By Mohammad Mazhari

China's Belt and Road Initiative can change regional balance: Turkish expert

April 23, 2021 - 11:41

TEHRAN – A Turkish expert in international relations says that China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can change the regional balance in West Asia and other parts of the world, including South Asia and Africa.

"This project has the potential to change the regional balance not only of the Middle East (West Asia) but also other parts of the world, from South Asia to Africa, with the new trading routes it creates," Oral Toga tells the Tehran Times.

The BRI is emerging as a vital lynchpin in China's efforts to establish a maritime and continental zone of activity in Asia. 

 Experts believe that the BRI project will change the economic and strategic landscape in the region and beyond.

"?t is clear that this initiative and Chinese investments will change the political calculus and economic-development landscape of the Middle East (West Asia) and elsewhere," Toga says.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: How do you assess Iran-Turkey relations? Some experts point to two dimensions: friendship and rivalry. How could two countries succeed in managing the tensions and raise cooperation despite disputes?

A: I also agree with the dynamic of "friendship and rivalry". They can regularly compartmentalize policy issues meaning both countries consider the subjects of dispute between them separately from the issues with which they can cooperate. I think this is something that must be taken into account and examined.

“Iran's influence in countries with high geopolitical importance, such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, will facilitate China's implementation of its policies... in the future.”After the Islamic Revolution, many people thought that the relations between Turkey and Iran would fall victim to ideological conflict, but the opposite happened. Turkey immediately recognized the Islamic Republic as a state and has consistently refused to join the embargos on Iran. On the other hand, while the trade volume between both countries was less than one billion dollars in 1980, despite all the harsh conditions of the Iran-Iraq War, it increased to two and a half-billion dollars by 1985. Of course, a number of political issues did arise during the Iran-Iraq War period: Turkey's operations in Northern Iraq, Iranian leaders' comments about the headscarf issue in Turkey, and Iranian leaders refusing to pay a visit to Ankabir (Ataturk's mausoleum), etc. However, these problems have never prevented a mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries. Always have, always will.

Furthermore, if we ignore some exceptional groups in both countries, the people of both countries are curious about each other; they are also interconnected in terms of history, culture, and languages. While Iranians watch Turkish serials, Iranian films are also trendy in Turkey. Both countries' people learn each other's language, and many vloggers in Turkey come to visit Iran and make vlogs about the country, which have become quite popular among Turks. In fact, many people want to visit Iran. And the same applies vice versa: many people in Iran have a particular interest in cities such as Istanbul, Antalya, Konya and Izmir, and Turkey is a popular destination for Iranians during Nowruz. These types of exchanges have been and remain crucial for Turkish-Iranian relations, as their peoples discover and learn about their commonalities rather than be shrouded in uninformed prejudices. After all, "people are hostile towards what they do not know or cannot understand."

Q: Given China's massive Belt and Road ?initiative, how can China impact regional balance in West Asia?

A: The scope and enormity of the project is an indisputable fact. This project has the potential to change the regional balance not only of the Middle East (West Asia) but also other parts of the world, from South Asia to Africa, with the new trading routes it creates. For example, Central Asian countries are historically in Russia's sphere of interest, and Russia will not welcome China's influence which is increasing with this initiative.  Likewise, most of the financing of the "Renaissance Dam", one of the most critical projects of Ethiopia, is provided by Chinese banks. As is known, this dam is building on the Nile River, and Egypt sees it as a threat to its national interests. As a result, it is clear that this initiative and Chinese investments will change the political calculus and economic-development landscape of the Middle East (West Asia) and elsewhere.

Q: Do you think that Turkey prioritizes economic ties with Asian countries such as Iran, China, and Iraq? Is there a possibility of forming a new economic bloc in the region?

A: Well, if one looks at the data, it is clear that countries in the European Union, notably Germany and the UK, still dominate Turkey's trade relations. However, recent political developments have turned Turkey's gaze increasingly towards Asia, and Iraq has long been one of Turkey's top trading partners. And Turkey is a "trading nation" by nature. Unlike its neighbors, Turkey does not have rich natural gas and oil reserves. Therefore, trading and tourism have an essential economic role, and these require a solid trading network and good relations. Thus, Turkey has been working with all countries to maintain good relations without compromising its own national interest and dignity. It endeavors to build an economic model that prioritizes production. So, from this point of view, the answer is "maybe", it is possible Turkey will come to prioritize economic relations with Asian economies, especially as China's Belt and Road Initiative develops further and political relations with the West continue to become strained.

“I don't think this rapprochement (between Israel, the UAE, Greece, and Cyprus) will be long-lasting because no equation that excludes Turkey from the region has been successful in the past.”The economic bloc that you mentioned was previously tested under the name of RCD (Regional Cooperation for Development) in 1964 and then under ECO (Economic Cooperation Organization) in 1985. These attempts, which have been experienced in the past, may well be tried in the future.

Q: How do you see the 25-year comprehensive strategic partnership between Iran and China? Is China a reliable partner when it comes to economic ties?

A: As you know, the text that was signed was not an agreement, per se, with a great deal of specificity but rather a memorandum of understanding. For the agreement itself, we have to wait for the new government that will come after the June election in Iran. It is evident that this agreement will contribute to Beijing's economic vision for the region and Iran's strategic pollical calculus in cultivating closer ties with China. Besides, when we consider the overlapping attitudes of Iran and China regarding the developments in the Middle East (West Asia), it will also pave the way for the cooperation of both countries. Iran's influence in countries with high geopolitical importance, such as Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, will facilitate China's implementation of its policies within these areas in the future. Of course, Iran will also benefit, economically and politically, from greater engagement with China, but it will need to ensure that Chinese investment is balanced across various sectors within the Iranian economy that is critical to its development, not just oil and gas so that trade relations are mutually beneficial. But since there are still uncertainties, it is too early to make any judgments.

Q: What is Turkey's position towards rapprochement between Israel, the UAE, Greece, and Cyprus? 

A: Turkey follows these developments very closely. I don't think this rapprochement will be long-lasting because no equation that excludes Turkey from the region has been successful in the past. The clearest example of this, and one that still weighs heavy on the collective Turkish mindset, is the treaty of Sevres, which was tried to be implemented despite the Turkish people, and its aftermath. 

Briefly, I can say that it is not reasonable to ignore a country with an 85 million population and a 1.577 km coastline in the Mediterranean. All of these countries will need to invest in their respective and joint relations with Turkey at some point. Nevertheless, Turkey has a better hand. The Maritime Boundary Deal and good relations with Libya constitute a barrier to Greece. Additionally, the Turkish defense industry has developed significantly. Today, Turkey produces its own warships, submarines, and missiles. Also, it is almost eight times bigger than Greece in terms of human resources. All in all, Turkey has the ability to defend its rights both legally and in the field.


 

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