Kilicdaroglu’s “New Silk Road” Project

If Kilicdaroglu becomes the President, we shall witness an interesting model that “the West and the East” as the equal priorities of Turkey.



On 6 May, Turkish opposition presidential candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu talked about the “grandest project of my life” in which he talked about connecting Turkey economically to China through Central Asia.
Is this a realistic, implementable project?
What does this project signify for Turkey’s foreign policy if and once Kilicdaroglu becomes the President of the Republic?
Ties between China and Turkey have developed significantly since 1974, when Turkey switched recognition from the Republic of China (ROC) based in Taiwan to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), established in 1949 after the Communist Party won the civil war. However, neither country paid too much attention to each other until the last decade, with Turkey prioritizing its ties with the Western world and China having a much smaller economy at the time.
Economic ties between the two nations grew, but this was mostly due to China’s trade with almost every country growing in the 21st century. Bilateral trade more than doubled since 2009, increasing from 10 billion dollars to 36 billion dollars in 2022; as of that year, China was the third-largest trading partner of Turkey after Germany and Russia. The trade is mostly dominated by China’s exports, with China exporting much more to Turkey than importing from it, leading to a very large trade-deficit. This shows the potential for economic ties to grow if Turkey starts making competitive products that can be exported to China.
Kilicdaroglu’s project remarkably echoes China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure plan launched by Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2013. The BRI envisions developing infrastructure throughout the developing world to boost the world economy and trade. For this endeavor, China has lent tens of billions of dollars to developing countries to fund infrastructure and construction programs. According to Ceren Ergenc and Derya Gocer’s data cited in their Carnegie Endowment for International Peace article; as of summer 2022, BRI investments in Turkey were 4 billion dollars; around 1.3 percent of the total investments, a relatively slow rate. The article said that the reasons for relatively low level of investment by China to Turkey included Turkey’s unstable economic situation, failing negotiations as well as other reasons.
Kilicdaroglu’s administration could make Turkey a better choice for investment with several ways; most importantly, abandoning extremely unorthodox momentary policies pursued by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would hugely boost confidence in the economy. Though it would initially lead to an economic slowdown due to the end of cheap credit, it eventually would bring down inflation to more normal levels, stabilize the currency and allow stable, sustainable economic growth over the long term instead of the boom-and-bust cycles that occur under Erdogan. This would also increase Chinese investments especially since Turkey would be an attractive location to invest.
Another boost to the BRI would be to consolidate the fledging “Organization of Turkic States” (OTS) into a more coherent economic bloc. The largely Turkic countries of Central Asia have been desperately looking for new partners after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, due to the fear of being isolated like Russia. Allowing them to connect China to Turkey, and by extension Europe, would lessen their economic dependence on Russia and boost both Turkey’s and China’s influence in the region. This could also impact, by even a little bit, Russia’s position; if Russia feels like it’s starting to lose even Central Asia, a region long considered by them as their “backyard”, it could possibly be more accepting of negotiations over Ukraine in order to halt its isolation.
What I depicted above is a “best case scenario”: main stumbling bloc to China-Turkey relations is Uygur issue. Kilicdaroglu referred to this as the “persecution in Turkistan”-and set ceasing of rights abuses of Uygurs as a precondition. Kilicdaroglu’s usage of the term “Turkistan” to refer to the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region” in China’s official lexis may be due two reasons:
—China and in general East Asian countries did not and does not occupy much space in Turkey’s foreign policy; there is lack expertise on behalf of both the opposition and the current government. Hence, Kilicdaroglu and his aides are very likely to be unaware how alarming the term “Turkistan” would sound to China’s policymakers-akin to the use of the term “Kurdistan” for their Turkish counterparts.
—Kilicdaroglu presents his “Silk Road Project” as a “nationalist” project. He announced this project in a video shared via Twitter; saying “Neither West, nor the East; but Turk’s road”.
I think this sentence is the key to all “new foreign policy” of Turkey once Kilicdaroglu becomes the President. Furthermore, Kilicdaroglu’s main coalition partner İYİ Party and its leader Meral Aksener has a very similar policy understanding as far as foreign relations are concerned.
Kilicdaroglu envisions “Silk and Road” and accession negotiations as two sides of the same coin: the same nationalist vision to “Make Turkey Great Again”. In days-if and when he becomes the President, we shall witness an interesting model developing “the West and the East” as the equal priorities of Turkey.