The U.S. Should Hold Onto Turkey for One Big Reason: China

One of the main takeaways from the Munich Security Conference this month was the United States’ renewed focus on guarding against the threat from China, thereby marking a dramatic shift away from the U.S.’ previous positioning of Russia as public enemy number one. In an America that is more polarized than ever before, China was one issue where observers remarkably found “no light” between Republicans and Democrats at the conference.

Europe’s collective response to these solemn bi-partisan warnings about the Red Dragon, however, was to essentially shrug them off. On issues like Huawei and China’s disruption of the global order, the U.S. found itself as the lone wolf, walking away from Munich reportedly dissatisfied by the response from its E.U. allies. But maybe the U.S. also left the conference with something else – an opening to reset ties with one of its most geopolitically and militarily important relationships in the Middle East: Turkey.

The conventional thinking about the Turkey-U.S. relationship is that it is strained. A few months ago, analysts and commentators were asking why the Trump administration effectively let slide Turkey’s purchase of a Russian defense system, known as the S400, which is incompatible with the U.S.-made and NATO-approved F35 system. It seemed rather peculiar that a bigger fuss was not made of our NATO ally, Turkey, choosing to “Buy Russian” for its defense rather than buying American, as it had long done. Russia, after all, is the world’s greatest threat to America.

But then, as it turns out, Russia isn’t. China is.

So much of what is perceived to be fractured grew out of this debacle. But Turkey has been a NATO ally to the US for 68 years, and that’s worth something. Beyond that, it’s a relationship built largely on mutual interests – many of which are in the realm of security, military and geopolitics.

“Turkey’s relations with China cannot replace its alliance with the United States or relations with the European Union,” Altay Atli, a lecturer at Koc University in Istanbul who specializes in Turkish-Asian relations, said last year. “Turkey has very deep and mutually beneficial relations with the West,” he concluded.

Once a perceived cozying up to Russia arose, however, a wedge was driven right through all those interests.

Now, we have an America that sees more pressing, menacing, and direct threats elsewhere and a Turkey that is surprising everyone in the meantime by engaging in armed conflict against Russia on two fronts – both in Syria and Libya. With the realities of where things currently stand, it may just be time for those still carrying the S400 grudge to set it aside.

And there are ample reasons to do so, as the shared interests between Turkey and the US with respect to the China problem are many, particularly in the realms of human rights, security and economics. For starters, Turkey is incensed at China’s treatment of over one million Muslim Uyghurs that have been forcibly removed from their homes and locked in detention camps which they like to call “reeducation camps.” Many Turks trace their ethnic origins to the Uyghurs, Turkey hosts a sizeable Uyghur diaspora population and President Erdogan has been outspoken on the issue. All of this aligns with America’s strong condemnation of China’s abuses against the ethnic minority population.

With respect to security, China’s support for the Assad regime in Syria is a direct threat to the strategic interests of both Turkey and the United States. Cutting across the aisle in Washington, there is universal agreement about the scale and severity of Assad’s crimes, and that he has no place in Syria’s future, while Turkey is currently engaged in battle with Assad’s forces in an effort to spare Idlib; the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold in the country.

On the economic front, Turkey’s unfavorable trade imbalance with China has been a flashpoint in bilateral relations between the two countries. Just like the U.S., China’s flaunting of World Trade Organization rules impacts Turkey in a direct way.

Plenty can be said and dissected with respect to America’s China policy shift more broadly. But it’s worth examining what it means to the debate over the U.S.-Turkey alliance, and perhaps rethinking the criticism lodged against the Trump Administration for not hitting back hard enough in response to Turkey’s decision last year. Maybe the Trump team – so often accused of moving between global policies and actions on whims – should be given credit for having foresight regarding its foreign policy. The U.S. is now looking for allies willing to stand in line against its big foe, which all agree to be China, not Russia. And closing the door on Turkey could be considered the wrong move.