Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, China May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee - RC19959C6A40
While we remain focused on the India-China confrontation and on the Sino-Iran deal, another alliance is in the making which India should be watching closely — the Sino-Turkish alliance.
Over the years China and Turkey have been cementing ties which have often been constrained by the United States and by Turkey's membership of NATO. However, the bilateral ties got a fillip since China launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan clutched at the opportunity as he struggles to consolidate his AKP Party and reclaim for himself the glory of Turkey’s Ottoman past. Another reason was that Erdogan’s ambitions to anoint himself as the leader of the Muslim world saw Turkey embroil itself in wars in foreign lands, thus putting Ankara in financial straits. Here also, China has not disappointed. Bilateral trade, which was at $1 billion in 2000, stood at $23 billion in 2018, with Chinese investments of around $2 billion.
Straddling two continents, Turkey is strategically important for China's BRI, as a trade and transport hub, significantly cutting down freight transportation time from China to Europe and Africa. Turkey had also launched its own connectivity project to access the Caucasus and Central Asia through the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku railway, known as the Middle Corridor.
In November 2016, Beijing and Ankara signed a memorandum of understanding on harmonising their BRI and Middle Corridor Initiatives. As investments from the EU and West Asia shrink, Turkey is increasingly turning to China for investments in infrastructure development, which is one of the promises to countries signing on to the BRI.
Thus, for instance, in 2014, Chinese State-owned companies completed the second session of Turkey’s Ankara-Istanbul High-Speed Railway with the assistance of $720 million loans from the China Exim Bank. Chinese State-owned shipping and logistics companies have invested $940 million in obtaining a 65 percent share of Kumport, Turkey’s third-largest container terminal. In November 2019, the first freight train from Xian in China arrived in Ankara.
Turkey is a priority country with the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The bank is helping in the construction of the Salt Lake underground gas storage facility project, said to be the world's largest storage project. Turkey is also an observer at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).
So eager is Turkey for its partnership with China, that Erdogan who is positioning himself as the modern day Caliph of Muslims worldwide has turned a blind eye to China's oppression of its Uighur Muslim community. In fact, it recently took steps to assuage China's concerns by first, announcing the East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist organisation and, more recently, by deporting Uighur Muslim dissidents back to China via third countries such as Tajikistan.
However, Turkey's religion-oriented expansionist foreign policy also makes it imperative to court Pakistan, as a plank of the Muslim ummah, and reach out to Indian Muslims.
Hence, while turning a blind eye to Uighur duress in China, Turkey has been upping the ante on Kashmir. On August 5, on the occasion of the first anniversary of the revoking of Article 370, Turkish foreign ministry spokesman Hami Aksoy said in a statement "... practices implemented over the last year….have further complicated the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and not served peace and stability in the region."
Turkey was one of the three countries, with China and Pakistan, to condemn India's decision to revoke J&K’s special status. Erdogan raised the issue in the UN General Assembly. During his February visit to Pakistan Erdogan compared the struggle of Kashmiris with the Ottoman Empire's fight during World War I. Even as his regime clamps down on liberties, minorities, and the media inside Turkey, the State-controlled Turkish media has kept up a steady diatribe against India.
Turkey provides Pakistan the emotional, ideological, and political support, while China is providing both with material and political support. With China's support, the Kashmir issue has thrice been discussed in the UN Security Council since August 5, 2019. Pakistan's insistence and Turkey's focus has also seen the Organization of Islamic Cooperation raising the Kashmir issue more than it normally would have.
Considering Erdogan and his party's Islamist orientation and well-documented support to radical and terror groups, together with Pakistan's support and sponsor of cross-border terror, and China's expansionist tendencies, the China-Pakistan-Turkey nexus is one India needs to watch out for.Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. Views are personal.