Briefing on Turkey’s pivot towards a multipolar world

While remaining firmly committed to NATO, Turkey also hopes to gain by strengthening links with Russia and China in an increasingly multipolar world.

  • Ankara is balancing traditional alliances with new opportunities by strengthening ties to the East while maintaining co-operation with NATO partners, part of Turkey’s plan to strengthen itself as a world player.
  • Turkey’s flirtations with purchasing missile systems from China or Russia, incompatible with NATO systems, carries symbolic weight, as NATO’s second largest army.
  • Turkey is pursuing stronger multi-faceted relationships with Russia and China through involvement in Eurasian regional projects, driven by the promise of trade and economic ties.

Recent foreign policy statements and decisions from various officials regarding Turkey’s relations with its Euro-Atlantic partners appear contradictory. While Defence Minister Fikri Işık called for an end to NATO’s Aegean counter-migrant mission, dismissing the need for a long-term maritime presence, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made renewed demands for joint action with the US in Syria last week. Crucially, Turkey agreed to participate in strengthening NATO’s Black Sea regional presence at a Defence Ministers meeting in Brussels on October 26th, a sensitive issue for Russia. Turkey is demonstrating greater assertiveness in its relations with NATO and that it will pursue its own agenda.

At the same time, Turkey is developing avenues for co-operation with Russia and others further afield. Since President Erdoğan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg last August, Russo-Turkish security ties have been deepening. Ankara is considering a Russian bid to sell a long-range missile defence system to Turkey along with alternatives offered by European and American contenders. Importantly, any Russian system available is unlikely to be inter-operable with those provided previously by NATO partners. In this way, Turkey is very obviously putting Russian and NATO security on a far more equal footing than previously.

While the presence of Russian-made missiles on Turkish soil could cause concern among Western allies, it will ease Russian anxieties about NATO encirclement and add warmth to the two countries’ warming relationship. Ankara’s increased co-operation with Beijing is also reflective of Turkey’s increasingly broad foreign policy focus. Though it conceded to NATO pressure in cancelling an agreement to buy a Chinese-made missile system last year, Turkey has continued to cultivate ties with China. Turkey is engaged in a balancing act. It is not disavowing its Western allies, but wants to engage with an increasingly multipolar world.

At the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s (SCO) summit in Tashkent in June this year, various members expressed support for Turkey’s full membership. Turkey has held dialogue partner status since 2013 in this Eurasian regional security and economic bloc, which includes China, Russia and Central Asian states. President Erdoğan expressed his desire for Turkey to become a full SCO member during his visit to China in July. Security, trade and transport co-operation are at the base of Turkey’s relations with the SCO as well as access to other Chinese-led economic projects.

One such project is China’s ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative, which Turkey sees as an opportunity. It is a planned route to link China to Europe via Central Asia, Russia and Turkey, ending in the Netherlands. Ankara wishes to provide logistical and infrastructural support for the project. With a large heavy goods vehicles fleet, and modern road network, ports and airports, Turkey’s trade infrastructure could profit massively from the initiative.

This is not to say Turkey is ready to abandon ties with the West. However, the AKP government’s continued efforts to elevate Turkey’s position to that of a global power and appreciation for non-European markets are accompanied by a relative frostiness to the West compared to previous Turkish governments. Turkey sees opportunities in both security and trade across the world, not just in Europe, and its growing assertiveness means it is not afraid to upset its allies in pursuing these.

03 November 2016
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