The NATO Summit in Brussel represents a milestone in several ways. The US firmly attempts to reassure its allies, and the Alliance expanded its political agenda to address threats emanating from growing China. However, China-Turkey rapprochement will likely be the Achilles’ heels of the new agenda.
Harun Talha Ayanoğlu
Out of Brussels this week from their Summit Communiqué, NATO members underlined the multifaceted threats that the international community and the alliance faces: Highlighting Russian behavior and aggression, terrorism, irregular migration, and human trafficking as byproducts of instability beyond borders, as well as climate change and cyber threats. In addition, NATO mentioned China for the first time and delineated Beijing’s international policies as a systemic challenge to the rules-based international order.
Another crucial point of the NATO Summit was America’s Homecoming. President Biden took the America is back message and urged allies to defend international rules-based order against authoritarianism and specifically systemic challenges currently being posed by militarily and economically growing China. However, it must be noted that Secretary General Stoltenberg insisted China was not an adversary or enemy. Instead, Beijing poses systemic challenges, as its military capability increases. In the Communiqué, Beijing was called to uphold its international commitment, in addition to NATO’s willingness to cooperate in dealing with common challenges such as climate change.
In this context, Turkey has the second-largest standing army in NATO, but Ankara’s role within the Alliance has become more and more ambivalent recently. Problems between Turkey and the US are not limited to excessively criticized S-400 purchase and Turkey’s exclusion from the F-35 program. American support for Kurdish militias in Northern Syria, de facto recognition of the Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s maritime disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece and France are other critical issues between the US and Turkey. Nevertheless, Sino-Turkish rapprochement appears to be more important than other issues within the context of NATO’s new agenda.
In 2010, despite the negative stance and opposition of most NATO allies due to possible Chinese spying on NATO radar network and some other critical technologies, Turkey and China conducted bilateral training within the scope of the annual multinational exercise, the Anatolian Eagle. Although China has been cooperating with navies of NATO members in anti-piracy operations in the waters off Somalia, PLAAF’s participation was the landmark event as it was China’s first joint exercise with a NATO ally.
That is not the first time that it is discussed whether China could infiltrate NATO through Turkey. In 2013, two leading experts, Aki Peritz and Mieke Eoyang asked Is China Building a Trojan Horse into NATO Through Turkey within the context of possible Turkish purchase of HQ-9 long-range air defense system. It was once said that Turkey had neither the intention nor the capacity to go rogue on NATO through purchasing the Chinese HQ-9 air defense systems. Three years after this statement, a Russian Antonov 124 carrying Turkey’s first batch of S-400 air defense systems landed in Ankara, despite the harsh NATO criticism and American embargoes on F-35 fighters.
Turkey also constantly expresses its interest to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, often during its turbulent moments with its NATO allies. In other words, Turkey anticipates viewing China as an alternative strategic partner. The recent swap deals may appear to prove this point. Following the unexpected drop of Turkey’s Central Bank’s reserve, the Erdogan government desperately sought to settle swap deals. Except for China and Qatar, Ankara could not succeed in any swap deals. Before his flight to Brussel, President Erdogan stated that Turkey and China had agreed to increase an existing swap facility to 6 billion USD.
However, Turkish-Chinese rapprochement must not be acknowledged as given. Turkey was the only country in which China did not sign any investment agreement during Minister Wang Yi’s trip across the Middle East, while Iran could attract 400 billion USD worth of Chinese investments. Furthermore, although Ankara has sharply left its protective attitude regarding the people of Xinjiang after 2010, this issue is still standing as a potential friction point between Ankara and Beijing.