U.S. ally Turkey may have a new best friend in Beijing
  • Tue, 05/16/2017 - 17:34

By Adam Taylor May 16 at 1:00 AM

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in Washington for a meeting with President Trump. As The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung has explained, the visit comes at a complicated time for the U.S.-Turkey relationship. While Erdogan talked positively about Trump just a few months ago, the nations seem to be drifting apart in a number of key policy areas.

But however important the meeting at the White House may be, America will not be the only partner on Erdogan's mind.

Erdogan was in Beijing over the weekend for a two-day “Belt and Road Forum” convened by Chinese President Xi Jinping. On Monday, just one day before his trip to the Oval Office, the Turkish president fired off a series of tweets — in English as well as Turkish — offering praise for Xi's new international infrastructure and development plan.

The forum was designed to promote that Beijing-led plan, which has been referred to by a series of sometimes-grandiose titles: the “Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road,” “The Belt and Road Initiative,” or simply “One Belt, One Road.”

As the names suggest, the plan is inspired by the ancient Silk Road trading route, but with a modern twist. (It's also branded as “Globalization 2.0.") Its idea is simple: China is pledging to invest hundreds of billions of dollars to build infrastructure projects such as ports and power plants all across the world. 

The scale is enormous. By some estimates, the amount of investment being offered by Beijing would dwarf the sums the United States invested in Europe after World War II under the Marshall Plan.

Erdogan was far from the only politician staying in Beijing over the weekend. Some 28 world leaders were there, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump did not attend, and only at the last minute did he decide to send a senior representative: Matthew Pottinger, a well-respected National Security Council official and China expert.

To some, Erdogan's presence at the event was a sign that Trump's rejection of international trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership is hurting the United States on the world stage.

There's certainly some truth to that argument. As The Post's Simon Denyer wrote last week, Beijing is trying to fill spaces being vacated by Washington. “Withdrawing from the TPP left a void at the heart of economic leadership in Asia, and Xi Jinping is trying to jump into that void,” Tom Miller, author of “China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building Along the New Silk Road,” told The Post.

Even before the summit, Turkey's economic ties with China were already growing. In 2002, when Erdogan's Justice and Development Party first came to power, bilateral trade between Turkey and China was only $1 billion a year, according to the Middle East Institute. That number now stands at $27 billion. Chinese firms are also helping construct a high-speed rail network in Turkey that Beijing's state media claims will “help facilitate cross-continental trade” — which also sounds a lot like a modern Silk Road.

But the Belt and Road Initiative is far from a guaranteed success. In some countries, the project is viewed with deep suspicion — India has so far boycotted the initiative — and critics worry not only that the project will mostly benefit China rather than its partners, but also that the huge projects will be plagued by inefficiency and corruption.

In fact, China's longstanding attempts to forge closer ties with Turkey have usually been tepidly received, in large part due to tensions over the repression of China's Muslim Uighur minority. There have also been concerns about how aligning with Beijing might affect Turkey's NATO membership or its hopes to join the European Union.

But these days, Turkey may be more receptive to suitors from outside the West. Last year's attempted coup, Erdogan's subsequent purges and the ongoing conflict in Syria have all strained Ankara's relationship with its traditional Western allies and essentially destroyed its E.U. aspirations. Erdogan seemed to hope for a new start under Trump, but Washington's commitment to arming Syrian Kurdish rebels for an upcoming offensive against Raqqa, the de facto capital of the Islamic State, has sparked tensions anew.



Chinese President Xi Jinping walks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing on May 13. (Pool photo via Press Presidency Press Service via Associated Press)

So China is ready to pounce, and not just on the economic side. The Chinese ambassador to Turkey suggested Friday that Beijing was ready to discuss Turkish membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a strategic bloc that could be thought of as a Chinese- and Russian-led alternative to the E.U.

Even the passionate issue of the Uighurs seems to have been reassessed. China has long claimed that Uighurs who escape to Turkey — Uighurs are not only Muslim but of Turkic ethnicity — represented a security threat. Last month, the Syrian ambassador to China told Reuters that more than 5,000 Uighurs were fighting with militant groups in Syria. Rather than deflecting the issue, Erdogan reportedly agreed to a framework for deepening Turkey's counterterrorism work with China.

The Belt and Road Initiative “will be an initiative that will almost eradicate terrorism,” said Erdogan said during a speech on Sunday.

Turkey's newfound coziness with China highlights some of the contradictions of Trump's foreign policy. As a candidate, Trump bragged about his dealmaking abilities, but that rhetoric often flies in the face of his protectionist policies. America may no longer be the only party in town — and world leaders like Erdogan know it.

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