Selcuk Colakoglu: “A Future Russia-China-Turkey Bloc Is Unlikely”

Given the different and often conflicting agendas, a future Russia-China-Turkey bloc is unlikely but three countries continue to use each other as leverage in their economic and foreign affairs
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Professor Selcuk Colakoglu is the Director of the Turkish Center for Asia Pacific Studies in Ankara, Turkey. A foreign policy scholar, he has penned dozens of academic articles, book chapters, and analyses on myriad topics related to Asia, China, Turkey, and great power relations. He has also authored three books: Northeast Asia in International Relations (in Turkish, Ankara: USAK Press, 2009), Korean Society, Culture, and Politics (in Turkish, Ankara: Orion Press, 2008), and his most recent work, titled Turkey and China: Political, Economic and Strategic Aspects of the Relationship (in English, London: World Scientific, 2021).

Mehmet Yegin (MY): According to your book, it seems that Turkey’s relations with the West have a significant impact on Turkey-China relations. How is the latter relationship shaped by these influences? Do you think this continues today, or can we now talk about independent Turkey-China relations?

Selcuk Colakoglu (SC): From the beginning, relations between the Republic of Turkey and the People’s Republic of China have been directly affected by the West in general, and by NATO allies in particular. Ankara has followed security policies put forward by NATO allies, and particularly the United States. Turkey recognized the Republic of China in Taiwan between 1949 and 1971 as the sole representative of China. At this time, Turkey moved its embassy from Nanjing to Taipei, Taiwan, and had no representation in Beijing, China until 1971. Starting in the early 1970s, following the normalization of Sino-American relations, Ankara recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole representative of China, and accordingly moved its embassy to Beijing. Around this time Ankara also closed its embassy in Taipei and cut all diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, i.e. Taiwan.

Starting from 1980s, different Turkish governments have been wanted to use China to balance Western allies. This tendency was particularly the case during times of crisis in Turkey-Western relations: including the Cyprus crisis and amid Western condemnations of Turkey’s human rights violations or democratic backsliding, especially after direct or indirect military interventions in the country. Turkish governments have tried to use China as leverage in receiving more concessions or acceptance from Western countries.

MY: Turkish President Erdogan has repeatedly emphasized the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as an alternative to the EU. Turkey’s attempts to procure Chinese missile defense systems also fell through. For Turkey, do you think the SCO can be seen as an economic or security alternative to the West?

SC: Initially, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government mostly considered the SCO as a tool that could open its strategy to Asia and diversify its foreign policy. Nevertheless, starting around 2011, we saw the emergence of more forceful rhetoric that promoted the SCO as an alternative to Western institutions. Erdogan notably declared this approach two times, once as prime minister and once as president. While he reiterated his consideration of the SCO as an economic alternative to the EU, he did not mention NATO.

Despite the rhetoric, in practice we haven’t see any clear strategies on the part of Turkey to become a member of the SCO, but it is currently a dialogue partner of the Organisation. China objected to Turkey’s membership in the initial stages and, even today, it is still not very enthusiastic about the idea. While Turkey can attain the highest non-member “observer” status, full membership isn’t on the agenda for either Turkey or the SCO. Indeed, the Organisation is far from comparing with the EU in terms of economic integration. Additionally, after both India and Pakistan joined, it became even more challenging for the SCO to move forward in terms of deepening defense cooperation.

MY: Turkey’s relations with Russia and the procurement of S-400 missile systems cause worries in the transatlantic alliance. Is it realistic to talk about a future Turkey-Russia-China trilateral bloc?

SC: In the West, particularly after 2011, a perception took hold that Turkey was growing closer to Russia and China. However, realities on the ground don’t suggest a developing trilateral mechanism. Ankara is indeed deepening its relationship with Russia and China, but separately. In return, China is also keeping its relationships with Russia and Turkey bilateral. The two countries are pleased with Turkey’s anti-Western rhetoric, and Russia is particularly content that it could sell Ankara S-400 missile systems and create a rift among NATO countries.

Russia and China are not partnering, particularly in Central Asia and Eurasia. Russia considers China an economic rival and has concerns that it is being sidelined in the post-Soviet geography. Russia now considers Turkey as a partner to balance China. Representing a significant change in its perceptions, Russia has come to understand that Turkey is not and cannot be a genuine alternative or competitor to Russia in the region. Turkey does not have direct access to Central Asia and its economic capacity is also limited for such competition. Thus, there is increasing cooperation between Turkey and Russia in Central Asia in recent years, especially because both Russian and Turkish economic interests in Central Asia are being challenged by China. Russia may also welcome other countries, such as India or South Korea, to join this endeavor, as long as they don’t intend to achieve dominance in the region. In short, a future Russia-China-Turkey bloc is unlikely; on the contrary, clues point to distrust and future competition between the parties.

MY: Does the Belt and Road Initiative aggravate sensitivities between Russia and China too?

SC: There are different routes and cooperation schemes between countries in the region. Russia and China both house highway and railway connections that reach Europe, and Moscow is not very happy about certain alternative routes that China plans to establish in Central Asia or South Asia and the Middle East. In that regard, Russia, of course, is cooperating with China to spur regional development. Nevertheless, on the other side, Russia does not want to be sidelined by such projects. Besides, Russia doesn’t want to see substantial Chinese infrastructure investments granted to certain rival governments in the region, such as Georgia and Ukraine. These complications force China to be very cautious. Beijing pursues a “wait and see” approach on the matter and does not rush to establish concrete agendas or projects. China doesn’t plan to take political risks because of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Turkey also developed its own Silk Road Initiative, namely the Middle Corridor, that aims to connect Turkey to China through Georgia, Azerbaijan, the Caspian Sea, and Central Asia. Along with this initiative, Turkey aims to be an east-west corridor between China and Europe. However, the projects implemented within the scope of the Middle Corridor are not well-integrated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Besides, there is no regional cooperation between Turkey and China in the Southern Caucasus, Black Sea, or Central Asia.

MY: What role do Uighur Muslims play in Turkey-China bilateral relations. When did this issue arise, and what is the current situation?

SC: In the 1970s and 1980s, Turkey and the People’s Republic of China considered the Uighur people as a “bridge of friendship” between the two countries. Nevertheless, over time, it became a source of significant friction. The Uighur diaspora in Turkey has deep roots that began to take shape especially after the People’s Liberation Army took control of the Xinjiang region in 1949. Many of Xinjiang’s leaders who worked closely with Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist government, such as Mehmet Emin Bugra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin, fled to Turkey from China via India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Eventually they received Turkish citizenship. No more than 50,000 Uighurs have received Turkish citizenship in Turkey, but their influence outweighs their numbers. This is because they are well integrated into Turkish society and very organized. They are very influential in the Turkish public and political life, and in Ankara. They have staunch supporters among Turkish nationalist networks who advocate for the freedom and independence of the Xinjiang region, or “Eastern Turkistan”. The Uighur issue is a Turkic identity issue and is the foundation of Turkish nationalism. Still, as we discuss the Uighur issue today, it is becoming increasingly complicated. As Ankara and Beijing’s understandings of the Uighur issue differ, it will be difficult for the parties to find middle ground.

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