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Turkey-China Relations: Opportunities and Obstacles

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China has recently become one of the leading countries of the world economy. One of the most important indicators of China’s rise is the Belt and Road Initiative. With this initiative, the Beijing administration establishes political and economic cooperation networks between different regions in a vast geography. Turkey is also in a very important geostrategic and geo-economic position in these cooperation networks. Turkey is in a critical position for Belt and Road Initiative to be successfully implemented and ensured to be effective. Similarly, China’s economic rise and its investments under the Belt and Road Initiative offer significant opportunities for Turkey. In this context, Turkey-China relations have an important potential of development.

Economic interests are the priority of the relations. providing It is possible for Turkey to attract significant investments within the scope of Belt and Road Initiative since it can provide both land and sea transportation to the regions like Middle East, Caucasus, Black Sea, the Straits, the Mediterranean, Europe and North Africa. In fact, Chinese companies participate in many transport infrastructure investments in Turkey. However, politics and security dimensions are also crucial in bilateral relations.

It should be noted that even though Turkey is in a geography where many regions intersect, these places mostly have political instability and security issues. Especially the ongoing uncertainties in the Middle East create risks for Belt and Road Initiative and to jeopardize the interests of Turkey. In this regard, Turkey’s contribution to ensuring peace and stability in its region are also very important to China. As a regional power, Turkey’s active and constructive policy would contribute to the economic security of the investments made by China for the Belt and Road Initiative.

On the other hand, there is a potential cooperation between China and Turkey for the solution of the regional problems. Having disputes with its Western allies on regional security issues and struggling to get their support, Turkey could have advantages in Turkish foreign policy by establishing strategic relations with China. However, China pursues a foreign policy strategy that avoids being actively involved in local problems in the Middle East. Therefore, it is not realistic to expect concrete contribution to Turkey’s security problems from the Ankara-Beijing cooperation in the short term. This contribution remains mostly as a political dialogue and has a symbolic significance.

It is also known that China follows a pragmatic policy against local and regional problems in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East. This pragmatism also affects Turkey. For example, the Beijing administration prefers to remain neutral about the problems in sharing energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. While China continues its investments in Turkey, Chinese companies are involved in many construction projects the port operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. These investments are also turning to countries such as Greece, Israel and Egypt that Turkey has conflicts with in Eastern Mediterranean.

China acts pragmatically to other regional problems in the immediate surroundings of Turkey, giving priority to economic interests. Therefore, China is far from being a strategic pillar for Turkey for now. However, Turkey’s increasing problems with the West in recent years makes China a significant partner despite everything. Turkey is searching for a multi-dimensional foreign policy and considers the support of various actors in the international community important. Seeking balance with Russia because of the difficulties with the alliance of the United States in the past, Turkey continues this strategy today as well. However, the search for a diversified foreign policy instead of a balance strategy between the U.S. and Russia has become evident in recent years. It is necessary to underline the Asia Anew Initiative launched in this context. Announced in 2019 for the first time by Turkey, China has a very special place in this initiative. Both meeting the economic objectives in foreign policy and implementing new initiatives, this initiative creates new opportunities and advantages for Turkey.

However, Ankara’s search for multilateralism in foreign policy faces some difficulties. One of these difficulties is the transformation of the Washington administration’s economic, political and strategic competition with Beijing into one of the top priorities of the United States. During the Trump era, US-China relations have witnessed serious problems, especially in the field of foreign trade. The Biden administration also sees China’s rise as the most fundamental foreign policy issue. There are signs that the US-China competition will increase in the coming years. This may have consequences for Turkey, restricting its movement.

The U.S. demands more support from its allies in its strategic competition with China. This demand could become a pressure for Turkey to act together with the United States against China. Washington also directs such pressure on its European allies. However, many European countries do not see China as a threat and cooperate economically and commercially with China as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Because of polarizing politics of the U.S., Turkey’s quest for multilateral and balanced foreign policy is gaining more importance. Wanting to improve their relations with China, Turkey would prefer to find an opportunity by acting together with the European countries. Developing its relations with Europe, Turkey could face the US pressure more effectively and would increase its importance of the trade route between China and Europe.

As it can be seen, Turkey-China relations both have the valuable potential of development and face serious obstacles. It can be stated that Turkey will carry out a delicate diplomacy considering its interests and foreign policy.

Dr. Öğr. Üyesi Emre OZAN
ANKASAM Türk Dış Politikası ve Uluslararası Güvenlik Danışmanı