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 is the growing economic crisis linked to domestic political challenges which are forcing Turkey to look in the direction of China.
Take for example the striking policy change in Turkey’s position regarding the Uyghur minority in China. President Erdogan initially strongly condemned the incidents relating to the horrific human rights violations, even qualifying the Chinese repression in East Turkestan, the Uyghur region, as “a genocide”. But times have changed! Erdogan Administration 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 President Macron’s strong words against the Islamist terrorist attacks and his refusal to denounce the “Charlie Hebdo” caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed. Yet, President 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 his fellow 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 AK Party 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 Administration 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 Presidents control over the economy.
Rebalancing strategic relations is an ideal option for any autocratic government. China is the perfect match for Turkey with China having been increasingly criticised by Western countries for its anti-democratic practices, its human rights violations, and having alienated itself from its regional neighbours. Thus, President 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 President Putin and President Erdogan support opposite interests. China may yet benefit from the fall out of President Erdogan’s goals to become the new Sultan and appoint himself the 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, Azarbaijan through to Georgia, Central Asia and China. Alongside this, China also needs Turkey to build an alliance of Turkish speaking Central Asian states such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan with the long-term objective of removing the long-standing 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 a Chinese Group bought 51% of the famous Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge of Istanbul, connecting Asia to Europe. It has also contributed $1,7 billion for the construction of the Hunutlu Thermal Power 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 it gives with one hand it takes double in the other, and Turkey will pay the price as it becomes more and more dependent on China – and we can expect to see President Erdogan rapidly becoming China’s yes-man. 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 President Erdogan as we have seen it with other countries such as Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and across Africa. Any alliances between Erdogan Administration and President Xi Jinping’s dictatorship can never bring peace to the planet.
NOTE | This opinion was contributed by Flo Van den Broeck.