Turkey and China in the Eastern Mediterranean: Partners or Competitors?

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China was a late arrival in the development boom in the eastern Mediterranean, but used its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a gateway to enter the region. As global voices writing, Turkey is also developing its own trans-regional economic and strategic cooperation strategy, in particular the Intermediate Corridor Initiative. In their efforts to influence this region, are Beijing and Ankara allies or opponents?

The Global Political Economy and Geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean

Located centrally between Asia, Africa and Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean has been an important strategic crossroads for world trade throughout its history.

The Eastern Mediterranean also offers the shortest sea route between Asian and European markets, thanks to the Suez Canal which connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Almost 12% of world trade and more than $ 1,000 billion in goods pass through the canal each year. The region also serves as an important route for the transportation of Gulf oil and gas to European markets. About 70 percent of Europe’s energy needs pass through the Mediterranean every year.

Home to regional power-holders such as Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt, the geoeconomic and geopolitical importance of the Eastern Mediterranean has historically attracted major non-regional powers to the region: the United States, as well as the NATO allies; Russia, which has increased its influence since the civil war in Syria; and now China, which only started to take root at the end of 2013, once the BRI was initiated in Turkey.

China’s policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and the BRI

So far, China is mainly present through infrastructure investments, including the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor and the Maritime Silk Road, such as the port of Piraeus in Greece, Kumport in Turkey, the ports of El Dekheila and Alexandria in Egypt, and Haifa and Ports of Ashdod in Israel.

In Egypt, China has invested in the Suez Canal industrial zone and built parts of the new administrative capital and is funding around 85% of the US $ 3 billion project as part of its Silk Road economic belt. . Likewise, since 2016, China has invested in numerous clean energy projects in Greece. And in Israel, it has invested in transportation, technology and other industries. China’s biggest investment in the country to date is the Emba Hunutlu Power Plant, a coal-fired power plant. The country is also in talks with Turkey to finance the Kanal Istanbul project, a navigation channel aimed at connecting the Sea of ​​Marmara with the Black Sea. The Chinese private sector is also involved in a host of wild activities – more than 1,000 Chinese companies have invested in Turkey’s sectors, from tourism and finance to transport, mining and energy.

In recent years, China has also sought to increase its military presence in the region. In May 2015, Beijing conducted its first-ever military exercise in the Mediterranean alongside Russia. Two years later he conducted a live fire exercise. China’s increased economic ties in this part of the Mediterranean can be attributed to a turning point in 2011 when it had to evacuate its citizens from Libya following the instability in the country, and realized that it needed more efforts to protect its investments in the region.

Turkey’s Middle Corridor and Affirmed Policies in the Eastern Mediterranean

In November 2015, Turkey and China signed a Memorandum of Understanding to align Turkey’s Intermediate Corridor Initiative with the BRI.

Through the Middle Corridor, Turkey aims to use its geographic advantage as a gateway between Asia, Europe and the Middle East to become an East-West trade hub. These plans were highlighted by Minister of Transport and Infrastructure Adil Karaismailoğlu, who said in a statement in June: “With the middle corridor, Turkey will become a new global logistics base”.

In 2015, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Turkey’s main opposition party, proposed the Center Turkey (Merkez Türkiye) project, which aims to center Turkey as a logistics and production hub connecting the ‘Europe, Asia and Africa. This project extends the Middle Corridor to Africa via the Middle East while maintaining its compatibility with the BRI. It is also an indication of the interest shared between the first Turkish government and the opposition parties.

If Turkey can position itself as an economic zone between Europe, Asia and the MENA region, the middle corridor could become more attractive to China and other regional partners, thereby increasing the economic and political gains of the region. Turkey.

A working paper released by the Asian Development Bank in May 2021 suggests that an intra-regional trade zone and extra-regional economic integration policies developed under the intermediate corridor could facilitate engagement between the EU and China. Such a trade zone, led by Turkey and supported by trans-regional trade, could also strengthen Turkey’s role for regional states, the EU and China.

However, unlike the Chinese BRI, Turkey’s regional integration vision does not include a maritime corridor. Instead, from 2015, Turkey implemented a strong Eastern Mediterranean policy relying on military capabilities, rather than diplomatic talks, to assert its claims to maritime jurisdiction over it. vis-à-vis regional states such as Greece, southern Cyprus and Egypt. Yet Turkey’s latest policies in the Eastern Mediterranean can also be seen as defensive.

In January 2019, southern Cyprus (Republic of Cyprus), Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan and Palestine created the East Med Gas Forum to create an energy hub in the region. Turkey’s exclusion from the group has caused tensions in Ankara, prompting Turkey to launch a unilateral naval-backed gas exploration and drilling effort. In November 2019, Turkey and Libya demarcated their maritime border, which partially overlapped the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of Greece and Egypt, triggering strong reactions from both sides.

Local experts, such as researcher İlhan Uzgel, claim that Turkey’s current assertive naval policies in the Eastern Mediterranean, summed up by the 2013 Blue Homeland Doctrine, are similar to the neo-Ottoman policies promoted by the former Turkish minister of affairs. Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in the 2000s and early 2010s.

Turkey’s offensive policies have triggered strong reactions from other regional powers and exacerbated tensions in some cases. In May 2020, the foreign ministers of Cyprus, Egypt, France, Greece and the United Arab Emirates denounced Turkey’s activities in the exclusive economic zone of southern Cyprus, “an area of ​​the sea in which a sovereign state has special rights regarding the exploration and use of marine resources. Resources. “In September 2020, then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed US support for Greece, as did Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in November. The following month, the Council European Union imposed sanctions on Turkey.

Competitors or regional collaborators?

China generally remains silent on tensions within the Mediterranean in an effort to maintain positive relations in the region and maximize its benefits. However, this position could change depending on future developments.

According to Gu Zhenglong and Zou Zhiqiang of Shanghai International Studies University and Zhang Lin of Zhejiang International Studies University, Turkey’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean are the root of the instability. If this continues, China may reassess Turkey’s role in the BRI.

Currently, China seems to favor Greece for its trade relations with Europe. The port of Piraeus is located closer to European markets and offers a shorter and more profitable route than the Turkish port of Kumport. However, as the blockade of the Suez Canal for six days in March 2021 demonstrated, the development of alternative trade routes is essential. According to Minister Karaismailoğlu, the Middle Corridor is the most suitable alternative east-west trade route.

As a result of these developments, China and Turkey should continue to work together to align their distinct but overlapping visions of transcontinental integration, as Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan has reinforced. If Ankara’s political and military ambitions in the region increase, Beijing may reconsider Turkey’s role as a reliable partner in the BRI.


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