With a New World Order Taking Shape, Turkey Again Looks Eastward
Recent developments indicate a shift in Turkey's strategic outlook, which dovetails with intensive activity by Russia and China - each for its own reasons - in the Western-Asian-East European sphere, raising the possibility of long term change with extensive consequences that include ramifications for Israel. Turkey has demonstrated increased distance from the United States and the European Union on several core issues, with the most important among them the procurement - despite the objections of the US and other NATO states - of the S-400 air defense system from Russia. The supply of the S-400 to Turkey, which began on July 12, 2019, makes it difficult for Western states to evince flexibility toward Turkish efforts to consolidate an independent foreign policy, given the broad negative ramifications of the procurement for military cooperation in NATO. In addition, there are US fears regarding the possible leak of intelligence to Russia related to sensitive technologies. Israel has a complex array of considerations in the face of the strategic changes in Turkey's orientation. A Turkish pivot eastward is a tectonic shift that is liable to work to the serious detriment of Israeli strategic interests in various realms such as energy, civil aviation, and trade. Israel would do well to give thought to these issues, as well as to the possibility of a bolstered Chinese or Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey has been an important NATO partner since it joined the alliance in 1952. Its large military and its location - south of the Soviet Union, and a buffer for the eastern Mediterranean - underlay its importance to European security, and despite the Cyprus conflict and its tense ties with neighboring Greece, Ankara and Washington maintained strategic cooperation. However, recent signs indicate a shift in Turkey's strategic outlook, which dovetails with intensive initiatives and activity by Russia and China - each for its own reasons - in the Western-Asian-East European sphere, raising the possibility of long term change with extensive consequences that include ramifications for Israel. This is not the first time that Ankara has expressed increased interest in cooperating with Russia and China, and it argues that in principle, such contacts do not contravene its relations with the West. That said, the deep crisis in Turkish-US ties presents fertile ground for Moscow to achieve its goal of creating an internal rift in the North Atlantic Treaty with greater ease than before.
Turkey has demonstrated increased distance from the United States and European Union on several core issues, chief among them the procurement - despite the objections of the US and other NATO states - of the S-400 air defense system from Russia. This contrasts with the Obama administration's success in bringing about Turkey's 2015 announcement that it was canceling an air defense tender won by China. In a letter of June 6, 2019 to his Turkish counterpart, the acting US Secretary of Defense warned that if Turkey did not suspend receipt of the S-400 shipment from Russia, the sale of F-35 jets to Turkey would be canceled and all Turkish pilots undergoing training would be forced to leave the United States by July 31. Nonetheless, the first shipment linked to the S-400 deal arrived in Turkey from Russia on July 12. President Donald Trump, who met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on June 29 on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan, sought to explain the Turkish purchase in terms of the refusal of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, to sell Turkey a comparable American system, but did not withdraw the threat regarding the F-35. The difficulty in clinching a sale of Patriot batteries to Turkey stemmed, according to Ankara, from disputes over the question of technology transfers as well as disagreement over the price. Yet even a playing down of the current S-400 crisis cannot conceal the cumulative change in recent years of Turkey's standing in the United States and Europe, and as a result, within NATO as well.
Ankara continues to oppose Bashar al-Assad's continued rule in Syria, but during the civil war years it increased cooperation with Iran and Russia. Since December 2016, the three have worked within the framework of the Astana process to address the war on the Islamic State, arranging truces within Syria and drafting a political solution. The clear Turkish goal of preventing a Kurdish autonomous region south of the Turkey-Syria border compels Washington, and thus almost certainly other Western partners too, to leave forces - even if symbolic - in Syria so as to prevent a Turkish onslaught against the Kurds; this, despite Trump's declared desire to leave Syria. Against this backdrop, the United States and other NATO partners must resign themselves to the Turkish-Russian-Iranian cooperation; to Turkey's support for Iran in matters related to the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA), which following the US withdrawal from the deal and despite European efforts, seems to be collapsing; and to its helping Iran contend with the imposed (and possibly additional future) economic sanctions, by circumventing them through their long shared border and mechanisms such as the European INSTEX or the use of local currency (Iranian and Turkish) for trade.
While Turkey has distanced itself from Washington and drawn closer to the Moscow-Tehran axis, its ties with China have warmed as well. On July 2, President Xi Jinping hosted Erdogan in Beijing, a day after Erdogan presented a gift to his host: an op-ed in the Chinese mouthpiece Global Times. Erdogan shares the Chinese strategic line of thinking, centered on a need to change the world order from unipolar to multipolar. Without explicitly mentioning the United States, Erdogan challenged the Western power by depicting Turkey as at the heart of the Chinese President's Belt and Road Initiative, and spoke of Turkey's interest in cooperating with China on defense matters. The words "strategic cooperation" appeared repeatedly in a report about the July 2 meeting between the two leaders on the Chinese President’s official website.
This rhetoric spells a growing drive by both countries to advance their interests through the prisms of two strategic visions: through the Belt and Road Initiative, China aspires to promote its vision of sea and land routes to Europe, while Turkey seeks to promote the Middle Corridor. In his article, Erdogan describes the plan for a transport corridor that would link Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, and would be incorporated in the link between Beijing and London. Ankara thus branded itself as a central link in China's ambitious plan, with a hope for rewards from China, which as detailed in Erdogan's article, would take the form of increased China-Turkey trade and Chinese investments in Turkey. The weakening of the Turkish economy raises expectation of closer ties with China; although China constitutes Turkey's third-largest trading partner, the volume of trade activity is relatively limited - $21 billion, of which Turkish exports make up just $3 billion. In 2018, for example, China did not even rank among the top 15 Turkish export destinations, while Germany was the largest export destination (at around $16 billion) and the United States fifth ($8 billion); even Turkish exports to Israel were slightly greater than Turkish exports to China. The Chinese investments in Turkey themselves, estimated at $2 billion, reflect marginal Chinese interest in the Turkish economy.
