Can Africa become a platform for US-Turkish partnership?

EPC | 21 Sep 2020

The potential role Turkey could play in Africa -- mainly in the context of countering Chinese economic influence -- emerged  as a question in a webinar organized by the Turkish-American Business Council (TAIK). TAIK is led by Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, a Turkish industrialist with strong connections and a business partnership with the Trump family, particularly with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, through his ownership of Trump Towers in Turkey.[1]

US senator Lindsey Graham who was the main speaker invited by TAIK at the event has reportedly offered words of encouragement for Turkish-American cooperation in Africa against China. Speaking about a free trade agreement between Ankara and Washington as the first necessary step, Graham pointed out: “Once you begin to economically integrate the two economies, then we’ll be more effective partners in Africa. Nothing would please me more than to partner with Turkey to offer to the African continent alternatives to Chinese products and Chinese influence." Graham mentioned that in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a "growing desire" within the US to seek alternatives to China's "domination of multiple supply chains." He noted in particular that Turkey is well-positioned to offset US reliance on China, saying it can provide better quality goods at competitive prices.[2]

It is also reported that President Trump and President Erdogan may have discussed the issue of diversifying the supply chain phone conversation on June 9th in the context of worsening US-Chinese relations.[3] The TAIK webinar, entitled “A Time for Allies to Be Allies: Turkish American Global Supply Chain,” in which Senator Graham spoke alongside former US Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, could be part of an effort on the part of both Erdogan and Trump to position Turkey as a key player in reducing US dependence on Chinese supply chains.[4] In 2019, Erdogan and Trump have agreed on an aspirational target of $100 billion to improve the trade volume between Turkey and the United States.[5] The U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross came to Ankara and Istanbul in September 2019, for  a working visit that lasted five days, to explore areas where there is room to cooperate to reach this unrealistic number, given that the current trade volume between Turkey and the United States is at only at $20 bn.[6]

To be more realistic about Turkish-American cooperation prospects, one has to put aspirational objectives such as free-trade agreements or the $100 billion trade volume and US-Turkish partnership in Africa in perspective. As we will argue in this position paper, there are currently major problems in Turkish-American relations and none of these projects can be carried out without congressional approval. After a preliminary research, It appears that Lindsey Graham floated the idea of US-Turkish collaboration in Africa as a motivational incentive for Turkey to first address major problems related to Turkey’s image in Washington.

The fact that Graham wants to help Turkey is still significant.  According to Foreign Lobby Report, which monitors foreign lobbying and influence activities in Washington DC, Lindsey Graham’s strategic guidance is valuable and is a major win for TAIK: “Graham not only sits on key foreign relations panels, but he is also one of the few lawmakers to have President Donald Trump‘s ear on national security issues. He has been approached by TAIK and lobbying firms working for the Turkish government  to take advantage of souring US-China ties amid the coronavirus pandemic to present Turkey as a more reliable trading partner, notably for potential joint ventures in an effort to tamp down China’s economic influence in a semi-untapped market like Africa.”[7]  

Under such circumstance one has to ask pertinent questions: Is a strategy of Turkish-American cooperation to counter Chinese influence in Africa based on sound assumptions? Does Turkey have major influence in Africa? Is there strategic convergence between Turkish-American interests?  As we will see the premise underpinning the feasibility of Turkish-American cooperation in Africa remains uncertain and speculative.     

Worsening US-Chinese relations

There is no denying that US-Chinese relations considerably deteriorated in the last couple of years. And Things went from bad to worse as the Covid-19 pandemic has created a deep recession in the United States during a presidential election year.  The narrative of a potential “decoupling” in US-Chinese relations has emerged in this new unfavorable context for globalization.  In the meantime, American public opinion that has clearly turned against Beijing. As the coronavirus spread throughout the U.S., a Pew Research Center poll in March found Americans developing increasingly negative views of China, with 66% saying they had an unfavorable opinion. That was the most negative rating since the question was first asked in 2005. The same poll found 62% of Americans calling China’s power and influence a major threat to the U.S., compared with 48% two years ago.[8] Nearly 75 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents view China negatively, compared with around 60 percent of Democrats. There has been an increase in negative perceptions of China from 2018 to 2019 and both parties registered their most negative views in 2020. China has toppled terrorism as the biggest security threat during COVID-19.[9]

