As the Turkish Lira slumps to record lows under the pressure of characteristically Trumpian tariffs, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is looking to “new partners” to support the country’s failing currency. Amid rallying cries to the Turkish people, imploring they steel themselves for further “attacks,” Erdogan suggested Ankara would seek support from “new friends”, from “Iran, to Russia, to China and some European countries.” Of these, China looms largest as the most obvious, and most worrying, potential source of support. China’s geopolitical goals, notably the much trumpeted Belt and Road Initiative and recent developments in Turkish politics have produced favorable conditions for deepening the two nation’s economic relations, with potentially grave consequences for Turkey and the West.
In 2001, faced with a similar currency crisis, Turkey turned west to the IMF. This bailout marked the 18th time Turkey had turned to the IMF for such assistance and complied with all the pro-market neoliberal reforms such aid inevitably entails. Now, however, developments within Turkish politics have made such a move less likely this time around. The central factor is the immense growth in Erdogan’s presidential powers. Victory in last April’s constitutional referendum confirmed Turkey’s turn to autocracy and legally enshrined Erdogan’s position as autocrat. Autocratic leadership lends itself to Chinese investment. An autocratic penchant for “white elephant” projects, and Beijing’s predilection toward financially supporting such projects (while the IMF generally turns its nose up at such “status diplomacy”) have been well showcased in Africa. Beyond this, Erdogan’s amplified authority has given him the ability to circumvent the established Western-facing political elites in Ankara.
Traditionally the biggest block to China-Turkish relations has been Turkey’s formerly prized NATO membership and desire to maintain a positive relationship with Western powers. Historically, it has only been when this relationship has broken down that Turkey has wholeheartedly pursued economic cooperation with China: The 1990s, for example, saw Turkey turning to China for arms imports, as Western powers’ relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish minority left them reluctant to arm the Kurd’s perceived oppressor. Symbolic of the importance of Turkey’s positive relationship with the West was the cancellation in November 2013, under pressure from Western states, of China Precision Machinery Import-Export Cooperation’s previously successful bid to provide a Turkish anti-missile defense system.
Now, with the pro-Western elites in Ankara sidelined, Erdogan has increasingly turned away from NATO and the West, a trend much remarked upon in Western media, thus allowing for increased Turkey-Chinese cooperation. As Turkey steps up its military cooperation with Russia it is doing the same with China, while Chinese investment in Turkish companies continues to accelerate. Running alongside this process is one that sees autocratic Turkey move away from a “neo-Ottomanist” concern for the Uyghur minority in China, which had previously inhibited China-Turkish relations, to a more pragmatic willingness to ignore the plight of these “eastern Turks.”
Of course, insular Turkish explanations are not by themselves sufficient to explain Turkey’s growing turn toward China. Some of the blame must lay with the Western powers, notably the United States. President Donald Trump’s unorthodox policy of aggressive trade tariffs has not only pushed the Turkish lira to crisis point, with Trump’s doubling of Turkey’s steel and aluminum tariffs contributing to the current crisis, but encouraged Turkey to find friends outside of the Western bloc.
Chinese policy also lends itself toward Chinese-Turkish cooperation. Turkey, as a bridge between Europe and Asia, occupies a key strategic position in the Belt and Road Initiative, thus making it firmly within Bejing’s interests to expand their economic control in this troubled state. Aiding Turkey in its hour of need would also be coherent with Beijing’s policy toward the developing world more broadly, helping construct its desired image, as in Africa, as a “non-hegemonic power,” an alternative to the exploitative neoliberal capitalist development path represented by the IMF and instead representing the construction of mutually supportive relations between developing nations.
This kind of rhetoric, that China represents a non-hegemonic alternative to the IMF and Western institutions, should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. When Sri Lanka turned to China to finance a dubiously justified port project, they only succeeding in losing both the port and swathes of territory to Beijing. Meanwhile African countries, perhaps the largest recipients of China’s ostensibly benevolent behavior, creak under the weight of costly white elephant projects and immense amounts of debt.
There is no denying that IMF conditions can be stringent and can cause much pain to the people in the name of the international market. That said, Turkey, not to mention the West, should be wary of Erdogan and his allies in Ankara opening the door to large-scale Chinese influence. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch.
Arran Elcoate is a post-graduate research student at Bristol University.