkey, such as buying yuan-denominated bonds.
Earlier this month, Cavusoglu met Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing and promised to treat security threats to China as threats to itself, pledging that it would not allow any “anti-China activities” within its territory.
Meanwhile, Turkey has refused to agree to US President Trump’s latest demand, made in July, for the release of American pastor Andrew Brunson. The pastor has been held in Turkey since October 2016 on charges of aiding terrorists in a failed coup in July of that year.
Kadir Temiz, an international relations expert at Istanbul Sehir University, said the US-Turkey crisis was an opportunity to step up Sino-Turkish relations.
“Although China does not want to upset the US, it is in China’s national interest to cooperate with Turkey, which is still a geo-strategically important country between Europe and Asia,” he said.
Tit-for-tat measures with the US have prompted suggestions that Turkey may actively seek a fundamental change in its strategic orientation – from the West to the East – with the capital Ankara’s relations with the West at an all-time low since the failed military coup in 2016.
Turkey-based experts, however, have noted that China’s influence is still largely confined to the economy.
Dimitris Tsarouhas, an assistant professor in the department of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, said: “Turkey remains a Nato country and, from a military perspective, this limits its ability to manoeuvre in search of new alliances.”
Ferit Temur, an Ankara-based policy analyst on Russia and Eurasia, also said Erdogan’s speech demanding the US abandon its hostile policy towards Turkey and threatening to form new alliances with the East was “a routine, weak political act”.
“It would be unrealistic to believe that Turkey would fully integrate its security with the East,” Temur said. “Turkey has been economically, politically and culturally under Western influence for the last two centuries.”
Turkey has been a member of Nato since 1952, three years after the transatlantic security alliance – now comprising 29 North American and European powers – was established to counter the Soviet Union’s influence.
Meanwhile, it is currently only a “dialogue partner” at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the China and Russia-led security bloc, despite Erdogan’s declaration of interest in upgrading that status.
In 2013, Turkey agreed a US$3.4 billion order for its first missile defence system from China, but it was called off in 2015 after opposition from Washington and Nato.
Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, said China was not likely to be a substitute for Nato or even Russia in Turkey’s security.
“Russia would be Turkey’s more likely security partner before China, since the two countries already have a working relationship in Syria. Erdogan will try to develop better ties with China – not for security but for economic reasons.
“Turkey needs high levels of foreign capital in the short run to sustain its economic growth – and after Qatar, China may be the only country to offer such funds without preconditions.”
Selcuk Colakoglu, the director of the Turkish Centre for Asia Pacific Studies in Ankara, agreed that Turkey would rather consider Russia as a security alternative to Nato, and that China was well aware of deep-rooted US alliance with Turkey.
Turkey announced in December that it had concluded an agreement with Russia to buy two Russian S-400 defence missile systems by late 2019. “As a distant neighbour, China is adopting a wait-and-see and careful diplomacy approach [in Turkey],” Colakoglu said.
While Ankara currently perceives China to be a source of finance, it is also a priority for Turkey to maintain long-term relations with the EU, according to Colakoglu.
“Turkey is also putting more importance on EU countries to avoid a full confrontation with the West,” he said. “There are certain procedures and the rule of law in the EU that mean that, even if there are crises with certain EU countries, there is a limitation in using economic retaliation and sanctions.
“Turkish companies feel more safe doing business with EU countries.”