Relations between Washington and Beijing have become tense ever since the Obama administration began talking about a need to “pivot to Asia” on the grounds that Washington has invested too much blood and treasure on fighting the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, while China used these two decades to expand its regional and global sphere of influence. Yet, it is under President Trump’s nationalist and anti-globalization agenda that US-China relations witnessed first a mercantilist trade war between and since 2020 what many analysts call a new Cold War.  The 2017 National Security Strategy of the Trump White House officialized the shift in the American threat perception from the Middle East to Great Power competition with an emphasis on China and Russia.

While the United States was busy discussing its pivot to Asia, China pivoted to Africa where it saw major untapped economic resources and opportunities.  From 2003 to 2017, the flow of Chinese investment to Africa grew by more than 35 times, while that of the United States grew only by about one third.[10] As of 2019, the total value of Chinese investments and construction in Africa was closing in on $2 trillion since 2005, according to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) China Global Investment Tracker.[11] Under such circumstances, it is not a coincidence that the US is worried about Chinese economic and strategic influence. Many observers contend that the United States decided to establish AFRICOM to disrupt the momentum of Chinese influence in Africa, because preferential access to African resources remains a crucial component of US national security.[12]

Turkey in Africa

What about Turkey’s role in Africa? The roots of Turkey’s involvement in Africa go back to the early days of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).  A first program adopted by the AKP government in 2003 was the “Strategy for Enhancing the Economic and Commercial Relations with Africa.”  In 2005 the AKP’s Africa policy took shape in a more consistent way as 2005 was declared the “Year of Africa”. The same year, Turkey was accorded observer status at the African Union and the Turkish Think Thank TASAM organized the first Turkish-African Summit in Istanbul. Moreover, in the commercial and industrial field, TUSKON the umbrella business organization linked with the Gulen movement started to organize the Turkey-Africa Trade Bridge in 2006. The first Turkey-Africa Cooperation Summit took place in Istanbul in August 2008. 

Turkish efforts towards Africa paid dividends as African Countries played a major role in the 2008 election of Turkey as non-permanent member at the UN Security Council for the period 2009-2010 when  50 out of 53 African states supported the Turkish membership. While in 2002 the value of the projects undertaken by Turkish contractors in Africa was 9.6 $ billion, this figure reached 60 $ billion in 2015. Along this economic, humanitarian, and cultural presence, the Turkish diplomatic missions quadrupled by reaching the number of 42 embassies in Africa and Turkish Airlines also established 54 destinations to the continent.

Compared to the whole of the continent, Turkey is relatively more active in North and East Africa, where it has considerable economic and military investments in Somalia, Sudan, and Libya. Sudan’s estranged relations with the West, historic ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and the personal relationship between Omar Al Bashir and Erdogan helped improve relations, until the fall of the Bashir regime in 2019.  A Muslim-majority nation in the Horn of Africa, Sudan has a history of Ottoman influence. Its relations with the United States have long been troubled, making it another attractive satellite for Erdogan, who has sought to fashion Turkey as a model for the Muslim world and an alternative to a West that has surrendered its moral authority.

Ankara’s approach in Somalia, underwritten by Erdogan’s appeal to Islamic and humanitarian solidarity and a more visible presence on the ground than traditional donors, has been widely lauded by Somalis. The Turkish engagement in Somalia has few strings attached and stands in stark contrast to perceptions of failed Western interventions past. Turkey appointed a special envoy for Somalia in 2018—a first in Turkish foreign policy—and tasked him to renew efforts, however unlikely in the near term, to reconcile Somalia’s federal government and the breakaway region of Somaliland.

As far as the Maghreb is concerned, Ankara considers the region as the gateway to African market. In addition to Libya where Turkey has signed a maritime agreement in November 2019 and invested heavily on the military front, Ankara’s economic relations with Tunisia and Algeria are quite strong and trade with Morocco is also showing signs of improvement.[13] Turkey’s military investment in Libya in 2020 became well known and is widely credited for having turned the tide against General Khaftar.

