Washington has just sent an intentionally mixed message to Turkey as the Trump White House cut tariffs on imported Turkish steel from 50% to 25%. Yet on the same day, the US formally withdrew Turkey’s status as a preferential trade partner. This means that certain Turkish goods that were traded freely will now be subject to US import tariffs.
Like many aspects of post-2016 Turkey-US relations, the mixed message was one part intentional and one part an accidental insult. On the one hand, moderate forces in the Pentagon continue to understand Turkey’s vital importance as a stable NATO member in a region known for instability and growing tides of anti-Americanism. Turkey is not only the bulwark keeping Europe from being flooded by migrants (as well as terrorists) from western Eurasia but it is also an important stabilising force in the region due to Turkey’s military capacity.
On the other hand, the powerful US based Israel lobby has along with Tel Aviv, entered into a new era in which Turkophobia has not only become socially fashionable, but more importantly, Turkophobia now forms the basis of a new energy and “security” alliance between Israel and Turkey’s regional rivals including Greek Cyprus, the Hellenic Republic and also Sisi’s Egypt.
As such, the most radically pro-Israel elements in Washington have been largely successful in getting the Trump administration to force Turkey out of the F-35 project which Turkey helped to develop. In this sense, forcing turkey out of the F-35 project represents an instance of Washington cutting off its nose to spite its face as the project itself will now lag behind its anticipated progress as the US will have to make up for the loss of productivity from the Turkish side.
Anti-Turkey factions in Washington are also behind US threats to reascend delivery of pre-ordered F-35s to Turkey as well as US threats to sanction Turkey over its apparently cast-iron deal to take delivery of Russian made S-400 missile defence units by the end of 2019.
But even before one talks about sanctions over the S-400s or sanctions due to Turkey’s robust commitments to maintaining and expanding JCPOA levels of trade with neighbouring Iran, there is the question of tariffs. As Turkey is not considered by the Trump administration to be an economic rival to the US in the way that China and even the EU are, it follows a certain logical thought process that the US should reduce the rate of tariffs for imported Turkish steel. At the same time, Washington’s ending of the preferential trading relationship with Turkey is a symptom not of a specific economic salvo fired against Ankara but it is instead symptomatic of the fact that under Donald Trump, a unilateral anti-free trade ethos exists as much among traditional allies as among “rivals” and traditional opponents.
For Turkey, it is crucial to accept the fact that these new realities are not likely to change any time soon. From there on out, Turkey must strengthen its Belt and Road connectivity to eastern partners. This importantly includes Pakistan whose China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can play a vital role in promoting further trade between China’s Pacific cost and Turkey’s Mediterranean ports. As China is rapidly expanding trade with and investment in Turkey, now is the time for Turkey’s fraternal bonds with Pakistan to help solidify a trilateral Belt and Road partnership which ideally can someday include Iran as well. As Turkey has always maintained good relations with Pakistan and is enjoying the best level of relations with Iran since 1979, the medium and long term development of Pacific to Mediterranean connectivity bookended by China and Turkey is all the more of a realistic and desirable goal for all partners involved.
At the same time, as the EU itself is turning more towards Asian partners in an era in which economic diversification is a must whilst simultaneously feeling the tariff heat from an economically “Eurosceptic” Trump administration, Turkey can demonstrate that it has long been an important but underappreciated trading partner to an EU which can strengthen its own long term prospects through increased trade with Turkey.
Finally, Turkey’s increased positive economic and cultural connectivity throughout both Africa and ASEAN can help Turkey to create both new exports markets for its goods whilst cultivating important international supply chains to help sectors in multiple countries to increase their productivity on a win-win basis.
Turkey is in a strong position to take a regional leadership role that can help western Eurasia and east Asia form new inroads of modern connectivity whilst at the same time strengthening trading ties to the neighbouring EU whilst bolstering partnerships with friendly states ranging from Malaysia and Pakistan in Asia to Sudan and South Africa.
The “new normal” is one in which the US will not be giving Turkey any preferential trading positions whilst the US will also continue to both intentionally and inadvertently undercut Turkey’s security partnership whilst disregarding some of Turkey’s regional concerns. As such, Turkey must attain a position where in terms of both trade and defence, Ankara has multiple partners that can offset the negative trends of this new era in which the US has clearly chosen unilateralism over win-win partnerships.