The 20th-century Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet wrote a famous line about Turkey "charging out of Asia and stretching like a mare's head into the Mediterranean."
Capturing Turkey's unique transcontinental location, the line aptly depicts Turkey's 20th-century foreign policy rooted in its immediate region, West Asia, yet with much of its foreign policy focused on strengthening ties with Europe. However, the 2010s have seen a cooling of Turkey-Europe relations and, instead, an economic and political charge toward Asia.
As we enter a new decade, it merits asking whether Turkey's next decade – and indeed the remainder of the century – will be more Asia-oriented, and what the West stands to lose if Turkey were to gradually turn its attention East.
The importance for the West
Historically, Turkey has been a crucial military ally for Europe. Straddling Europe and Asia, it has been the eastern pillar of the NATO alliance since 1952. As the Cold War began and relations between the West and the Soviet Union froze, Turkey joined the Council of Europe in 1949 as a founding member, and its membership in the European Economic Community was initiated in 1959. Turkey fought as part of NATO or U.N.-led coalitions in the Korean War in the 1950s, in the Balkans in the 1990s, Afghanistan in the 2000s and Libya in 2011.
The second-largest army within NATO after the U.S., Turkey remains an important buffer for Europe against the instability of its Arab neighbors; at the recent summit in London, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg described Turkey as having played a "key role" in fighting Daesh in Syria. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Turkey hosts the largest number of externally displaced people in the world. It accommodates around 4 million externally displaced people, 3.6 million of whom are Syrians.
To engage with Turkey is to engage with a key regional actor, whose influence extends beyond its own borders. Indeed, with a total of 235 diplomatic and consular missions, Turkey has the sixth-largest global diplomatic network.
The United States' recent assassination of Iranian military chief Qassem Soleimani demonstrates the potential for a rapid escalation in the region, and thus Ankara's key role in maintaining stability. Despite Iran's policies in Iraq and Syria harming Turkey's interests, Ankara has maintained a neutral stance in the feud between Iran and the U.S., instilling level-headedness in times of volatility. Turkey is also home to İncirlik Air Base, which is crucial for NATO operations in the region. Turkey's close relationship with Qatar also plays into this as Qatar seeks to exploit liquefied natural gas (LNG) resources it co-owns with Tehran. Turkey is a very important cog in a tremendously complicated machine.
Turkey also guarantees Europe's energy security. Pipelines across Turkey carry oil and gas which crucially reduce European dependence on Russia, a risk German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been particularly vocal about. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea already delivers energy to Europe, with more pipelines planned to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan and Iran. The construction of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) is set to be completed later this year, which will take Caspian gas from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Albania and Greece.
Economically, Turkey is a key gateway to Asia. With more than half of its inward investment drawn from Europe, European banks have a vested interest in continuing to support the Turkish economy's recovery.
Charge toward Asia
Following a decades-long foreign policy focus of integration into Europe, Turkey joined the European customs union in 1995; however, its application to join the European Union stalled after initial talks in 2005. In 2018, the EU's General Affairs Council went so far as to state that "Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union."
In the last decade and a half, Turkey has undergone significant outreach eastward, strengthening its economic ties with China and Iran in particular. From 2007 to 2016, Turkey's annual trade with China doubled to $27 billion, with China accounting for 13% of Turkey's imports and other Asian countries contributing a further 8%.
Turkey's trade with South Korea, India, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Iraq is also growing quickly, and commerce with Asian nations plays just as great a role in the Turkish economy as trade with major European countries. In 2017, Turkey's top export destinations were Germany at 10%, the U.K. at 6.1% and Italy at 5.6%, followed by the UAE at 5.5% and Iraq at 5.4%.
As part of China's Belt and Road Initiative, investments have poured into infrastructure linking Turkey, China and their neighbors in between. As Parag Khanna highlights in his book "The Future is Asian": "Coordinated investments have made serious headway to link Central Asia and Anatolia in a 21st-century Silk Road of freight railways, upgraded ports on the Caspian Sea (Baku in Azerbaijan, Aqtau in Kazakhstan and Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan), and energy corridors across Kazakhstan to China." For instance, Turkish State Railways (TCDD) plans to lay 9,300 miles of new railway domestically and into its neighbors Georgia and Iran, much of which will be built by Chinese companies.
In 2015, Turkey joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as one of its largest shareholders. Soon after, it received a $600 million loan to complete the TANAP. Similar loans have occurred since. In June 2018, a $100 million loan was confirmed for a gas storage expansion project and in November 2019, the AIIB approved a $200 million loan to invest in Turkey's renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors through the Turkish bank TKYB.
While economic links and investment in infrastructure do not necessarily lead to military alliances, Europe and the U.S. only stand to lose from weakened ties with Turkey. Indeed, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the "NATO of the East," has been pointed to by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as Turkey's alternative to the European Union. Signaling its increasing closeness with the group, in 2017, Turkey chaired the SCO's Energy Club as the first non-SCO country to do so.
As we look ahead to the coming decade, future scenarios such as those where Bashar Assad is no longer in power in Syria, where a less unpredictable character occupies the White House or where a regional war has broken out are all possible. Without Turkey, weathering war or building economic and political inroads during periods of stability are both immediately more difficult for the West.
With the purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-missile system, the recent incursion into Syria and disagreements with the EU regarding drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean, sources of tension are not lacking for Ankara and its European allies. Yet, it is in both parties' interests to quash such tensions. Europe is in danger of estranging a key ally and strategic partner at a time when Asian giants, including China, are only too ready and willing to step in and alter the course of Turkey's 21st century.
* Managing director, Marlow Strategy, a London-based international advisory firm