Despite all the Turkish enthusiasm about Africa, it is important to put the importance of Africa for Turkish national security interests in perspective. If Erdogan was to define the top priorities for Turkish foreign policy and national security, Africa would certainly not make the list of top 5.  Instead most urgent priorities for Ankara would include:

  1. Kurdish separatism in Syria
  2. Avoiding more refugees from Syria
  3. Energy security thanks to stable relations with Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan
  4. Damage control in relations with United States
  5. Fair share of gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.

To be sure, competition for primacy and prestige in the Middle East is an essential part of Erdogan’s ambitious vision of a powerful Turkey. This is where the Horn of Africa and the overall the issue of Turkish influence in the African continent –  where there is significant untapped economic and potential for a previously inactive Turkey becomes important. One has to see Turkey’s opening of a military base in Somalia or attempts to exert influence in Sudan in this light.

The real objective of Turkey in Africa is often mercantilist as Ankara is always looking for new markets for its construction companies and export opportunities for its manufacturing sector.  Turkey’s authoritarian leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan likes to tout his country as a regional superpower with an Islamic legacy stretching continents. Yet, so far, despite such a grandiose narrative, limited progress has been made and the next phase of the Turkish strategy in Africa is yet to be written. Whether Turkey can engage US support in its strategy of economic and political influence in Africa naturally depends on the tenor of relations between Ankara and Washington.

The State of Turkish-American Relations

There is no doubt that Turkish-American relations are going through a period of strong chemistry at the very top. Yet while Erdogan enjoys easy access to the White House and President Trump seems to think highly of Erdogan as the strong leader of a geo-strategically important country, Turkish-American relations are in disarray. 

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. Secretary of State, does not enjoy the same level of close dialogue with his Turkish counterpart and is often critical of Turkey. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is often on record for warning Turkey about its activities that jeopardize NATO and counter-terrorism efforts against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).  The House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate have pending sanctions in legislation against Turkey, threatening Ankara with economic and military sanctions in the framework of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). It has also been reported recently that all major arms sales to Turkey have been frozen by the US Congress for the past two years. .[14]

As Lindsey made clear in his remarks during the webinar with TAIK, the main bone of contention is the Turkish purchase of S-400 missile defense system from Russia. Normally, under US legislation this transaction should make Turkey subject to US sanctions. In reaction to Turkish-Russian defense cooperation, the U.S. has already declared that Turkey is disqualified from the F-35 fifth generation stealth fighter jet project. Under current circumstances, Turkey is also unable to buy the 100 F-35s that it was planning to purchase and had already partially paid for.[15]  Turkey’s financial relations with Iran are also under close scrutiny by the Treasury Department and US prosecutors in New York who are determined to impose heavy penalties on state owned Turkish Halkbank for violating financial sanctions on Iran.

Turkey, for its part, has its own axe to grind with the United States due to the Pentagon’s ongoing cooperation with a Kurdish militia group in Northern Syria considered to be a terrorist organization by Ankara. The US refusal to extradite Pennsylvania based Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen who Turkey considers the mastermind of the 2016 failed coup attempt is an additional major irritant. 

Turkey’s support for Islamist groups in Syria and beyond, the dismal state of Turkish-Israeli relations, and US military support the Republic of Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean declared just recently on September 1st show that the two NATO allies  are far from strategic convergence in regional affairs.[16] All these dynamics, however, have not produced a crisis at the top of the bilateral relations, between Erdogan and Trump. As a sign of irony, only a day after President Trump praised his Turkish counterpart at the Republican National Convention, for his help in releasing a US citizens from prison, the State Department lambasted Turkey for helping the Palestinian terrorist organization Hamas. It is therefore in this broader context that potential Turkish-American cooperation in Africa against China needs to be analyzed.[17]

US-Turkish Partnership in Africa?

Given Mehmet Ali Yalcindag’s close relations with the Trump family and past New York Times reports about a backchannel relationship between Jared Kushner and Yalcindag, it is understandable that the TAIK event on US-Turkish cooperation may create high expectations. Senator Lindsey’s statements about potential US-Turkish partnership in Africa are also worth paying attention in this regard.

