Türkiye Shows Renewed Interest in Joining BRICS

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan was in China on June 3 and mentioned the possibility of Türkiye joining the BRICS, the economic alliance acronymically named after its founding members: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Fidan added that BRICS could offer Türkiye a “good alternative” to the European Union to boost its economic prospects.

Türkiye’s interest was also apparently a topic of discussion at the BRICS foreign ministers meeting, chaired by Russia, on Monday and Tuesday in Nizhny Novgorod. Fidan was in attendance there, met with Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Sergey Shoigu, and he had a separate meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday in which Putin said Russia supports Turkiye’s interest in BRICS.

A bit of a muddled story in Middle East Eye over the weekend quoted anonymous Turkish officials, and the story announces that Türkiye “has made a strategic move to join the Brics economic bloc” – although the quotes in the piece don’t really back up that claim. Here are what officials said:

“We don’t see Brics as an alternative to Nato or the EU,” the official said. “However, the stalled accession process to the European Union encourages us to explore other economic platforms.”

The official added that Türkiye’s “on-paper allies” often overlook Ankara’s security concerns and deny it advanced weaponry. “We would like to be part of every multilateral platform, even if there is only a slight chance of benefit to us,” the official explained.

And another official:

“We don’t have significant trade with Brics countries, except for China,” the official said…”Brics could be more meaningful in the future if it becomes politically more important and gains resonance with international public opinion.”

I haven’t seen confirmation elsewhere that Türkiye has applied or has concrete plans to apply for BRICS membership anytime soon. What is clear, however, is that Türkiye is expressing interest that looks to go beyond previous talk, and Beijing and Moscow are fully supporting it. It would be a major strategic coup for Moscow and Beijing to eventually bring aboard the most strategically important member of NATO (and the country with the alliance’s second-largest standing army). Additionally, on a purchasing power parity basis, Türkiye currently ranks 11th in GDP, just behind France. Less clear is how a country like India would feel about a potential Turkish bid as the two countries are usually on opposite ends of regional conflicts, including Kashmir.

Why Would Türkiye Join BRICS and What Would the Fallout Be? 

Türkiye wants to build bridges to both sides of the New Cold War so as to better help its ailing economy, and joining BRICS could help spur bilateral trade agreements and investments.The problem is that’s easier said than done. US and European officials have largely adopted the Bush-era with-us-or-against-us attitude. Given that Türkiye has been talking about joining BRICS for years, the recent talk should be taken with a grain of salt, but it will likely cause concern in Washington.

Positioned at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, it would be a major embarrassment for the US if Ankara took such a step during the new Cold War and would likely be viewed as “switching sides” by the West. Türkiye doesn’t usually make such a move unless it knows who’s going to come out on top.  In 1941, Türkiye and Germany signed a nonaggression pact, and Ankara raked in economic and military aid from both Axis and Allies trying to woo Türkiye to their side. As the tide changed in WWII, however, Türkiye wisely bet on the eventual victors, moving increasingly to the Allied side. In 1944 Türkiye stopped exporting chromite to Germany, a key ingredient in the manufacture of stainless steel, and later that year severed diplomatic relations with Germany. In 1945 Türkiye declared war on Germany – two months before its defeat.

What would the Collective West do if Türkiye went ahead and tried to join BRICS? Well, it would probably be the opposite of a calm, measured response. The Duran’s Alexander Mercouris and Alex Cristoforou discussed this possibility on one of their episodes last year and mentioned how, should Türkiye take such a major new step in its straddling between East and West, it would be a bit reminiscent of Ukraine pre-2014, which was being pulled in both directions. We know how that turned out.

It’s interesting to note that new legislation in Türkiye is attempting to crack down on “foreign interests.” According to Turkish Minute, that would apply to “anyone who carries out or orders research on (Turkish) citizens and institutions with the aim of acting against the security or the political, internal or external interests of the state, on the orders or in the strategic interests of a foreign organization or state.” Those convicted would face three to seven years in prison. These types of laws are increasingly being considered by states that say they fear Western meddling in their country, oftentimes with the aim of instigating color revolutions.

Things between the US and Türkiye have been eerily quiet since the beginning of May when Ankara announced that it was cutting off all trade with Israel – although it continues to transit oil from Azerbaijan – and Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan’s trip to Washington was canceled.

Türkiye’s pursuit of BRICS membership would mark a fundamental shift in the country, which has been positioning itself to become part of “the West” for decades, but in many ways the public in Türkiye has already turned its back on the EU and the US and looks more favorably to the East.

