Erdogan's Dash to China

Is it possible to link the infrastructure and logistics projects of Beijing and Ankara?
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print 15 2 2021

*An abridged version of the report "Erdogan's Dash to China". The full version is here.

Two months after the signing of the trilateral peace agreement on ending the Karabakh war by Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia on November 10th, 2020, and a few days before the Moscow summit of the leaders of Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia on January 11th, 2021, an event took place that attracted the attention of many experts. The first freight train went along the Istanbul-Xi’an railway. It reached the China-Kazakhstan border from Turkey in a record time of 10 days, two days ahead of schedule.

According to Turkish media, in 2021 the train will run twice a month. They also claim, citing government sources, that about a million passengers and 6.5 million tons of cargo per year can be transported through the Azerbaijan-Kazakhstan transport corridor with a length of 8,693 km. In general, by 2023, annual cargo deliveries will reach 17 million tons.

The first part of the intrigue here is that, according to the hints of the Minister of Transport and Infrastructure of Turkey Adil Karaismailoğlu, this railway action was prepared even when the Karabakh war was going on and it was difficult to predict the timing of its completion and the result.

The second part of the intrigue was voiced by the Ambassador of the Republic of Azerbaijan to China, Akif oğlu Zeynallı, who, as an already-made decision, said that the new Turkey-China railway corridor would run from the port of Baku on the Caspian Sea coast, and then through the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh would stretch to Nakhichevan, an Azerbaijani enclave. From there, the route will continue to Turkey, and then, across the Mediterranean, to Europe.

These facts allow us to assess the Karabakh war, its causes and outcome from a slightly different perspective.

Finally, the meaning of the third part of the intrigue, in our opinion, is of fundamental importance: a stress test of Turkish-Chinese cooperation. The fact is that by sending a train from Istanbul to Xi'an, Ankara announced its readiness to integrate its project “Middle Corridor” (MC), which was launched in Central Asia, into the Chinese initiative "One Belt - One Road”.

Until recently, Turkey promoted its own concept of integration of the Eurasian space, which provided for the development of inter-regional transport infrastructure that would connect Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan with railways and a ferry crossing on the Caspian Sea.

As for the problem of linking its initiative with the Chinese one, Ankara acted with an eye to the West, primarily the United States, and kept its distance, not rushing to combine projects. And China did not outwardly force the course of events, based on the fact that the Middle East, where Turkey is located, is characterised by high conflict. After all, the concept of its "One Belt - One Road" project is based on the principle of "without peace, there is no development", therefore, for Beijing, the key issue is security.

Outwardly, everything seems to lie on the surface, if we assess the situation from the position established in the West, according to which Turkish President Recep Erdogan practically implements the geopolitical doctrine of neo-Ottomanism in both the ideological and economic spheres.

In Turkey, many representatives of the expert community do not hide the fact that Ankara seeks to consolidate all the Turkic peoples around itself, i.e., they promote the idea of the notorious pan-Turkism (the unification of all territories inhabited by Turks into a single state).

For this purpose, it needs a direct border with other Turkic countries. Thus, following the results of the Karabakh war and the signed peace agreement, it is planned to lay a transport corridor between Western Azerbaijan through the territory of Armenia to Nakhichevan and from there to Turkey.

The Turkish-Azerbaijani tandem that emerged became the first brick in the new "great Turan” that is being created. Recall that the Turkic countries, in addition to Turkey and Azerbaijan, include Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Northern Cyprus.

They also try to include the population of Hungary and Mongolia, who have nomadic ancestors, although they are quite different ethnic groups. Territories inhabited or once inhabited by Turkic peoples are also considered to be the future Turan.

In Russia, this is the Middle and Lower Volga region, Crimea and almost half of Siberia and the Far East up to the shores of the Bering Strait. In China, this is the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it is more often called East Turkestan. In the Middle East, these territories include the northern parts of modern-day Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

As for China, in this context, it perceives Turkey in a very peculiar way. First of all, Beijing sees that this country is involved in four conflicts in the Greater Middle East at once - Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, and is perceived as a "country with problems". However, China doesn't really worry.

According to the Turkish publication USAK, China, firstly, does not consider Turkey to be a country of the Western world, and its turn to the East, which is presented by the official authorities as the existence of alternative geopolitical solutions in opposition to the West, is perceived positively by Chinese political circles as "a policy directed to the East" (towards Asia).

Secondly, neo-Ottomanism is not qualified as expansion, but only as a variant of openness towards the East and an attempt to "shift the axes". At the same time, China's foreign policy strategy towards Turkey was non-interference in its internal affairs, although objectively China began to exert more influence on it at the economic, political and military levels.

So, when Erdogan was hosted in Beijing in early July 2019, the Chinese Global Times, a newspaper published in the international department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, listed Turkey as one of the countries that "bear a significant share of responsibility for the emergence of a new world order.”

The Chinese note that Turkey has no place in the EU, and express bewilderment at the fact that "Ankara still insists on membership in this union, which is experiencing a crisis”.

It is also interesting that Beijing does not even try to challenge the claims of many Turkish experts that Erdogan is allegedly doing a “dash to China". In fact, China has long been present in Turkey and has adopted the Istanbul-Xi'an train as an event of ordinary trade and economic cooperation.

In 2018, due to the growing tension in relations with the United States, the Turkish government received a significant loan from China in the amount of $30 billion for the construction of high-speed railway lines with a total length of more than 10,000 km. The integration models of China and Turkey were coordinated in principle, which made it possible to translate the agreements reached into practical terms.

Today, Chinese companies are involved in a wide range of projects implemented in Turkey within the framework of "One Belt, One Road". Among the most significant projects are increasing the capacity of the Istanbul–Ankara, Ankara–Sivas, and Baku–Tbilisi–Kars high-speed railways.

Negotiations are continuing on the construction of the 2,000 km long Edirne–Kare high-speed railway, which will connect the western and eastern provinces of Turkey, as well as connect the country with the railways of Azerbaijan and Iran.

The modernisation of seaports in Turkey is also being carried out. The acquisition by a Chinese consortium of a 64.5% stake in the Kumport container terminal, the third largest in Turkey, allowed it to be integrated into the maritime corridors of the Chinese Silk Road.

Ankara is ready to include three more major harbours in China's maritime projects – Çandarli on the Aegean Sea, Mersin on the Mediterranean Sea and Filyos on the Black Sea. Serious projects were also outlined in the field of cooperation in the field of energy and in other spheres.

Today, more than 1,000 Chinese companies operate in Turkey, 16 of them are included in the ranking of the 500 most influential corporations in the world. China is firmly in the top three of Ankara's trading partners. And the parties' intentions to double their mutual trade turnover to $50 billion in the coming years look quite real.

The interest of the Turkish side in investments is obvious. To the question of whether Turkey can achieve economic growth without foreign investment, China's answer is unequivocal - no, the country's own resources are not enough for this.

For the stable development of Turkey, an annual inflow of external financing of at least $50 billion is required, and today the Turkish side is seriously lagging behind in the global competition for attracting foreign direct investment.

And Ankara expects that Beijing will be the source of these investments, which China does not object to. At the same time, Turkey ranks 54th among the largest exporters of the most populous country in the world. In other words, the state of trade with China is one of the main sources of Turkey's current account deficit, along with energy imports.

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