Turkey Looks East as Asia Looks West Across the Eurasian Heartland
A new global competition for Eurasia is under way that is not fully appreciated or understood in Washington and many other Western capitals. The primacy of air and naval power that determined the contours of the international system post-World War II once placed the Eurasian heartland in the center of world affairs, but it was then relegated to the outer reaches of the Soviet Empire. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was still considered part of the post-Soviet space. Despite efforts by Turkey to open up a “Turkic World” from the Adriatic to the Great Wall of China, the intricacies of each newly independent state made regional cooperation difficult. Thanks to China’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) presidential initiative, the specter of this critical geography has come back into geopolitical play with these states becoming crucial to big power goals once again. Interestingly, while China and Russia are the closest and strongest Eurasian neighbors, it is the Western allies on polar opposite ends of Eurasia, Turkey and Japan, more than U.S. or European powers that are anticipating and beginning to appreciate the coming competition for the Eurasian heartland.
Turkey is the pivotal end, or beginning depending on perspective, of the ancient Silk Road over which Asia and Europe once traded before discovering the water routes that would forever change the international balance. As heirs to Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, Turks, with a deeper appreciation and understanding for the Eurasian heartland, have migrated from the great plains of Central Asia all the way to the gates of Vienna. Given not just the size of Turkey’s economy (the 16th largest in the world and largest in its region) and population (80 million), but also this important connection and history, the role that Turkey plays looms large as the self-proclaimed leader of the Turkic World. It is precisely for this reason, and because of China’s own internal problems with its Uyghur population, which Turkey sees as being ethnic brethren, that Chinese-Turkish bilateral relations have been cool.
Turkey’s relations not just with Asia but the Turkic World are in need of further study and exploration, particularly in an environment in which domestic Turkish developments have powerfully revived the role of nationalism in politics in Ankara while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan further consolidates his power and seeks to turn Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Assumptions about Turkey’s foreign policy have been turned on their head thanks to not just these domestic but also to regional developments.
Once-warm relations between Russia and Turkey evaporated like the Russian plane that was shot down over Turkish air space last year. Despite recent rapproachment efforts between Ankara and Moscow, further competition across Russia’s near-abroad is inevitable given current trajectories of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey’s historic role in Europe and the recent migrant deal with the EU, which now is in jeopardy, have placed Ankara in a privileged place of leverage versus the West even as Washington and Ankara have not seen eye-to-eye on developments in the Middle East. Tensions between Kurds not just within Turkey but particularly in Syria has reawakened fears of a separate Kurdish state within nationalist circles in Ankara, which will lead to a broader pan-Turanism, a nationalist belief in the racial unity and future greatness of the Ural-Altaic people led by the Turks. This could reverberate far beyond Turkey’s immediate neighborhood given Beijing’s extreme sensitivities to its Uyghur population. Having sought to bury the hatchet with Ankara and its traditional support of “Eastern Turkic” Uyghur leaders during their self-imposed exile from China, Beijing is in a stronger position today. This is particularly true given Russian-Turkish tensions and its investment in OBOR, which includes a new Asian Infrastructure and Development Bank along with an expansion of its Shanghai Cooperation Organization to include associate members such as Turkey, Iran, and India.
As Erdoğan seeks to consolidate his power at home and faces not just domestic but international opposition from his traditional Western allies, he is increasingly looking East for pragmatic relations. Unlike the West where discussions about democracy, freedom of the press, human rights and other values dominate the agenda, Asian powers tend to focus on business development, investment, and strategic understanding. Turkey’s Asian agenda has received its warmest reception in Japan and in Muslim Southeast Asia; Malaysia in particular has welcomed a more Asian-engaged Turkey but could just as easily be engaged by China or India. Ankara’s willingness to court China to gain leverage versus its Western partners as it did with the NATO missile defense system is a powerful reminder that taking any country’s orientation for granted is dangerous in today’s geopolitical environment. Given Turkey’s geography and desire to play up its Asian credentials and regional power status, there is mutual interest for enhanced bilateral and multilateral cooperation with Asia. Yet there still appears to be no definitive partner or framework for Turkey’s own “pivot to Asia,” since it is in its nascent stage.
In broad terms, Turkey has already been directly supportive of OBOR. From its associate membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to its interest in collaborating with the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to the discussions about how OBOR will connect with Turkey’s own vision of a Turkic World, Turkish engagement with the scheme is central to Beijing especially now in its early stages. As shared Chinese and Turkish vision of a “dialogue of civilizations” is an important starting point, but so is finding concrete areas of cooperation as Japan has done with various infrastructure projects across Anatolia including both a bridge and subway links in Istanbul that literally connect Asia and Europe. Given that European markets will remain the final destinations for many of the Chinese goods flowing down the new trade routes, Turkey is a natural partner — if business can be the focus rather than nationalist politics. While these politics are especially complex at present, China doesn’t represent any more of a challenge than Turkey’s dealings with the EU itself or NATO or with its Middle Eastern neighbors, and in fact might offer a new set of opportunities if engaged with strategically.
Presidents Erdoğan and Xi Jinping have both strengthened their powers at home and can realize the benefits of a warm personal relationship if they can go beyond nationalism. As hosts of the 2015 and 2016 G20 Summits, respectively, Turkey and China share a desire to rebalance international power and global governance. By focusing on creating a regional infrastructure throughout the Eurasian heartland that is mutually beneficial, China and Turkey might find other areas of cooperation or strategic interests. Just as China benefits from Turkey’s cooperation in better integrating its Turkic Muslim population, Turkey could use China’s international clout in the various disputes it has including over Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh, where a counterbalance to Russia is increasingly necessary. While Turkey and China both have significant interest in deepening their economic connections by building a stable and prosperous environment across the vast arc running from China’s west to Turkey’s east, there are a range of challenging issues to be settled before the Eurasian heartland can truly be an area for mutual Sino-Turkish cooperation rather than competition.
In fact, the more natural Asian partner in the Eurasian heartland for Turkey in the short-term will remain China’s traditional rival: Japan. As a strong U.S. ally and strategic partner to NATO, Japan compliments Turkey on the eastern-most pole of the heartland in a way that is hard for China to compete with. Turkey’s Asia agenda in the long-run must be inclusive of partnerships in a way that neither Beijing nor Moscow can offer individually without becoming a zero-sum game. In fact, Japan and Turkey can help each other in bilateral relations with both China and Russia as evidenced by the quiet diplomacy that went on behind the scenes after Turkey shot down the Russian jet, when Erdoğan requested Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s help to send messages to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Japan will be naturally closer to Russia, and depending on the situation, Turkey can be closer to China, which is ultimately a good thing.
A new framework and paradigm for thinking about the Eurasian heartland has never been more necessary. The benefits of opening this region of the world and facilitating intraregional trade to realize its potential as an east-west corridor is a rare example of a geopolitical win-win for Asia and Europe. China and Russia have already articulated their worldviews and are beginning to cooperate with each other, however there is room for further cooperation particularly on the part of the West. Encouraging greater Turkish involvement and enhancing Turkish-Asian cooperation in the region to include U.S. and EU support could be a force multiplier. Rather than seeing Turkey’s foreign policy orientation as being binary between East or West, Asia or Europe, Ankara has the potential to gain new partnerships in Asia at the same time as it works with its traditional Western allies in areas of mutual interests.