Growing importance of the Russia-China axis for Turkey

Russia, China, Turkiye

Over the past decade, Turkiye’s foreign policy has undergone a significant transformation, increasingly leaning towards non-Western powers, particularly Russia and China. This shift has been driven by mounting disagreements with the US over security issues in the Middle East, especially concerning Syria, and persistent frustrations with the EU membership process. Coupled with criticisms of the Western order, Turkiye has sought to diversify its diplomatic and economic partnerships, aiming for greater strategic autonomy.

While China does not yet hold the same level of significance as Russia in Turkish foreign policy, recent developments indicate a concerted effort by Ankara to cultivate closer ties with Beijing. This effort was exemplified by Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan’s official visit to China last week, where he articulated Turkiye’s pursuit of new opportunities for cooperation with various partners in platforms like BRICS. Fidan’s announcement that he would attend the China-led BRICS foreign ministers meeting in Russia on June 10-11 was met with a positive response from Moscow, underscoring the growing alignment between these nations.

BRICS, an economic bloc of emerging economies comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, recently expanded to include Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the UAE. Ankara’s expressed desire to formally join BRICS is not new, but the timing of Fidan’s statement is particularly significant. It came on the heels of China’s vocal stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an area where Beijing had previously maintained a low profile compared to its major rival, the US. Beijing’s call for a Middle East peace conference aligns with Turkiye’s diplomatic efforts in Gaza, where Fidan has been actively seeking a ceasefire in cooperation with the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

During his visit to China, Fidan extended an invitation from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Xi Jinping, inviting the Chinese leader to visit Turkiye this year. This invitation signifies a deepening of bilateral relations, which have drawn criticism from Turkiye’s Western allies. As a NATO member, Turkiye’s growing ties with Russia and China have raised concerns in the West, with allegations that Ankara is shifting away from the Western military alliance. However, Turkiye has consistently rejected these claims, emphasizing its continued commitment to NATO and its goal of full EU membership. Instead, Ankara portrays its engagement with non-Western powers as complementary to its existing alliances, aiming to balance its foreign policy to maximize strategic flexibility.

The evolving dynamics of Turkiye’s foreign policy reflect a broader strategic vision under Erdogan’s leadership. Turkiye’s dual engagement with NATO/EU and organizations like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is seen as an effort to revive its historical significance as a global power bridging East and West. Erdogan’s September 2022 statement on the potential for Turkiye to join the SCO, a defense bloc led by China, exemplifies this approach. Despite such statements, Erdogan has reiterated Turkiye’s integral role in NATO and Euro-Atlantic security, underscoring a nuanced foreign policy strategy that leverages its status between competing blocs.

Fidan’s comments during his China visit echoed this strategy, highlighting Turkiye’s existing customs union with the EU while exploring new cooperation opportunities with partners in platforms like BRICS. Joining BRICS would offer Turkiye new avenues for trade and investment, reinforcing its economic interests and enhancing its international stature. The move would also strengthen Turkiye’s bargaining power with Western powers, asserting its independent and multifaceted foreign policy approach.

Economic cooperation between Turkiye, Russia, and China is already significant, with major projects like the TurkStream pipeline and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Just a week before Fidan’s visit, Turkish Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar was in China discussing a third nuclear power plant project, signaling close to a deal. This energy collaboration highlights the practical aspects of Turkiye’s pivot towards these non-Western powers.

Moreover, Turkiye seeks to work closely with Moscow and Beijing on regional issues such as the Syrian conflict and tensions in the South Caucasus. This collaboration is part of a broader strategy to reduce dependence on the US while navigating a multipolar world order. The diminishing US influence in the region has opened up opportunities for Russia and China to strengthen their ties with Middle Eastern countries, including Turkiye. These relationships are cultivated through platforms like BRICS and the SCO, which facilitate closer economic and political ties, offering regional states an alternative to US hegemony.

Turkiye’s growing alignment with Russia and China reflects a strategic shift towards achieving greater autonomy and flexibility in its foreign policy. This approach, driven by economic interests and a desire to enhance its international standing, allows Turkiye to balance its traditional alliances with new partnerships. By engaging with platforms like BRICS and exploring deeper cooperation with non-Western powers, Turkiye aims to position itself as a pivotal player on the global stage, bridging East and West in a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape.


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