China offers Erdoğan a lifeline for his politico-economic troubles - analysts

The strategic partnership between China and Turkey give Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a lifeline for his political and economic woes, analysts wrote in an article published by Foreign Policy on Wednesday.

Strengthening Sino-Turkish relations “appears to benefit both sides”, said Ayça Alemdaroğlu, associate director of the programme on Turkey at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, and Sultan Tepe, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“China has found a highly strategic foothold in Turkey – a NATO member with a large market for energy, infrastructure, defence technology and telecommunications at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa,” they wrote. “For Turkey and Erdoğan, China provides desperately needed resources to fund high-profile megaprojects and maintain the veneer of development despite the crippling economic reality underneath.”

The pundits said cash flows from China, Turkey’s second-largest import partner after Russia, have become critical for Erdoğan’s government and has “strengthened the president’s hand at crucial moments”.

China and Turkey have signed 10 bilateral agreements, including on health and nuclear energy, since 2016, according to the Turkish parliament’s official website. China intends to invest $6 billion in Turkey by 2021, doubling its investment made between 2016 and 2019, the Daily Sabah reported in March 2019.

Alemdaroğlu and Tepe also cited other examples of China “coming to Erdoğan’s rescue”.

When the Turkish lira’s value dropped by more than 40 percent in 2018, the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China provided Ankara $3.6 billion in loans for ongoing energy and transportation projects, they said, citing China’s Xinhua state news agency.

Following indications of crumbling support for Erdoğan in the wake of the Istanbul municipal elections last year, China’s central bank transferred $1 billion – the largest cash inflow under a swap agreement between the two countries’ central banks that was last renewed in 2012.

China “is now allowing Turkish companies to use the Chinese yuan to make trade payments, allowing them easier access to Chinese liquidity” in another step up in financial cooperation and a boost to Erdoğan’s popularity, which has dwindled this year during the coronavirus pandemic and Turkey’s severe currency shortage, Alemdaroğlu and Tepe wrote.

“Chinese cash helps Erdoğan avoid seeking help from Western-dominated institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, which would require him to commit to reforms and other measures that could undermine his unfettered control over the country’s economy,” they said.

China also “provides desperately needed resources to fund high-profile megaprojects and maintain the veneer of development despite the crippling economic reality underneath,” they said.

Aside from economic cooperation, China and Turkey have deepened bilateral military and security ties, including in intelligence and cyberwarfare. The participation of Chinese military officers in Turkey’s Ephesus military exercise in 2018 and the Turkish-made Bora ballistic missile are products of bilateral defence cooperation.

Chinese technology companies Huawei and ZTE have secured a foothold in the Turkish telecommunications market despite international Allegations about Chinese use of telecommunications infrastructure for state surveillance and suppression – a worrisome prospect for the population in Turkey that relies on internet and social media to access information at a time when other media channels are under strict state control, Alemdaroğlu and Tepe said.

The two experts said being shunned by Western countries for their “anti-democratic practices at home and expansionism abroad” has brought China and Turkey closer together.

“Neither has many friends in its region. Both share a vision of challenging the hegemony of the United States and an international order based on Western-created institutions,” they wrote.

“Casualties of the emerging Sino-Turkish strategic partnership are groups like the Uighurs and dissidents in both countries whose protection requires responsive political systems where rights and freedoms are protected through democratic institutions and processes without making them secondary to economic survival and growth.”