While the government likely isn’t ready to take any drastic step just yet, Türkiye’s talks with the BRICS countries highlight the ongoing frustration with its relationship with the West. The latest is an ongoing hangup over modernization of the Customs Union Treaty between the bloc and Ankara.The process is being slowed by the EU’s insistence that Türkiye take action to prevent the circumvention of the EU restrictions on trade with Russia. From the Centre for Eastern Studies:

Türkiye’s current customs agreement with the EU has been in force since 1995. It covers only industrial goods & processed agricultural products and excludes the services sector, while its scope is much more limited than the EU’s comprehensive trade agreements with its other global partners. Türkiye believes that this limitation constrains its economic potential. In addition, this agreement does not allow it to freely trade goods with third countries that do not have a free trade agreement with the EU. It is estimated that an expanded customs union could generate an additional 1.84%–1.95%[10] of GDP growth for Türkiye.[11] This is the primary reason why Ankara has been consistently seeking to update this agreement for more than a decade. The EU for its part is not interested in further talks on this matter because of Türkiye’s failure to comply with the terms of the current agreement: namely its selective implementation of tariffs on goods from the EU, and its trade agreements with third countries. Türkiye has vehemently rejected these arguments. In its view, the only purpose of the EU’s stance on this issue is to politicise the negotiations and ultimately cause them to fail.

Still, the EU is by far Türkiye’s top trading partner, accounting for almost one third of its trade while Türkiye is the EU’s seventh trading partner, making for 3.6 percent of total EU trade.

Moving Closer to Moscow and Beijing

Meanwhile Ankara’s economic ties with Moscow and Beijing continue to grow. Türkiye receives nearly half of its natural gas from Russia and a quarter of its oil. The two nations also cooperate on nuclear energy with Russia financing and building the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, helping Türkiye join the club of countries with nuclear energy.

Türkiye also plays a key role in facilitating trade between Russia and other countries to get around sanctions. It could also soon play a similar part for China. For example, Türkiye is in advanced discussions with Chinese electric car makers BYD and Chery Automobile for factory investments in the country as the European Commission slaps extra tariffs on electric cars manufactured in China.

Türkiye is also eager for more Chinese investment. Part of Turkish foreign minister Fidan’s mission on his recent trip to Beijing was to urge more Chinese investment in Türkiye, especially in key infrastructure projects as there has been a slowdown in recent years, as well as to address Türkiye’s huge trade deficit with China.

Türkiye appears willing to drop any participation in efforts to stir up trouble in China’s western regions in order to advance economic ties between the two countries. According to a Chinese statement, Fidan told Chinese Vice President Han Zheng that Türkiye adhered to the one-China principle and “will not allow activities in Türkiye that undermine China’s territorial integrity”.

That cements a major shift for Türkiye, which used to call Xinjiang “East Turkistan” and allege Chinese “genocide” against Uyghurs. The change in Türkiye’s stance likely causes consternation in Washington, but it will likely mean good news for the Turkish economy.

Ankara would like China to narrow this deficit by buying more Turkish agricultural, food and other products. It would also like more Chinese tourists to visit Türkiye. It looks like Beijing will oblige. Fidan’s Chinese counterpart Wang Yi said that China will expand imports of agricultural products and enhance cooperation in culture, education, and tourism.

It’s not just in the economic sphere that Türkiye and China are increasingly seeing eye to eye.

As I’ve written, actions by the US over a number of years (sanctions, lack of weapons transfers, possible involvement in 2016 coup attempt, the Kurdish issue, etc.), especially the backing of the genocide in Gaza have made it very difficult politically for Erdogan at home. The economy and the widespread belief the government was doing enough to stop the genocide in Gaza were the biggest reasons Erdogan suffered one of the biggest setbacks of his political career in recent elections. Here, too, Russia, China, and Türkiye see eye to eye. While in China, Fidan said the following:

“At this point, we appreciate China’s international stance. It is extremely important for China to support a two-state solution, to support a ceasefire, and to support humanitarian aid. In this regard, I believe China is truly playing a good role, it is playing a constructive role.”

Contrast that with what he recently said about the US role:

“In the Gaza issue, in the Palestinian issue, it is not possible for Israel to act with such audacity, verging on genocide, without the unconditional military and political support of the US. The US makes this possible.”

Long term, like most countries, it would be more beneficial for Türkiye not to have to choose a side in a world split between competing blocks.

Imports from China doubled from 2019 to 2022 (only Russia sends more), while EU exports have seen a corresponding spike, leading some to argue Turkiye is trying to save its economy by buying half-finished goods cheap from China, finishing them domestically, then selling them to the EU.