Yet, a more realistic analysis of the state of Turkish-American relations and even Lindsey Graham’s own words would indicate that any hope of serious cooperation between Ankara and Washington in Africa remains aspirational. Suh prospects are highly contingent on major improvements in bilateral relations, particularly on the issue of the S-400s, between Ankara and Washington.

As veteran Turkish journalist Murat Yetkin argues: “What US Senator Lindsey Graham said during a video conference on June 24 was perhaps not what Turkish business representatives wanted to hear. But they were clear enough not to create any empty hopes about the future of Turkish-American relations, especially in the field of economy and trade.”[18] Yetkin mentions that Graham identified Turkey’s purchase of S-400s as the biggest problem in the eyes of Congress with Turkey’s Syria policy being an additional source of contention in the eyes of US lawmakers. Only after pointing at these two major issues he apparently mentioned working together to counter China, possibly in Africa, as an area of future possible cooperation.

Finally, even if the United States was seriously looking at partners to work with against China in Africa, Turkey would not be a natural choice given its problematic relations with other US partners in the East, West and North Africa. In East Africa and especially at the Horn and Red Sea region, Washington may favor strong economic and strategic interests with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt rather than Ankara. All three American allies are countries at odds with Turkey over Erdogan’s support for political Islam, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar. In West, central and North Africa France is the dominant player. Paris is and an ally of Washington and has much closer historical, trade, financial, cultural and diplomatic relations with the United States than Turkey. This is why the French influence in Africa, ranging from the North, to the West and Central part of the continent makes Paris a much more likely Western Partner for Washington in efforts to work against Chinese influence.  

Conclusion

The deterioration of US-Chinese relations is real and worsening. It is equally true that Washington is concerned about Chinese economic and strategic expansionism in Africa. The Belt and Road Initiative is closely followed in American policy circles and both the Republican and Democratic camps want to contain China on the military as much as economic front. The optimism that China can be economically engaged with the hope that this would make Beijing a responsible stakeholder on the path of democratization has vanished with the end of optimism about globalization. And under the mercantilist Trump administration things between the two great powers went from bad to worse first with a trade war and now a new Cold War thanks to the pandemic and Chinese domestic repression and regional aggression.

All the factors, however, do not make Turkey a natural candidate as a strategic partner for the United States in Africa.  Ankara not only lacks the economic, military, diplomatic and strategic depth and instruments to effectively contain Chinese activities in Africa.  It may also lack the political will due to the fact that the Islamist-nationalist coalition of Erdogan has a pro-Eurasian strategic inclination with clear admiration for the Russian and Chinese authoritarian models of strong-state capitalism with nationalist characteristics.

Finally, any realistic analysis of potential US-Turkish cooperation in Africa should take into consideration the problems on the Turkish-American agenda ranging from Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean to the S-400s and Fetullah Gulen. Without some solution to all these major challenges there is simply not much hope for even a second Trump administration to turn Africa into a platform of partnership with turkey. Crisis management and damage control are likely to occupy the Turkish-American agenda of the foreseeable future.

Endnotes

[6] https://ahvalnews.com/us-turkey/can-turkey-and-us-achieve-100-billion-bilateral-trade

[7] According to Foreign Lobby Report,  TAIK, working with lobbying firm Mercury Public Affairs had approached Mr. Graham in March with the proposition that Turkey could serve as the United States’ gateway to Africa.“As we strive to move forward, we at TAIK are already contemplating how we can reignite the economy post-pandemic,” TAIK chairman Mehmet Ali Yalcindag wrote in a letter to Mr. Graham. “Joint ventures in Africa could be an exciting part of this plan. Not only would we be helping fragile economies that will need assistance in recovering, but we also would be striking a blow against Chinese designs in Africa and forging closer economic ties between Turkey and the US.”

[12] See for example Petry, Drew. “Using AFRICOM to Counter China’s Aggressive African Policies” Airman Scholar, Fall 2011. See also Bowie, Nile. “AFRICOM Report: Combating China’s Economic Encroachment”, NSNBC, 16 August 2012/ http://nsnbc.wordpress. com/2012/08/16/africom-report-combating-chinas-economic-encroachment-related-press- release/

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