“Before it is too late, Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives,” Erdogan wrote in a New York Times op-ed published on Friday.
The divide between Turkey and the United States was not entirely unexpected, following years of disagreement over Syria, democratic changes and economic policies. So far, Western nations still account for the majority of investments in Turkey. But as differences with Europe and the United States have mounted, Turkey has worked to boost its partnerships with other countries in recent years — first and foremost Russia, China and Qatar.
Turkey’s increasingly robust ties with Russia were hardly a secret in Washington foreign policy circles. Turkey has long had more extensive links to the Kremlin than other U.S. allies in the region that only recently established ties.
Since a failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Erdogan has stepped up his anti-U.S. and anti-Western rhetoric to rally his supporters. The Turkish leader has repeatedly accused the United States of being complicit with the coup plotters — accusations that coincided with improved relations with Moscow.
For the past two years, Turkish officials have also taken part in meetings with their Russian and Iranian counterparts to discuss Syria. The fact that the United States was left out during the talks indicated just how far the two NATO members have grown apart.
“Turkey’s drift from the transatlantic alliance and movement toward Russia and Iran has been in the making for a long time,” Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament, told Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin in 2016. “For Erdogan, the United States has become irrelevant, because in the Middle East actions count more than rhetoric and from his perspective, Washington was more talk than action.”
Turkish anger over U.S. inaction to prevent a united Kurdish state resulted in Erdogan’s shift from being a staunch opponent of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to his de-facto acceptance of Russian support for him.
Cooperation on Syria may soon translate into a broader partnership. After Turkey suggested over the weekend that it was planning to circumvent U.S. tariffs by abandoning the dollar and trading with countries such as China or Russia in other currencies, the Kremlin signaled it was willing to embrace the proposal.
The problem with that idea is that setting up such a mechanism won’t happen overnight. And while its current dispute with the United States could make Moscow an even more attractive partner for Turkey, dropping their reliance on the U.S. dollar will take time.
The wealthy nation in the Persian Gulf has long had deep ties to Turkey, with a renewed official commitment to expand their relationship in 2015. Some Turkish troops are based in Qatar and the two nations have agreed to hold joint military training exercises. Turkish-Qatari military ties have been viewed with growing suspicion by other nations in the region and their suspension was a core demand by a coalition of Arab countries that launched a blockade of Qatar last year.
The ongoing blockade has so far achieved the opposite, however. After Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations halted the delivery of food and other goods to Qatar, Turkey immediately sent cargo planes in a move that reminded some of the Berlin Air Bridge between 1948 and 1949, during which U.S. aircraft supplied goods to the western parts of the city after the Soviets cut off all supply routes. Qatar has in return expanded investments in Turkey. But with Qatar battling its own crisis, it’s unclear how much the tiny Gulf nation will be able to help its troubled friend out.
At first glimpse, China doesn’t appear to be an ideal partner for the predominantly Muslim Turkey, given Beijing’s repression of the Muslim Uighur minority.
But China is promising Turkey what it long unsuccessfully sought with the West.
Turkey’s efforts to enter the E.U. never really progressed, but China has indicated that Turkey may eventually be able to join its own E.U. alternative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Last week, Turkey and China announced expanded military ties at a time when the future of NATO is less certain than ever.
Beijing has been eager to fill the global power vacuum left by the United States, especially after Trump pulled out of trade agreements or raised questions over the future of NATO. And as part of its efforts to create an alternative economic and political order under the global $1 trillion “Belt and Road” initiative, Turkish-Chinese trade has increased 27-fold over the past 15 years, now amounting to about $27 billion per year, according to my colleague Adam Taylor.
As Turkey is seeking even closer ties to China, the feeling appears to be mutual. “If Turkey fails, it brings the world down with it,” Asia analyst Phar Kim Beng wrote in a recent piece for the South China Morning Post.