Erdoğan’s Chinese trip an exercise in realpolitik

Much has been said and written about the ideological turn in Turkish foreign policy under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). Rightly so. For years, Erdoğan’s ideas and worldview have left their imprint on the state’s external relations. From Turkey’s response to the Arab spring to the present-day chill in ties with the United States, there are multiple examples suggesting that the cold-blooded calculation of national interest is overridden by value judgments or outright biases. With so much power in the hands of one individual, such a drift appears all but inevitable. No need to look further than Erdoğan’s beliefs, pet hates, fears and affinities to tease out why Turkey did X to country Y on day Z. 

That latter may be true yet it does not necessarily imply Turkish foreign policy has parted ways with its venerable realpolitik traditions. Erdoğan’s trip to China this week, along with an entourage of ministers and high-ranking officials such as intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, proves the point. Underscoring Ankara’s support for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) along with its ambition to deepen economic and security cooperation with Beijing, it sends a strong signal that it is seeking to diversify its international alliances away from the United States and Russia. Turkey conceives of itself as neither an outpost of the West, nor Moscow’s junior partner, but rather an aspiring player in a multi-polar global order. The so-called “Middle Corridor” part of the BRI connecting China to Europe via Turkey (and bypassing Russia), does smack of grand geopolitics.  

Long-term ambitions carry an immediate price however. It may have come to many as a shock that Erdoğan fully bought into the Chinese line on Xinjiang, the northwestern province populated largely by Muslim Uighurs and other Turkic groups such as Kazakhs and Uzbeks. His remarks to Xi Jinping, as reported by the Chinese state media, are nothing short of startling: “It is a fact that the peoples of China’s Xinjiang region live happily in China’s development and prosperity … Turkey does not permit any person to incite disharmony in the Turkey-China relationship. Turkey firmly opposes extremism and is willing to increase mutual political trust with China and strengthen security cooperation.”  

Erdoğan could have kept silent about the plight of the Uighurs, one million of whom have been detained in Chinese “re-education camps”, according to international human rights organisations. But instead he chose to recycle wholesale the Chinese narrative. The reference to extremism in Xinjiang should raise eyebrow in Turkey too. Like Russia, China has not classified the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organisation. In effect, the Turkish leader has gone an extra mile to ingratiate China, at the expense of Turkey’s ethnic kin. It is worth remembering that back in 2009 Erdoğan described the Chinese crackdown on riots in Xinjiang as “a genocide”, and that, as recently as February this year, a Turkish Foreign Ministry statement called the detention camps “a great shame for humanity”. 

Such a u-turn, as shocking as it is, should come as no surprise. It is not without precedent either. Whenever Turkey has had to make a choice between fellow Turkic or Muslim groups and its security or economic priorities the latter have taken precedence. Thus, the concern for Crimean Tatars did not compel Ankara to join Western sanctions against Russia in 2014.  Some Turkey watchers might even remember how Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, on a visit to Moscow in November 1999 where he met his freshly appointed colleague by the name of Vladimir Putin, characterised the Second Chechen War and the host nation military’s scorched earth campaign as “Russia’s internal matter”. What is really new is Erdoğan’s unparalleled ability to juggle both roles – of a passionate defender of downtrodden Muslims across the globe and of a cool-hearted statesman putting Turkey’s needs first. 

The question, as ever, is what Turkey is getting out of this charm offensive. Ankara’s top concern vis-à-vis China is no different from those of the United States and Europe. Trade between the two countries is massively skewed in Beijing’s favour. Though Erdoğan raised the subject during his last visit to China four years later, the imbalance has grown over time. Turkey’s trade deficit with China has widened from $15 billion in 2017, to $18 billion in 2018. 

Ankara is surely hoping to even the playing field by attracting investment through the Belt and Road Initiative. To be sure, Chinese FDI in the Turkish economy has been on the rise – in sectors such as finance, logistics, energy and telecommunications. China is financing critical infrastructure such as the Transanatiolian Pipeline (TANAP) and has been involved in the development of a high-speed train network in Turkey. Yet capital inflows from China are a small fraction in comparison to those from the European Union.  

In 2017, Turkey attracted $4.7 billion in FDI from Europe and just $986 million from China. China is unlikely to replace the EU as an export market or investor anytime soon. Erdoğan’s vision of trade reaching $100 billion, expressed in an on-ed in Global Times, does not look realistic.  

The defence sector could no doubt provide opportunities for cooperation. Turkey would like to develop its military industrial complex and China, a rising military power with aspirations to be a technological leader, is a prospective partner. The record is at best mixed however.  

In 2013, Turkey concluded a $3.4 billion contract with the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation, a state-owned firm, to procure a missile defence system. But the deal faltered later on, mainly because of Ankara’s insistence on co-production and technology transfer. Cancellation came just before Xi Jinping’s visit to the G20 summit in Antalya, and was therefore a personal sleight of sorts (these days, of course, we are reliving the saga, this time with Russia’s S-400s and geopolitical stakes raised higher). In past months, Chinese defence officials have attended exercises in Turkey. Ismail Demir, president of Turkey’s Defence Industries, accompanied Erdoğan and Defence minister Hulusi Akar in China. That is a clear indication that new deals might be in the pipeline.  

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.