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When it comes to geography and more, Turkey's part in #BRICS matters

COMMON GROUND: President Cyril Ramaphosa, front right, holds a bilateral meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second from left, on the sidelines of the 10th BRICS Summit at the Sandton International Convention Centre in Johannesburg last month. Picture: Siyabulela Duda

COMMON GROUND: President Cyril Ramaphosa, front right, holds a bilateral meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, second from left, on the sidelines of the 10th BRICS Summit at the Sandton International Convention Centre in Johannesburg last month. Picture: Siyabulela Duda

Published Aug 7, 2018


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invitation to the BRICS summit was a logical step by the grouping if its aim, as appearances suggest, is to enact multilateralism in the global arena. Turkey’s enthusiasm for joining the association was demonstrated in the recent suggestion that a “T” be added to the acronym.

As a country embarking on major reforms and increasingly entertaining global ambitions, as well as a holder of the keys to a crucial sea route, Turkey’s association with BRICS could see much-needed enhanced trade between Russia and the other BRICS countries.

But many questions and controversies await, among which are issues about the future of internal consensus as well as the functionality of the formation.

With formal diplomatic relations dating from 1947, Turkey and India’s trade relations total around $6.4billion, with $5.1bn deficit in favour of India. Though slim, within sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa is Turkey’s leading trade partner.

Turkey’s trade with South Africa constitutes about 40% of its trade with sub-Saharan African countries. Annual trade volumes between the two countries are around $1.4bn, with South African exports from Turkey registering $489million and South African exports to Turkey amounting to $918.5m.

Both the figures are respectable, but are dwarfed by China’s trade relations with the European-Asian power, with a total volume of $27.7bn, with yet another trade deficit for Ankara, of $23.12bn.

Some patterns are discernible: with all these countries, Turkey has a trade deficit, which might arguably be the cause behind Turkey’s acceptance of the invitation. But it is in Turkey’s relations with a particular BRICS country that things get interesting - Russia. Russian leader Vladimir Putin held a bilateral meeting with his Turkish counterpart after the summit.

As the only BRICS country geographically close to Turkey, Russia has the most interesting history with the country. The Cold War reinforced an adversarial relationship with Turkey, as a US ally and a Nato member, being pivotal to containment attempts against the Soviet Union.

However, over the past 15 years, co-operation between the two countries has significantly expanded, especially in economics. The transformation of the Turkish-Russian relationship is the most important development in Turkish foreign policy in the past decade.

Russia is Turkey’s largest trade partner and supplies Turkey with more than 65% of its natural gas.

The growing economic interdependence has reshaped Turkish foreign policy and security outlooks; Turkey has become more sensitive to Russian security concerns and has been reluctant to adopt Washington-suggested policies that might cause disaccord with Moscow and damage the relations.

Geographically, Turkey is a virtual land-bridge between Europe and Asia, but more crucially for Moscow, it stands between Russia and the Mediterranean Sea and therefore between Russia and the world. Although Russia is surrounded by ocean on its eastern and northern borders, these are frozen over through most of the year, and the maritime borders are shared with Finland in the North Sea and Japan in the Pacific, both astute American allies. Turkey can no longer be described in these terms.

The change is important for Russia and for BRICS at large. As the most penetrable of Russia’s coasts, it has given way to more Russian trade (and some suspect also military) activity.

In a summit pierced by sound bites around tearing down barriers to trade, gaining Turkish concessions around access to the Bosporus straits could be historical.

For BRICS, newly heightened access to markets would no doubt garner noticeable increases in Russian trade with the more distant BRICS countries, especially Brazil, India and South Africa.

But far from being a mere gateway, however, the BRICS move by Turkey is indicative of a state eager to play a leading role in international politics in its own right - Istanbul was once the metropole centre of an empire that spanned three continents after all.

There is evidence of Turkish hopes for reforming the global arena. The usual place to start for any would-be global player is Africa. In the past 15 years, trade between Africa and Turkey has grown by 600% (currently at $17.5bn). Ankara has also increased its diplomatic presence on the continent to more than 40 embassies. Turkey’s interests in Africa arguably rival those of the EU (especially France).

All this occurs against the decline in Turkey’s relations with the US and the EU. We can (simplistically) distil the vast interaction of forces in the decline in the US/EU-Turkey relationship as follows:

Due to the historically political (Cold War-originated) nature of the relationship, not much emphasis was placed on economics and trade.

As a result, in the post-Cold War era, the minimal trade relations do not compensate for a lack of political consensus born of diverging national interests. Specifically, Turkey’s preoccupation with resisting secession and attack by Kurdish nationalist forces has made its participation in the Syrian conflict lacklustre, eroded consensus within Nato and has seen it get closer to Russia.

This in turn has seen Turkey’s entry into the EU get delayed. US President Donald Trump’s steel tariffs against Turkey have not abated the situation.

Turkey’s association with BRICS carries another importance for the Belt and Road Initiative conceived by China and explicitly endorsed by Russia and South Africa (with reservations by India which is working on its own maritime trade route with Japan, named the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor).

Turkish association will probably garner some criticism, however. Erdogan’s consolidation of power and the recently lifted state of emergency in place since the failed coup in 2016 in particular have been major discouraging factors in Turkey’s ascension into the EU, and the choice of Turkey as an associate might affect BRICS’s appearance as it enlists “yet another flawed democracy”.

But this will miss the point completely, as human rights are at the bottom of BRICS’s goals. This also means that despite Erdogan’s attempts to push Turkey towards being a more Muslim state, and Turkey a Muslim power, there is to be no Turkish protestations such as were seen at the behest of civil society in South Africa in the past number of weeks, with calls for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s arrest - against alleged Indian state suppression of Muslims in India, especially in Kashmir.

Disaccord on account of this can be discounted. Perhaps motivated by its own Kurdish question, Turkish silence has been seen over Chechnya in Russia, and there is no Turkish disgruntlement in its bilateral relations with India over the treatment of its Muslim minority.

Questions remain, however, and many more will probably arise. The first question is one of whether Turkey will be entering BRICS formally or whether a new class of membership or association will be put in place.

What will either of the structural changes render the BRICS; will it be an association of a strata of memberships, with invitations extended or applications accepted? Moreover, how will this new player in the BRICS association affect internal balance?

Bhaso Ndzendze is research co-ordinator at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute. He is the author of the Beginner’s Dictionary of Contemporary International Relations

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