Elsewhere, Ali Baba is planning to invest $2 billion in Turkiye. The Chinese lithium-ion power batteries company Farisis started production at a plant near Istanbul last year. Ankara is also in separate talks with Chinese EV makers SAIC Motor Corp. and Great Wall Motor Co for investments in factories in Türkiye.

For China, one of the most attractive parts of producing EVs in Türkiye is that it could provide better access to the European market due to Ankara’s customs union agreement. That’s not an arrangement Türkiye would want to put at risk by jumping into BRICS.

So the relationship between Türkiye and the West has for now settled into an icy acceptance due to the economic necessity on both sides, but it’s an arrangement that could go off the rails relatively easily. If Türkiye’s increased interest in the BRICS, for example, is met with a heavy handed response by Washington/Brussels it could mean a spiraling of ties that results in a definitive break. Or if the EU pushes too far in its attempt to use its standing as top trade partner with Türkiye to pressure Ankara on Russia. Not only would that prove problematic for Türkiye because if they cave once, the EU would surely be back for more on, say, China or Iran, but if Ankara torpedoes relations with Moscow, it would blow up their economic model, which includes exports to the EU.

In fact, Türkiye in many ways is emulating Germany’s previous model of turning cheap energy imports from Russia into manufacturing prowess for exports. As even War on the Rocks points out:

As cliched as the platitude about Turkiye being a bridge between East and West is, it helps to describe trade flows: Turkiye imports energy from Russia and goods from China to cover domestic demand, and local factories assemble components for Europe. Turkiye’s greatest trade surpluses are close to home — with countries like Azerbaijan and Iraq — but it is the European market that allows Turkiye to maintain an export-oriented manufacturing sector of scale.

As the EU deindustrializes and considers a trade war with China at America’s behest, there’s an argument to be made that it will soon need Türkiye more than Türkiye needs the EU. Then again, Brussels isn’t opposed to shooting itself in the foot these days.

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  1. debi

    Fidan is now at BRICS and had a private. meeting with Putin yesterday.
    Events move quickly these days.

  2. Tom Pfotzer

    Turkey has perfected the art of playing East and West off. They are never going to commit to either party; they know better. Their advantage lies in their strategic location – geographic and political – which both sides covet.

    They will never commit. They will adapt, they will switch “alliances” in minor, temporary, opportunistic ways, but they aren’t going to commit for a long time to come, well after all the major players have made the course of history evident to all. The story about Turkey’s trade and political relations with Germany during WWII tells an eloquent story. Expect that to be repeated. And repeated some more.

    So the question for me isn’t “what’s Turkey going to do?”. We already know that. The more important question is “what does Russia, China, Iran want Turkey to do, and what’s their negotiating leverage?”.

    And what does the West want Turkey to do, and what’s their negotiating leverage?

    I think it comes down to “where’s the most profitable (margin and volume) trade pattern for Turkey?”.

    If China/Russia continues to connect Turkey via trading infrastructure to the East, that’ll tell the tale. Asia is where the demand is and the resources are.

    Look what’s been done to the EU as a market. What are the long-term sales prospects there? Turkey’s relation to EU has devolved to a short-term “Turkey is a trade-sanctions-bypass” strategy.

    OK, that’ll work for a little while, maybe a few decades at most. Then what?

    Turkey has the same problem India does. They have a lot of skilled workers, but they aren’t ever going to be the world’s manufacturers. That goose is cooked. So that leaves “services”.

    What is Turkey’s sustainable competitive advantage in “services”? Compared to … India, Germany, Russia, China, Iran, etc.?

    There comes a time when playing both sides against the middle becomes a tedious waste of time for the rest of the trading partners. Eventually the question will become “what can Turkey do for us? What’s your big value add?”.

    As the Russia-China-Iran and middle-Asian integration proceeds, the value of Turkey’s “bridge” function loses value (to the Russia-China-Iran & Mid-Asia players). The remaining value of the “bridge” function would be to EU as a way to participate in the Asian integration.

    And … that would be the end of the value of “bridge” to the Asian partners. As the next few decades unfold, how much EU purchasing power will be directed toward Turkey? How good is that market?

    Horse-trading gets tedious after a while; the haggling takes more effort than it’s worth.

    I think the question for Turkey to answer is “what’s our value-add. Why would we be relevant to Asia?”

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you, Tom.

      Having worked in Turkiye for HSBC and Deutsche and with its officials when the G20 was launched, I tend to agree with your comment.

