OPINION - Turkey in the CPEC is an effort to change the status quo

China Pakistan Turkey Chinese Pakistani Turkish flags

China and Pakistan are making assiduous efforts to involve third parties in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Though most analysts conclude that since this project was getting into a financial problem with Pakistan being unable to repay loans, it was considered necessary to involve other countries so that the project may not fail. Pakistan has outstanding loans to the tune of almost $14.5 billion to China. Most of these loans are short-term loans with high interest rates. Timelines for repayment have gone haywire.

However, this is only partially correct. The issue needs to be seen in the overall objective of China in the region. For China, the CPEC is not merely to give it connectivity to the Indian Ocean but it is an instrument to establish its hegemony in Central and West Asia. Pak PM Shahbaz recently during his visit to Turkey requested Turkey to join CPEC at the behest of China. The timing is important. This comes a few weeks after China and Pakistan decided to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan despite India’s objections.

China considers Turkey’s involvement in CPEC significant for five factors. First, Turkey’s geostrategic position at the intersection of Europe and Asia makes it invaluable for the Chinese BRI. Using this strategically important intersection, China hopes to enhance its footprints easily into Europe, West and Central Asia. Turkey has substantial influence in Central Asia and that can be exploited for the establishment of Chinese paramountcy in the region. Second, with Turkey’s association in the CPEC, China perceives that the CPEC project would acquire an image of an international project and thereby weaken India’s objections. Third, China hopes to control ETIM activists through Turkey. It is well known that both Erdogan’s govt and Pakistani establishment are quietly helping Turkey by handing over the activists to Turkey from their countries. Fourth, this would strengthen the trilateral links that would facilitate in acquiring the western technology by China through these countries. There are several credible inputs indicating this aspect. Fifth, Turkey and China now are having a common view on eastern Ladakh, which may help in putting pressure on India.

Turkey too is interested in building closer relations with China. Turkey’s principal motivation is to attract investment from China to stimulate the Turkish economy, including through Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Securing Chinese funding for its controversial Canal Istanbul project remains an important goal for the Turkish government. Turkey is the biggest importer of China and therefore economically important. Bilateral trade volumes were worth USD 32 billion in 2021, compared to USD 1 billion in 2001. In the last few years, imports from China have gone up considerably. China is Turkey’s largest import partner among individual countries. Turkey has also been supporting the BRI since 2017 and had obtained financial aid from China.

Turkey’s relations with the US are weakening, though it is still a NATO member. Currently, Turkey favourably views China’s potential to check US power and to leverage that in its favour. While Turkey’s final decision to join CPEC is awaited, it is likely that Turkey may join the project. Both Pakistan and China are important for this country. Turkey is reported to have acquired technology used in 90B submarines through Pakistan, which later was transferred to China. Pak gave a contract in 2016 for upgrading its two Agosta 90B submarines to a Turkish firm STM despite “sanctions and restrictions” imposed by France whose Naval Group was the submarine’s manufacturer. The contract included torpedo countermeasure systems and acoustic measurement sensors, aimed at giving new capabilities to Pakistani submarines. Within the scope of modernization activities undertaken by the STM, the entire sonar suite of the submarine ship, periscope systems, and command and control system, as well as the radar and electronic support systems, were replaced by the Turkish military software. In 2021, a satellite-based photograph of Pak port revealed that Pak Agosta 90B submarine, was berthed between the two Chinese ships and importantly that was not the usual berthing place for 90B submarine. It appears that its technology was being shared by China, which is highly concerned about the noisy engines of its submarine and is looking for western technology for replacement.

Besides, the technology transfer, there are inputs to suggest that Sino-Pak-Turkish cooperation in proliferation is going on. A Chinese company ship was detained at an Indian port for falsely declaring Autoclave as an industrial dryer. This is used for launching missiles. The nexus between China, Turkey and North Korea in promoting nuclear weapons had also been highlighted in a report published by the German government in 2020. Pakistan is supporting China. Erdogan has often shown interest in nuclear weapons. Turkey under Erdogan has been pushing for an aggressive power projection.

Pakistan has an obvious interest in CPEC. It considers that would strengthen its claim on the region. Moreover, it considers if Turkey and other powers are involved its financial difficulties may be partially over. Turkey and Pakistan have a close defence relationship and its involvement in CPEC could further strengthen its links.

While Pakistan and China are known to be all-weather partners, Pak’s nexus with Turkey have grown recently. Pakistan PM earlier in May 2022 stated that ‘Turkiye and Pakistan as ‘one nation living in two countries and even before the creation of Pakistan, the Muslims of the sub-continent supported the cause of their Turkish brethren,’ indicating a growing deep relationship. During the ceremony of the launch of PNS Badr, the third ship under the framework of Turkey’s National Ship Project (MİLGEM) in Karachi, Sharif said turning the CPEC into a trilateral project with Pakistan, Turkey and China would be beneficial for the region. On this occasion a message by Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan was screened, where he assured Pakistan that Turkey would provide all support needed to strengthen its military infrastructure.

Given the above facts, a trilateral axis already exists among the three powers. The joining of Turkey of CPEC would have serious consequences for India. First, with Turkey’s involvement, more funds would be available from China for the project, which is facing problems. Of course, loans would be given by China under its ‘debt trap diplomacy.’ Second, in international forums, there would be additional support available for the Sino-Pak axis. Third, there would be an impetus to terrorism in the region. Erdogan has been highlighting Turkey as the leader of the Muslim Ummah and the one who stands up in defence of every Islamic cause. Reports of Turkey promoting radicalism in Pakistan also exist. Afghanistan, which is witnessing increased activities of terrorist groups, may become a hub of international terrorism again.

India has done well by convening the NSA level meet with Central Asian countries. The Joint communique has focused on the need to check terrorism in Afghanistan. A greater push is needed to this effort by all countries. India has also taken up the issue at the UN while discussing the Iraq issue.

There is a lesson for all countries to see how China has built a positive image in Turkey over years. Besides financial incentives, it has used influence operations to woo the public. China developed better access to Turkey’s conventional media primarily by leveraging its favourable ties to the Turkish government, which has an overbearing influence in Turkey’s domestic media sphere. This created more opportunities for the Chinese diplomatic corps to appear on Turkish TV. Published “advertorials” — publicity pieces masquerading as news or opinion items — in Turkey’s pro-government newspapers to celebrate the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). China also managed to rope in journalists from Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu Agency to help China in its propaganda campaign. Like other places, social media platforms have also been used. The Chinese policy of creating “useful idiots” in target countries is more harmful than its muscular approach.

S D Pradhan has served as chairman of India's Joint Intelligence Committee and has also been the country's deputy national security adviser. He is a columnist for The Times of India.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor