Turkey and the Central Asia: Implications on US-Turkey Relations

By THO Fellow, S. Suha Cubukcuoglu

Is Turkey’s developing relations with Central Asia a turn towards Eurasianism? 

In March 2021, the Turkish Foreign Minister H.E. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited the three Central Asian states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan at a critical time as Turkey’s fractious relations with the West have come under the spotlight. Turkey has deep cultural, historic, and religious ties with the resource-rich region that are heightened in importance with China’s economic rise and geopolitical expansion. The Covid-19 pandemic necessitated closer cooperation to break silos under a regional umbrella and find areas for cooperation in energy, health, education, and labor mobility. In this context, Turkey’s activism and aspirations to become an economic center and transit hub on the Middle Corridor in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) coincided with Central Asia’s growing desire to own its destiny, develop intra-regional coordination, and act more independently. As China's Silk Road diplomacy gains pace, Central Asia risks to become yet another chessboard in the great power rivalry of the twenty-first century against the US and Russia. Turkey is among the top three trade partners for the landlocked region, and it provides connectivity to the rest of world through highways, railroad, and air routes with frequent flights to and from Istanbul. Since some of the key impediments to Central Asia's growth and regional partnership are infrastructure gaps and underdeveloped human capital, Turkey’s drive for investment stands to benefit all sides. Especially the tri-partite cooperation mechanism between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan can lay the groundwork for cooperation in other fields. After the US president Biden’s unfortunate designation on the events of 1915 as “genocide”, Turkey might feel rushed to strengthen its developing ties with Caucasus and Central Asia to protect its strategic backyard against rival influences.

Although Turkey quickly established bilateral ties with Central Asian countries in the aftermath of the Cold War, no deep form of regionalism existed between Turkey and the states of the region [1]. After false-starts, ups and downs, this limited form of engagement started to change in response to the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey. Turkey’s proposed vision to promote solidarity among Eurasian states would help resist neoliberal globalism and replace it with a more equitable distributive globalism with Asia’s rise. Despite its centrality on land, Central Asia has constrained access routes to southern seas, which gives it an incentive to cultivate “amphibious” states with maritime access, such as Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan [2]. Therefore, Turkey leverages its unique geostrategic location to assist Eurasian integration efforts such as the Turkic Council (TC) and the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) to position itself as a key partner for Central Asia in the Mediterranean. This proposed policy realignment goes beyond Turkey’s traditional role as a rimland country under the Washington Consensus and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s Grand Chess Board theory. The emerging geopolitical identity in Turkey promotes a multi-vector foreign policy to find opportunities for regional alliances on highly contextual issues. Especially China’s growing geo-economic role embodied in the BRI has been an important factor for this perceived change in Turkey’s world view. The policy choice of rapprochement with Central Asia stems from a mutual enchantment with multipolarity, animation with regime survival under anarchy, and disillusionment with Turkey’s progress for membership to the EU. As Turkey’s prospects in the Middle East and the EU are getting dimmer, the rise of new partners in Asia could offer geopolitical and economic benefits [1]. Indeed, the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrates that the multilateral approach to shared prosperity under neoliberal globalism is breaking down into regional economic spheres of influence more mercantile in nature.

This shows that economic trade is the lowest common denominator for regional bloc formation. It can also help reduce for competition for external investment in a beggar-thy-neighbor way. The key issue in Central Asian states is that they cannot bind together to increase their power for bargaining against external influencers. Plus, the Russian factor inevitably sets a limit to Turkey’s geopolitical influence [1]. In this regard, Turkey’s soft power might open the door for hard power and intra-Turkic cooperation for countering Russia’s influence on the region’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity. For instance, the Turkmen-China gas pipeline from West to East passes through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which can be exemplary of cooperation for a similar project on the East to West direction via Azerbaijan to Turkey. The broader geo-economic goal of Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline (TANAP) gas is to connect Turkmen natural gas to the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) [1]. As Turkey develops its bilateral ties with Azerbaijan, it can open a gate to extend further east to institutionalise its economic partnership with Central Asia. The recent rent-sharing agreement on the Caspian Sea splits the gas field between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan in 30/70 ratio, respectively. Turkey has a lucrative domestic market with a firm demand forecast for gas up till 2030s, but infrastructure development projects such as the TAPI in Central Asia and the East Med in Europe have been shelved for re-consideration after 2025. The Trans-Caspian gas pipeline would cost on estimate $10 billion and become an alternative to Russian monopoly on energy geopolitics over the Caspian basin. If funding can be secured, this project might be transformational for the region.


Sources

[1] Köstem, Seçkin, Geopolitics, Identity and Beyond: Turkey’s Renewed Interest in the Caucasus and Central Asia (New York: Routledge, 2019).

[2] K.E. Calder, Super Continent: The Logic of Eurasian Integration (California: Stanford University Press, 2019).