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Thursday, March 23, 2023

Istanbul Canal: A geopolitical tinderbox in the making?

Mr. Zafar focuses on the political, economic, and strategic elements of the Istanbul Canal, which as per President Erdogan's plans, will be ready by 2023. The Istanbul Canal is going to challenge the existing trade from Bosphorus that restrains Turkey from charging any transit fee and gaining strategic autonomy over the region.

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Erdogan’s assertive foreign policy has become the key mantra of Turkey’s approach in international politics, which is commonly viewed under neo-Ottomanism. His strikingly proactive policies have opened different geopolitical debates in which developments in the Istanbul Canal are the most recent inline. Despite domestic resentment against Erdogan’s ambitious strategy in the region, the region is subject to major geopolitical changes considering the post-2023 scenario.

Turkey has started the construction of the Istanbul Canal which is the biggest project undertaken by Turkey in its history. It is aimed at reducing pressure from the bay of Bosphorus which is the busiest waterway in the world and the only free passage for the Black Sea states to connect with the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Marmara.

Around 40000 vessels pass from the strait each year which is three times more than the ones passing through Suez canals. Rhetorically, Erdogan has called the project as a “Crazy Project”.

Read more: Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions

Economically, the largest construction project taken by Erdogan’s party will cost $15 billion. It will allow 160 vessels to transit a day which is equivalent to the traffic through Bosphorus. This project will urbanize Istanbul as the multifaceted project will generate $8 billion from the transit fees every year along with that it includes infrastructural projects aimed at bolstering cities’ overall development which connects Turkey with Europe.

This will also provide jobs to 2 million Turks which account for about 19 % of the country’s annual economic growth. Additionally, the construction of High-speed trains, major highways, and bridges are few the important project those are underway.

Furthermore, Erdogan’s aim for the post-2023 scenario is to improve the Turkish economy. Target is set to reach $2 Trillion GDP, $24 GDP per capita, $500 billion exports, and many other economic motives which are linked with the Istanbul Canal project as well. The aforementioned projects are seemingly convincing while understanding the sidelines projects that are to be undertaken along the canal.

Read more: Qatar-Turkey strengthens Economic & Strategic Partnership Amid Controversies

Purpose of the project

Politically, Erdogan’s party is facing domestic challenges in the face of economic crisis as the Turkish lira has dropped massively Vis-à-vis US dollar thus the government is aiming to uplift the Turkish economy.

This project was part of Erdogan’s 100-day action plan for his term in office which is why it is important to fulfill his promise to gain public support and improve his position as Turkish President, as was the case in the previous elections where the construction of Turkey’s biggest mosque, airport, and a tunnel beneath the Bosporus increased his public image. The project is not only confined to economic and political motives but it is aimed to achieve strategic ends.

Read more: Turkey’s Erdogan orders another conversion following Hagia Sophia: Kariye Museum turns to Mosque

Strategically, the region holds important motives for Ankara. The region is the only route for the black sea states to trade with the outside world which means that any strategic action to block access through the region will stop regions’ trade. Similarly, Russian ships pass through the region, and as per the Montreux Convention Turkey cannot take any action against it for now, but the construction of Canal Istanbul will change the regional dynamics.

Most ardently, the post-2023 scenarios will allow Turkey to take the lead in the regional geopolitical rift that exists between the US and Russia. From this emerging development, Turkey will be in a better bargaining position Vis-à-vis the US and Russia.

Read more: Turkey and Russia on the verge of an ALL-OUT WAR

The Istanbul Canal for the US and Russia

The US was favoring the construction of the canal in 2011 because once operational, the canal can be used by the US for freedom of navigation operations to keep a check on Russia by using Freedom of Navigation as a silent chant. Further, this will allow the US to have its military warships stay in the region which will hinder the Russian position in the region.

All of this is subject to Turkey’s foreign policy whether it wants to favor the US against Russia which seems unlikely due to the growing cooperation between Russia and Turkey and increasing distrust with the US over the S400 deal.

Read more: Turkey amidst US and Russia – The S-400 Missile Defense Deal

In the case of Russia, this canal is both a threat and an opportunity. If Washington can use the canal for military maneuver then it will hinder the security of black sea states who depend on Russia for security protection in the region. This means that Russian security ties with regional states will be subject to US security ties with the regional players.

On the other hand, the current bromance between Erdogan and Putin provides a stronger hold of Russia who can use this as an opportunity to double its speed of oil trade outside of the region.

From both sides, Turkey can gain an upper hand in this geopolitical situation in the post-2023 regional order. Turkey’s bargaining position will be strong, and it can sign an important military, economic and diplomatic deal with the US or Russia in favor of any one of them in the region. From this, the marginalized position of Turkey in the region will shift towards a central power that is in line with the current Blue Homeland strategy.

Read more: US, other powers fear Turkey’s regional rise

Challenges for Turkey

Challenges for the project include the 82-year-old Montreux convention states that Turkey cannot charge transit fees from the vessels passing through the bay. The question now arises, that if the region is free for trade why would states prefer Istanbul Canal? As per Turkish political actors, Istanbul Canal is safe in comparison with Bosphorus, but this is not a constructive point for states to shift their trade routes.

This further opens the debate that will Black sea countries formulate an agreement with Turkey from the emerging developments in the post-2023 scenario?

Conclusively, the situation is aimed at Erdogan’s vision to link the Mediterranean Sea with the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, thus this action is just a pawn in the regional geopolitical chessboard where Erdogan is placing cards auspiciously to support his Blue Homeland strategy.

Read more: Op-ed: Turkish President Erdogan is laying the groundwork for leadership of Muslim world

The author is a columnist based in Islamabad and can be reached at: alizafar100y@yahoo.com. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.