Envisioning the Asia-Pacific Century: Turkey between the United States and China

December 09, 2011, Friday/ 10:52:00

In her Foreign Policy article, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that “the Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics.”

Accordingly, she said “the future of politics will be decided in Asia, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”1 Obviously, Sino-American relations will be the most critical aspect of the Asia-Pacific century. However, agreement between the United States and China on economic issues may be as difficult as agreement on ideology, particularly at times of economic crisis.

Several developments herald upcoming competition between the two states. For Beijing, developments in the Middle East are alarming, as the Arab Spring is turning out to be a process in which China faces the risk of isolation in the region. Secondly, China’s negative impact on the U.S. economy, like the US$200 billion net account deficit and the refusal of China to allow its currency to appreciate, creates doubt in the appropriateness of optimism about the future of bilateral relations. It seems to be a matter of obvious necessity for the U.S. government to take measures against China.

However, third parties like Turkey present critical issues in a possible Sino-American competition. The question is as simple as this: How will Turkey position itself between the United States and China while those states are in competition?

AKP’s Imprint on Bilateral Relations

Turkey recognized the government of China in 1971. Süleyman Demirel, leader of the leading center-right party at the time, declared that there was no benefit for Turkey in recognizing “red China.” Ironically, Demirel, as president, paid an official visit to China in 1995. Yet, in retrospect, relations with China were quite low profile. Despite certain very short-term fads, Turkey had no sophisticated strategy towards China. In the late 1990s, for example, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit’s interest in China was blocked by the nationalist coalition partner, the Nationalist Action Party, because of the Turkic-Uyghur issue.

It is only with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) coming to power that relations with China have become a key foreign policy issue. Tayyip Erdoğan visited China in 2003 as the leader of his party, since at the time he was not formally the prime minister. During this visit, Erdoğan declared Turkey’s full support for China’s territorial integrity with his reference to “one united China,” diplomatic shorthand for rejecting Uygur demands for autonomy or even independence from China. During the visit, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji said that his country was well aware of Turkey’s key geopolitical position as the bridge between the West and the East. The first AKP government included a long section on China in its first government program, which was read in Parliament in 2003. In this section, the government stated its strong intention to develop close connections with China. The AKP’s special attention to China continued during Abdullah Gül’s visit to China in 2005 as foreign affairs minister. Again, the Uygur issue was kept off the official agenda. Briefly, the AKP government gave a well-designed message to China emphasizing that Turkey’s main interest is in economic cooperation.

Meanwhile, military relations also boomed. In 2005, the commander general of the Turkish Air Force visited China and expressed interest in middle-range missile systems. In the same year, the Chinese chief of general staff visited Turkey. Turkey’s interest in missile technology resulted in the country’s membership in the Asia Pacific Space Cooperation Organization in 2006. The inclusion of Chinese soldiers in various Turkish military programs also began at that time.

The deterioration of bilateral relations with Israel made Turkey think more positively about China. China condemned Israel’s raid on the Turkish flotilla carrying aid to Gaza. As a result, in 2010, Chinese military jets were invited to a military exercise in Konya to replace the previously invited Israeli jets. Unsurprisingly, the United States did not permit the participation of the jointly made F16 Turkish jets, yet demanded detailed information from the Turkish side.

In general, the AKP contextualized its new China policy as part of its new multi-dimensional, dynamic foreign-policy doctrine. Turkey rejects the view that its interest in China, or in any other state, is an alternative to its relations with the West. Thus, the political jargon used to legitimize relations with China is very similar to that which is used in relation to Iran. Meanwhile, the AKP has carefully removed critical issues such as the Turkic-Uygur issue from the diplomatic agenda, lest China react.

Contending Dynamics of Turkish Foreign Policy: Strategy and Economy

Turkey has been part of the Western bloc since the late 1940s. Its NATO membership, not its EU candidacy, has been the most important institutional basis of this affiliation. However, since the rise of the AKP, Turkey’s relations with the West have transformed into a two-dynamics model. The first dynamic refers to the traditional strategic one, which Turkey has respected, as it has worked with the United States in all major events from the Serbian intervention in Kosovo 1999 to the recent intervention in Libya. This strategic dynamic worked very well in the Arab Spring also, cementing the United States’ and Turkey’s close partnership once again.

However, a new dynamic came to the fore in the last decade, an economic one that increased Turkey’s independence from the West and the United States. The growing pressure on the AKP government to find new markets made it necessary to make new openings in Turkish foreign policy. The economic dynamic of Turkish foreign policy is connected with the new Anatolian bourgeoisie, the financial bedrock of Islamic politics, who are in search of new markets to safeguard their survival. New markets are also a factor in the AKP’s own long-term survival. This cohabitation of the AKP and the Anatolian bourgeoisie has become one of the most complex socio-economic dimensions of Turkish foreign policy. The attendant economic and social demands stimulate Turkey’s new activism in areas such as the Middle East and Africa.

Consequently, Turkish foreign policy oscillates between the strategic and the economic poles, which are not always compatible. When they clash, Turkey may surprise some of its allies. The economic dynamic of Turkish foreign policy has a capacity to counter-balance the strategic one, so long as the strategic allies do not offer more economically. Many cases demonstrate this. One should remember, for instance, the critical nuclear energy deal between Turkey and Russia, concluded despite U.S. reservations. Similarly, Turkey’s position between China and the United States will be determined by the interplay of the economic and strategic dynamics.