      I think the EU’s shift right, or at least in the France and Germany locomotives, further integration with Europe is, in the short term, not happening.

      I note European and US banks scaling back activity in Turkiye for the past decade. Selling operations has been difficult as buyers are few. In addition to more efficient capital deployment, they have been asking the same question.

      My two former employers employ retired diplomats etc, the Aureliens / Davids of this world, to ponder this sort of thing and inform strategy.

      1. David in Friday Harbor

        The European “right-wing” populist parties will never accept a Muslim country into their withered garden, especially after the German debacle with Syrian refugees. The U.S. “wit’ us or agin’ us” stance will continue under either a Totenkopf or a Dummkopf administration.

        Türkiye can no longer play the “bridge” to both sides. In the recent elections, Türkish voters appear to have expressed their fatigue with being strung-along while continuing to provide uncompensated trans-shipment of the oil needed to prosecute the genocide of their fellow Muslims in Gaza. Something’s got to give.

        Fidan met with Putin, Lavrov, and Shoigu after attending the Nizhny Novgorod BRICS summit and is quoted in Turkish Minute stating that, “Certainly, we would like to become a member of BRICS. So we’ll see how it goes this year.”

    2. Revenant

      Turkey has an excellent manufacturing industry. A lot of European white goods manufacturing moved there and Turkey has built its own brands, starting at the low end of the market (offering better value and quality) and moving up (Beko). I realised this when looking carefully into which premium German appliances are still made in Germany (answer, very few: sporadic models by Bosch and even then it comes down to the serial number, and most of Miele). Turkey also has a large automotive sector (13th largest on the world). These industries are the usual foundations of advanced manufacturing. Turkey also has a lot of graduates studying in the UK (we have one as a lodger). Turkish conglomerates are even starting to show up as strategic technology investors in European growth companies.

      In short, Turkey has a sophisticated industrial and management sector so I don’t think “the goose is cooked”. If Turkey continues to enjoy favourable access to markets (and which bloc would risk forcing it into the arms of the other through sanctions?) and cheap energy, it can make a tidy living.

      1. CA

        “Turkey has an excellent manufacturing industry…”

        Fine explanatory comment.

        Critical for Turkey has been years of high domestic investment, for which Turkey has been foolishly criticized in the West.

      2. Tom Pfotzer

        Revenant: Great comment. Let’s revisit “the goose is cooked”.

        China is on-track to own manufacturing. The relationship with Russia will provide the materials, China’s got the labor, the gov’t policy, the massive investment and the technical lead that confers ownership of the manufacturing function (least-cost, highest-quality, fastest new-product cycle time) for a while to come.

        While Turkey (or for that matter Mexico w/r/t the U.S.) can use German (or U.S.) designs and mfg’g gear to build products for the E.U. (or the U.S. in Mexico’s case); they’re not going to be able to compete in China’s realm, and that realm is expanding by day. China has a very big lead in manufacturing economics and has the engineering talent to expand that lead.

        That’s why I said “the goose is cooked”. China’s going to own mfg’g for a few decades to come, and maybe longer. And China owns (OK, has great influence in) the Belt and Road operation. Access to markets – the growth markets – is a big factor in the economic equation.

        Please explain why China-Russia-Iran would grant Turkey preferential access to the markets they’re working _so_ very hard – against vicious resistance – to create? What does Turkey have that China-Russia-Iran needs so much?

        What say you?

    3. Polar Socialist

      The more important question is “what does Russia, China, Iran want Turkey to do, and what’s their negotiating leverage?”.

      And what does the West want Turkey to do, and what’s their negotiating leverage?

      I’m not an expert on BRICS, but I’ve understood that the lure (or lever) there is that it’s not a binding alliance that demands absolute loyalty. It’s a framework for countries to collaborate in areas where they have aligning interest. And that’s about it.

      What The West offers is eternal vassalage, constant violations of sovereignty and forced (but ever-changing) values. A.k.a. “with us or against us”.

  3. Irrational

    The EU has just slapped up to 38% tariffs on Chinese EVs on top of the 10% customs applied. I don’t know what the local content rules are there, but it must make the calculation on Türkiye as EV assembly point versus fully-fledged BRICS member difficult – especially in an age where there seems to be little tolerance for keeping good relations with “both sides”.

    1. debi

      The EU simply cannot isolate itself from an economic group with half the world’s population and growing rapidly. It is already showing stress lines vis-à-vis BRICS. Think Italy and its flip-flop on Belt and Road. Hungary is also definitely looking East.

      So the EU wants to add Moldova and Ukraine and will lose Turkiye to BRICS?

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