Furthermore, during the Beijing visit Erdogan was clearly willing to pay the political price demanded by China. According to an official Chinese report on the Xi-Erdogan meeting, the Turkish side stressed that it would not allow any anti-Chinese separatist activity to emanate from Turkey, and the Turkish side voiced appreciation for Chinese counter-terrorism efforts. Erdogan was quoted as saying that “the peoples of China’s Xinjiang region live happily [thanks to] China’s development and prosperity.” Turkey thus signaled clearly that it was sacrificing (even if temporarily) its interest in the millions of Chinese Muslims of Turkish descent and was ignoring Erdogan's 2009 contention that China's treatment of the Uyghurs was "a kind of genocide," as well a statement by the Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman in February 2019 branding the treatment of the Uyghurs as "a great shame for humanity." This also contravened a July 8 letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, signed by 22 countries, which voiced concern about the oppression of the Uyghurs, including use of detention camps, and called for observers to be sent to the region. The other coin with which Erdogan paid his Chinese hosts was in his support for the One China policy, i.e., non-recognition of Taiwan, albeit in doing so Turkey is no different from the majority of other countries.
Erdogan's statements and conduct in recent years, including during his China visit, reflect the consolidation of Turkish strategy shifting its critical political weight, and also perhaps its economic and defense policy, from the northwestern sphere to the northeastern sphere. Like many others, Erdogan sees an opportunity for Turkey in the rivalry between China and the United States, should it manage to insert itself as a key link in the Chinese strategic outlook. From an ideological standpoint, Erdogan positions his country and China among countries that have not gained the recognition and status that they deserve in the current world order, whose obvious (though not explicitly named) gatekeepers are the United States and Europe. On the operative level, Erdogan is not severing his country's ties with the United States and Europe, and is testing their reluctance to take a firmer stance in the face of his courting of Russia and China. Yet it is possible that Erdogan is willing to take a big risk - for example, in the US sanctions threatened against Turkey under the 2017 Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), on the assumption that Trump will defer their implementation; this, based on the assessment that his approach to Turkey and to Erdogan himself is far more positive than that of Congress. It is a safe bet that Erdogan is also taking this risk based on the assessment that Western powers will hesitate to become embroiled in a wider confrontation with Ankara, given the existing substantive tensions with Iran, Russia, and China.
There is mounting criticism of Erdogan in the US Congress, and several senior senators have even warned that Turkey must choose between the United States and Russia. Vice President Mike Pence sharpened the question in April when he asked whether Turkey wants to remain a NATO partner or imperil the organization's security. In doing so, he exposed what is an open secret in the halls of NATO's Brussels headquarters: that a cloud looms over Turkey's membership - despite the fact that no NATO mechanism exists for expelling a current member, and despite the absence of any statement by Ankara about wanting to leave the alliance. It is thus doubtful that any dramatic change in relations will emerge soon, despite evident mutual disappointment. Erdogan, who conducts himself like an autocrat, feels comfortable in the company of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, who are not bothered by his conduct, either domestically or in foreign affairs, so long as he contributes to the erosion of the United States’ international standing as well as to the challenging of Western liberal democratic politics.
With US interest in the Middle East waning, Turkey, Iran, and Russia discern opportunities to fill the vacuum and boost their presence and influence. China is still studying the new situation, but if Beijing decides to increase its investment in the region, Turkey would appear to be a convenient partner, although Chinese suspicions of support for the Uyghurs will persist. An ejection of Turkey from the northwestern orbit of influence would be an important strategic achievement for Russia, won with relative ease and modest investment. Western powers' ability to keep Turkey in their orbit of influence also depends on the flexibility that they extend to Turkish efforts to consolidate an independent foreign policy. However, procurement of the S-400 makes it difficult to reach such elasticity, given the broad negative ramifications for military cooperation in NATO, and because of US fears of the possible leak of intelligence to Russia related to sensitive technologies.
Israel has a complex array of considerations in the face of the strategic changes in Turkey's orientation. On the one hand, Erdogan's regime has challenged Israel on a slew of issues in the last decade. Turkey stands with Hamas, aids organizations in East Jerusalem that help inflame the situation on the Temple Mount, and for a long period prevented Israeli participation within NATO. Possible Chinese and/or Russian involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean basin, as part of an exploitation of the flagging regional clout of Europe and the United States, will create risks for Turkey's neighbors - along with opportunities. These countries, among them Israel, may have made preliminary collective moves on the gas issue, but they will require European-American backing to stand up to an aggressive Turkish stance. A Turkish pivot eastward is a tectonic shift that is liable to work to the serious detriment of Israeli strategic interests in various realms such as energy, civil aviation, and trade. Israel would do well to give thought to these issues, as well as to the possibility of a bolstered Chinese or Russian presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. A change in Turkish orientation would, inter alia, create opportunities vis-à-vis Europe and the United States. In the short term, a cutoff of the supply of F-35s to Turkey might allow Israel to procure some of them and perhaps also generate greater involvement of Israeli industry in manufacturing components that were meant to have been manufactured by Turkish companies. In the middle and long terms, the change will require that the European Union and NATO make adjustments, including with regard to the deployment of bases, which could also entail the greater involvement of East Mediterranean states