Since 2010, Turkey has been increasingly seeking to improve ties with China and as a consequence it has been overhauling its policy positions. The most obvious reason for this change in direction is the growing economic crisis linked to domestic political challenges which are forcing Turkey to look East.
Take for example the striking policy change in Turkey’s position regarding the Uyghur minority in China. President Erdogan initially strongly condemned the horrific human rights violations, even qualifying the Chinese repression in East Turkestan, the Uyghur region, as “a genocide” – But times have changed! Turkey is now offering China carte blanche to commit atrocities against ‘fellow’ Muslims, in return for economic benefits. This is an era when self-interests outshine the great ideals to which authoritarian leaders used to pay lip service.
President Erdogan today accuses the French President, Emmanuel Macron, of “Islamophobia” because of Macron’s strong words against the Islamist terrorist attacks and his refusal to denounce the “Charlie Hebdo” caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed. Yet, Mr Erdogan has remained silent on the well documented ethnic cleansing of a muslim population in China, violations which include torture, imprisonment, murder, rape and forced organ harvesting amongst its human rights abuses – and all under the banner of “re-education” to annihilate the Uyghur language, its culture and its people.
Even within his own country, President Erdogan has persecuted muslims. Previous supporters of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Gülenists, were hunted down, imprisoned and even assassinated. In order to remain in power and target any opposition, the AKP formed an alliance with the country’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). It was this influential force that, among others, brought Turkey closer to China as both powers shared a resistance to rule-of-law reforms and an anti-Western discourse.
At a time when Erdogan’s regime and Turkey’s economy were both in crisis, China’s hand-outs became a welcomed relief to fund infrastructure and to maintain a veneer of development. The Chinese investments have been much smaller than the aid given by Europe, but the China-Turkey relationship has profited from significant additional benefits.
As it has become increasingly clear that Turkey has little, if any, chance of attaining European Union membership, the country and its leadership has distanced itself further and further from the West, even courting with the notion of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation alongside China and Russia. Chinese investments have helped President Erdogan avoid seeking financial assistance from Western-dominated institutions and they have also helped him avoid asking the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loans which would have required Turkey to commit to reforms and other measures that could have undermined the President’s control over the economy.
Rebalancing strategic relations is an ideal option for any dictator! China is the perfect match for Turkey, with China having been increasingly criticised by Western countries for its anti-democratic practices and its human rights violations, and having alienated itself from its regional neighbours. Thus, Erdogan proposes a new paradigm for Turkey and China as “the world’s most ancient civilisations” to pursue a multipolar world order where Turkey and China have “a responsibility to contribute to building this new system”.
China has, on several instances, had an antagonistic relationship with strategic rivals such as the US, Russia or the EU, but strengthening its relationship with Turkey offers many incentives. Additionally, as Turkey becomes more and more aggressive in the region, – Armenia, Libya, Cyprus, Syria, – its previously intimate relationship with Russia is now faltering as Presidents Putin and Erdogan support opposite interests. China may yet benefit from the fall out of Erdogan’s goals to become the new Ottoman Sultan and appoint himself Leader of the Islamic World.
Furthermore, Turkey as a NATO member, is strategically placed at the crossroads of three continents with a large market for infrastructure, energy, defence technology and telecommunications. This is a vital elements for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as it provides a foothold on the Mediterranean Sea and thus directly into Europe. China has already started to materialise these ambitions with the new rail infrastructure which connects Kars, in East Turkey, to Baku, through to Georgia, Central Asia and China. Alongside this, China also needs Turkey in order to build an alliance of Turkish speaking Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, to achieve its long term objective of removing the old Russian influence.
Chinese owned Huawei has already become the largest IT company in Turkey, whilst military and intelligence cooperation has also strengthened between the two authoritarian regimes. China has secured 65% of the largest container port of Kumport, near Istanbul, and in January 2020 it was a Chinese Group who bought 51% of the famous Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge of Istanbul, connecting Asia to Europe. China has also contributed $1,7 billion for the construction of the Hunutlu Thermal Plant coal electricity plant by the Mediterranean Sea, demonstrating that any commitment to the COP 21 environmental goals was little more than a gesture.
Not surprisingly, as with all Chinese support, what China gives with one hand -China takes double in the other, and Turkey will pay the price as it becomes more and more dependent on China, meaning we can expect to see Erdogan fast become China’s new puppet. Nonetheless, if Western partners fail to move their relationship with Turkey forward, the chances are that China will only increase its strangle hold over Ankara and Erdogan as we have seen it do with other countries such as Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and across Africa. Any alliances between Turkey’s megalomanic Erdogan and Xi Jinping’s dictatorship can never bring peace to the planet.
Photo Credit : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Recep_Tayyip_Erdo%C4%9Fan