Business & trade, Middle East, Top Stories, US-China tensions

Turkish businesses seek to mend US-Turkey ties with anti-China lobbying pitch

Turkey’s oldest business council announced on Twitter Friday that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has agreed to participate in a webinar next week touting the country’s potential as a trading alternative to China.

The event is a major win for the Turkey-US Business Council (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. His assent follows a campaign by TAIK 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 Africa.

“With the US shift on China, Turkey and the United States see a mutually beneficial opportunity here that’s both geopolitically strategically smart, but also financially mutually beneficial to both of them,” a source close to the issue told Foreign Lobby Report. “So yes, the effort to tamp down China’s economic influence in a semi-untapped market like Africa, Turkey is absolutely going down that road. And they’re going to talk about it next Wednesday in full.”

The worsening US-China crisis presents a unique turn-around opportunity for Turkey, a NATO ally that saw relations with the United States crater last fall as Ankara accepted Russian anti-aircraft systems and invaded northeast Syria to fight the US-backed Kurdish forces on its doorstep. Congress and the administration responded by suspending Turkey’s participation in the joint F-35 fighter jet program and sanctioning certain officials, with Graham among those leading the charge.

“With the US shift on China, Turkey and the United States see a mutually beneficial opportunity here that’s both geopolitically strategically smart, but also financially mutually beneficial to both of them.”

Despite the geostrategic rift, Trump has continued to press for stronger business ties with Turkey. In a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House last November, the US president again made the case for increasing annual bilateral trade with Turkey to $100 billion, up from $20 billion in 2019.

“We’ve also recently agreed to work toward a $100 billion two-way trade agreement … and I think we’ve made tremendous progress on that,” Trump said at the time. “We have a lot of trade with Turkey, but it could be many times larger — and Turkey would like to see that, and it would also be good for the United States.” 

The idea of inviting Graham to a TAIK Board Meeting in Turkey was first broached in a meeting with TAIK Chairman Mehmet Ali Yalcindag in Graham’s Washington office on March 4, before the coronavirus lockdown, according to lobbying disclosures from TAIK lobby firm Mercury Public Affairs. The following month, former Sen. David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, reached out to Graham’s staff with an invitation from Yalcindag to participate in a webinar instead.

“As we strive to move forward, we at TAIK are already contemplating how we can reignite the economy post-pandemic,” Yalcindag wrote to 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 U.S.”

Yalcindag delivered a similar message in letters to Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross the following month.

“We have already identified several opportunities that would secure greatly increased trade between our countries,” Yalcindag wrote to Ross in a May 20 letter. “I recommend an initial focus on LNG and agriculture imports from the US. At the same time, Turkey could boost exports of white goods and automotive parts diversifying America’s supply chain away from China, a stated goal of the Trump Administration.”