China or the United States: “Economizing” Turkish Foreign Policy

The economic aspect, not the strategic one, is likely to play the key role in determining Turkey’s position in a possible competition between the United States and China. No matter what China means ideologically to the West, Turkey will try to maximize its economic benefit from that state. As of 2011, the trade between Turkey and China is around $24 billion, which makes China Turkey’s biggest economic partner in Far East. In 2010, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visited Turkey, and his visit yielded seven serious  agreements, all of which were about fostering trade relations. Remembering that trade between Turkey and China was valued at around only $1 billion as recently as 2000, trade growth between Turkey and the United States, estimated to be about $15 billion after 50 years of strategic alliance, pales in comparison.

Moreover, China has several advantages in cultivating economic relations with Turkey. Unlike the U.S. economy, the Chinese economy readily complements the Turkish economy. China has developed a successful strategy for dealing with Turkey’s middle-sized companies. In sharp contrast with the Turco-U.S. economic relations, the general trend of Turco-China relations focuses on various fields, such as construction, textiles, and transportation, where middle-sized companies gain big opportunity spaces. Also, China has created a safe mercantile stakeholder image for middle-sized companies. Interestingly, few in the Turkish market think of China as a state with an ideological agenda.

A Zone Broker State Between the United States and China?

When it comes to the strategic aspect, Turkey is likely to be a zone broker between the United States and China. Despite being part of the Western bloc, Turkey has also been the historic zone-broker state. A zone-broker state values the association with its main bloc, but also does not refrain from contact with other blocs. Turkish foreign policy jargon — full of binaries such as “dialogue between East and West,” “Islam and the West,” and “Iran and the West” — should be read as the language of a zone-brokering state. Consistent with this, Turkey will seek to be the zone broker in the upcoming competition between the United States and China, in order to profit from that competition.

In practice, a zone-broker state legitimizes its status with geography-based and attachment-capacity-based arguments. Only states with a special geography and a capacity to attach to different camps around certain agendas can compete for zone-broker status on those arguments.

Turkish politicians have already indicated their aspiration to becoming a corridor state between the West and China. Recently, Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoğlu expounded a formula of Turkey’s future zone-broker status that referred to geography and attachment capacity. To Davutoğlu, Turkey and China are two “emerging powers on the Western and Eastern banks of Asia.” Thus, they are not ordinary Asian states, but states on the edges of the continent engaged in an intra-Asian dialogue. But this also subsumes the carefully sculptured image of Turkey as the most western/Western part of Asia. Interestingly, President Süleyman Demirel also used this argument before his visit to China in 1995, as has the current foreign minister. Davutoğlu noted: “Our difference from the West and China is this: We can develop a democracy with EU standards, and a production style with Chinese standards.”2 Paraphrasing Davutoğlu: Turkey has a “special agenda on China,” which is to tell China that Turkey has a capacity to be its most effective and legitimate partner in the region, and that it can never be compared to the authoritarian states with which China has so far collaborated. Davutoğlu’s illustration of Turkey as the meeting point of the West and China should be seen as the early verbal signs of Turkish aspiration to be a zone broker for China.

Turkey’s interest in being a zone broker is advantageous to Beijing. Beijing may well perceive Turkey as its most legitimate and logistically correct partner in the Middle Eastern and the Western markets. Consistently with this, Chinese firms are very much interested in logistics: Turkey uses Chinese Eximbank Credits in big railway projects like the Ankara-Istanbul High Speed Train, for example.

The Shock: The Arab Spring

As part of the “special agenda on China,” Turkey has declared 2012 “China’s Year.” President Gül announced “long-term strategic relationship” with China as a national goal. However, the Arab Spring virtually blew away the Turkish optimism about China. Turkey and China have taken almost opposite positions on major issues like Libya and Syria. Faced by the Iranian competition and the Syrian threat, Turkey remembered the critical value of NATO. Also, Turkey has enjoyed being a NATO member with a high-profile role in countries like Libya. Thus, the Arab Spring revived a question for Turkey: How can it translate Turkey’s economy-based strategy towards the Chinese into the political realm, given its too-close strategic attachment to the United States?

The answer lies in the economic aspect of Turkish foreign policy, which evolves almost independently of the strategic aspect. As long as Turkish-U.S. relations are kept within the bounds of the elitist rules of strategy, economic actors will not stop dealing with the Chinese market. Thus, it is appropriate for the United States to enhance the economic side of relations with Turkey. Otherwise, Turkey and the United States will keep close cooperation during times of political crisis, but upon normalization, Turkish economic actors will again dictate the orientation of foreign policy towards new markets like China.

1 See: Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy (November 2011).

2 Sabah, October 19, 2011.


About the Author

Gökhan Bacik is an associate professor of political science at Zirve University. Bacik also taught in different European Universities as Erasmus Visiting Professor. He is the author of September 11 and World Politics (2004) and Modern International System: Genealogy, Teleology and the Expansion (2007). He also published in many scholarly journals such as Middle East Policy, International Review of Sociology, The Muslim World, Arab Studies Quarterly, Peace Review, Turkish Studies, Nationalism and Ethnic Politics, Foreign Affairs, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and Terrorism and Political Violence. His most recent book is Hybrid Sovereignty in the Arab Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008). Bacik is the head of the Middle East Research Center at Zirve University. He also writes weekly columns for Today’s Zaman.

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