Explaining Turkey’s interest in BRICS

Altay Atli

Recent summit of the leaders of the BRICS countries held in South Africa had a number of guests from non-member countries, evidence for the grouping’s conscious efforts to create an effective mechanism of cooperation with other developing countries. One of these guests was Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who represented not only his own country at the summit, but went to Johannesburg as the current chairman of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.

Erdoğan lost no opportunity for reiterating Turkey’s interest in establishing closer linkages with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which is hoped to evolve into full membership for Turkey in the grouping. He even proposed a new name for the grouping that could be used if and when Turkey joined: BRICST.

Why this interest? For sure, the BRICS grouping has a certain weight globally considering the member countries’ share in the world economy; however, it is not a framework for economic integration, it is not even a formal organization.

Yet it is a grouping of like-minded countries that represent not only a substantial economic potential, but also, and perhaps more important, a shared critique of the established balance of power and the current shape of global governance, which are seen to be biased in favor of the Western world and not reflecting the interests and expectations of the rising powers of the 21st century.

For Turkey, there are two benefits in establishing closer ties with this grouping.

First, BRICS countries can potentially offer a significant boost for Turkey’s efforts to diversify its economic relations with the rest of the world. The Turkish economy is going through rough times, with a chronic current-account deficit, weakening conditions for exports due to severe instabilities in the near neighborhood and overall contraction of demand in the global economy, and the after-effects of the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016.

In order to reposition itself on a trajectory of sustainable growth, Turkey has to improve its competitiveness in global markets. On the supply side, the value-added of production needs to be increased, and for this greater technological capabilities are required. On the demand side, Turkey needs to explore new markets that would supplement its traditional export destinations such as the European Union.

Stronger relations with BRICS countries can be of help in this respect. In 2017, the value of Turkey’s exports to the five countries totaled US$7.3 billion, whereas its imports from the same countries amounted to a massive $53.4 billion, leading to a trade deficit of $46.1 billion. In the same year, Turkey’s overall trade deficit was $76.7 billion, which means that 60% of Turkey’s trade deficit was actually caused by BRICS countries.

This is not a rosy picture, but Turks have a different way of seeing it. In the full half of the glass, one can identify room for expanding exports to these five countries, which are not only selling their products to the rest of the world, but are also buying back in large amounts – China especially is doing so. The Turkish government is currently collaborating with the business community and academia in identifying the export possibilities to these countries and devising roadmaps for increasing Turkey’s market shares there.

BRICS offers a market potential for Turkish products, but more important, it is increasingly seen as a source for technology partnership. This is why, for example, Turkey has negotiated the purchase of a missile defense system with potential Chinese and Russian suppliers with the condition of technology transfer and co-production, toward which Turkey’s Western allies have never been sympathetic.

In Johannesburg, Erdoğan mentioned that for the country’s first nuclear plant Turkey was working with the Russians, for the second with a Japanese-French consortium, for the third with the Chinese, and for the fourth nuclear plant that is being planned there was no reason whatsoever for not working with the Chinese again.

In short, Turkey has to increase its technological capabilities, this requires collaboration with partners who have the technology, and Turkey wants to avoid the vulnerability of excessively depending on the West. BRICS could be the right address here.

The second reason Turkey wants to improve its ties with BRICS countries relates to the shared criticism of the Western-centric world order of the day. Erdoğan’s slogan of “the world is greater than five” refers to resentment that the world’s affairs are entrusted to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and this is a dictum that could resound well with the BRICS members. It is true that two of the BRICS countries, Russia and China, do actually have a seat on the UNSC, but it is also becoming increasingly evident that the council in its current shape lacks the capability to solve the world’s problems.

In other areas of global governance, the functionality of the World Trade Organization is increasingly questioned as trade wars rage on, and so is the role of, for example, the International Monetary Fund, where the United States is the only member that can singlehandedly veto any decision to be made.

While it may sound like anti-Western rhetoric to many, the call made here is not for BRICS to replace the Western hegemony in global governance with an alternative version of hegemony, but it is to get rid of any kind hegemony and to build a new system that is more equitable, participatory and representative of today’s world that is defined by increasing interdependence between countries. For Turkey, BRICS offers the perfect platform for making its case, being heard and engendering collective action.

Turkey sees great value in joining, in some form, the BRICS grouping. The Turkish economy stands to benefit from this, and the BRICS can also be supportive of Turkey’s vision for a new global order.

“Global” is indeed the keyword here. What Turkey wants is to position itself as a global actor, and despite frequent ups and downs, it still maintains strong and institutionalized relations with the West, and is more than likely to do so in the future.

It is not about replacing the country’s Western links with the BRICS or any other non-Western actor, it is about drawing strengths from each of them, establishing and maintaining mutual benefits, and being truly global.

Do not listen to pundits who tell you that “Turkey’s axis is shifting toward the ____” (where the blank is filled with anything that is not Western, for example: East, Eurasia, Muslim world, China, etc. Take your pick). The Cold War is long over, and in today’s world the only axis left is the global axis, on which Turkey is making efforts to position itself as a major stakeholder.

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