A Sino-Turkish balancing act: Economy vs geopolitics

Erman Çete, The Cradle, August 7, 2023 —

The geopolitical competition between Beijing and Ankara challenges their mutually harmonious Silk Road initiatives. As western pressure on China and its Asian periphery increases, will NATO-member Turkiye choose growth and development over a hegemonic clash?

In the highest-level meeting between Chinese and Turkish officials since 2011, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi – also a Politburo Member of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee – late last month to Ankara. 

Per Turkish accounts, the dominant agenda on the table was the advancement of mutually-beneficial economic issues. After their private discussion, Turkiye’s president expressed his desire to fast-track efforts to align China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with Turkiye’s Middle Corridor Initiative (MCI) and to launch the first meeting of the High-Level Working Group established for this purpose. 

However, Chinese media’s portrayal of the event suggested a deeper geopolitical agenda. According to CGTN, Erdogan told Yi that Ankara does not support NATO’s intensifying campaign in the Asia-Pacific region, and is willing to maintain communication and coordination with Beijing on international and regional issues such as the Ukraine crisis. 

The report noted that recent US-China tensions were also referenced, with Erdogan confirming that “Turkiye adheres to the one-China principle and believes that China’s development is not a threat.” 

The significance of this meeting lies in the growing trade volume between Turkiye and China, which surged by over one-third between 2015 to 2021 (from $27.3 billion to $36 billion), according to the Turkish ministry of foreign affairs. While Turkiye once aspired to emulate China’s success, it now serves as a semi-developed raw material exporter to its vastly more advanced counterpart. Turkiye exports various goods, including marble, metals, and ores, while importing high-tech products like phones and data processing machines from China.

Beijing’s recognition of Turkiye as a regional power

The confluence of the BRI and the MCI represents more than just economic ties; it indicates a broader geopolitical realignment. Shanghai-based strategic analyst Shaoyu Cen believes that China recognizes the need to collaborate with regional powers to successfully implement the BRI, telling The Cradle:

“As long as Turkiye helps stabilize this region and enhance the connectivity, China would be glad to see it play an important role as a regional power. If it can balance the US on some issues, it would be even better.”

For Cen, the main obstacle in the way of more cordial Sino-Turkish relations is the Uyghur issue in China’s Xinjiang region. “Turkiye always criticized China on the issue for years. Some Turks even viewed Xinjiang as a part of the pan-Turkism ambition,” says the analyst. Nonetheless, dreaming of interfering in Xinjiang “is exactly an act of overreaching for Turkiye.”

Today, Ankara finds itself at the intersection of conflicting east-west geopolitical interests, particularly regarding the Asia-Pacific region. Umit Alperen, a Visiting Professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, informs The Cradle that Ankara’s approach to the Asia-Pacific is primarily economic, rather than political or security-centered:

“NATO’s increasing interaction with QUAD and AUKUS as well as Japan and South Korea in the Indo-Pacific does not ‘directly’ serve Turkiye’s interests. It is no longer a secret that the main objective of NATO’s increased activity in the Indo-Pacific is to limit China’s sphere of influence in the region. Turkiye does not want to be a ‘visible’ part of NATO who is going beyond its own sphere, a force that limits China.” 

For Alperen, although Turkiye has not yet mended its relations with the west, it is natural that it does not want to antagonize China in regions that are not in its direct sphere of interest.

However, Ankara faces a delicate balancing act: NATO-member Turkiye cannot overtly resist NATO’s Asia-Pacific strategy due to its deep economic ties with countries like Japan and South Korea. Turkiye’s defense industry also shares a significant partnership with South Korea. 

According to Alperen, it is unlikely that Turkiye would oppose the inclusion of South Korea and Japan in NATO’s Asia-Pacific strategy: “Turkiye will probably not oppose NATO’s Indo-Pacific strategy, but will give its silent support.” 

Overlapping Silk Road initiatives 

The Middle Corridor is a rail-based transportation route, connecting Europe through China, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Turkiye. This corridor, known as the Trans-Caspian East-West-Middle Corridor Initiative, is a crucial component of the historical Silk Road revival. For Turkiye, the Middle Corridor represents the realization of a long-standing pan-Turkist dream: a direct connection to Central Asia through Caucasia.

In the context of China’s BRI, the Middle Corridor serves primarily as a supplementary route. However, for Turkiye, it holds greater significance as it strengthens its ties to Turkic states in Central Asia. This interconnectedness between the BRI and the MCI also poses challenges as it brings China and Turkiye into competition over European trade. 

Alperen tells The Cradle: “For the European market, China’s and Turkiye’s products are not complementary to each other, but rather alternatives.” He posits that the increase in China’s market share in Europe causes a decrease in Turkiye’s market share in Europe, and this goes for North Africa, West Asia, and Central Asia markets, too.

In recognition of these dynamics, prominent Turkish businessmen proposed in 2020 to use Turkiye as the US’s gateway to Africa, countering China’s influence in the continent. The Chairman of the Turkiye-US Business Council (TAIK), Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, wrote a letter to Republican Senator Lindsay Graham suggesting that:

“Joint ventures in Africa 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.”

The intensified competition between Chinese and Turkish construction firms has played out in Africa for a decade, in which Turkish companies have blamed China for “unfair competition” in the continent. In 2019, struggling Turkish contractors feared being swallowed by cash-abundant Chinese firms. But today, some analysts suggest that Turkish companies are now “nipping at China’s heels across the continent.”

NATO’s limited role in Asia 

In Cen’s point of view, NATO does not actually have any “serious plans” in Asia, and regional countries do not believe NATO will actively engage in conflicts “close to the giant,” given China’s proximity.

Some NATO members, driven by “anti-China hysterics,” may seek involvement near China, but Cen believes it wise for Turkiye to distance itself from such impulses. To which Alperen adds this insight:

“China does not pose a visible problem for Ankara on major issues such as Cyprus, the Aegean, the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria, which Turkey regards as its priority areas of interest.”

While an alliance or close friendship between Turkiye and China may be unrealistic, Ankara’s refusal to become a yes-man for the west holds value for Beijing. Turkiye’s independent and influential regional power status makes it a precious friend of China. 

Meanwhile, Beijing continues to closely monitor Ankara’s increasing influence in the Caucasus – particularly after the Second Karabakh War in 2020 – and its growing influence on Central Asian countries, which still raises concerns about Pan-Turkic imperialism.

Turkiye’s balanced approach between the US and China, as well as its growing influence in Central Asia, provides leverage for Ankara in its relations with China. NATO’s expanding presence in the Asia-Pacific region could also elevate Turkiye’s role as an important actor in global affairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *