Ankara’s policy of expansion in the Asia-Pacific continued into 2012. Comprising the largest geographical region of the world, the Asia-Pacific has become the heart of the global economy thanks to the colossal economies it harbors. Turkey, not wanting to remain indifferent to the region, has also been developing policies in recent years to establish closer ties with the Asia-Pacific countries. Prioritizing bilateral relations in particular, Turkey is seen establishing close contact with G20 countries, with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, and Australia heading the list. Additionally, Ankara is conducting a policy of expansion towards countries with which it has had weak ties in the past. Accordingly, Turkish embassies have been established in Nepal and Myanmar while Singapore and Sri Lanka have each established embassies in Ankara.
Strategic relations with China
China was, without a doubt, the country with which the most active bilateral relations were conducted in 2012. The traffic that started with Vice President of PRC Xi Jinping’s visit to Turkey in February 2012 accelerated with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to China which took place in April 2012.
At the same time, there were differences encountered along the Ankara-Beijing link with respect to the perspective on global politics. With the Arab Spring that started in early 2011, Turkey and China began assuming disparate positions. While China supported the Arab regimes, arguing that under no conditions should there be intrusion into the internal affairs of nations, Turkey took up a posture of supporting the popular upheavals. The dissent between the two countries deepened with the Syrian crisis. In the process, Turkey came to better appreciate the importance of its alliance with NATO; Russia, China, and Iran continued to support the Assad regime in Syria. This state of affairs caused the formation of the Sino-Turkish strategic partnership, announced in 2010, to be stunted. As it is well known, the essence of a strategic partnership between two countries involves establishing strong concordance in words and deeds with respect to international politics.
In the process, Turkey realized that it did not share a common denominator with China in terms of such political values as democracy and human rights. China, on the other hand, started coming to the conclusion that when forced to choose, Turkey would opt for the NATO alliance. At that point, both countries developed rational attitudes to prevent such crises from affecting overall relations. In other words, there were numerous contacts realized between the two sides over the Syrian crisis, but the countries had to settle with explaining their positions on the matter.
During the process, both sides prioritized economic cooperation. Investment by Chinese companies in Turkey and their support of the Turkish finance sector, as well as the construction of high speed railways, are among the significant projects realized over the last year. If the close to $20 billion nuclear power plant project in Sinop, a Black Sean Turkish city, is awarded to a Chinese firm, the current economic cooperation will have been elevated to a more strategic status.
Turkey and China have also made good progress during the last year for the development of social and cultural cooperation. Due to 2012 being the “Year of Chinese Culture in Turkey”, numerous cultural activities took place with a focus on China. And the designation of 2013 as being the “Year of Turkish Culture in China” will provide an important opportunity for the people of the two countries to find out about each other. While Turkey and China have not yet been able to establish a strategic partnership, they are taking solid steps towards cultivating their bilateral cooperation.
From friendship to partnership with South Korea
The Turkish-South Korean relations continued their consistent development through 2012. Korean President Lee Myung-bak made an important visit to Turkey in February 2012. Prime Minister Erdoğan, on the other hand, had bilateral contacts with Korean authorities when he visited Seoul in March 2012 to attend the Nuclear Security Summit. As a sign of these high level contacts, the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), being negotiated since 2010, was signed in August 2012. The bilateral economic relations are expected to be enhanced further through the FTA. The Korean side wants to overcome the gap that works to Turkey’s disadvantage by having Korean firms perform direct investments in the country and through technology transfers in certain sectors.
South Korea being an important contender for the Sinop nuclear power plant project affords a significant opportunity as well in terms of moving the economic cooperation to the next level. Ankara and Seoul having wonderful relations since 1948 also makes South Korea an important partner in terms of the defense industry, nuclear energy and technology transfer. Based on this aspect, the two countries attempted to come up with a road map in 2012 to form a strategic partnership. For such a partnership, however, strong economic relations need to be supported with shared policies possessing a global vision. Despite all the expressions of friendship, the weak level of contacts between the peoples of the two countries is a factor hindering progress for multi-dimensional partnership. Steps are expected to be implemented in 2013, which will bolster the Turkish-Korean strategic partnership.
Slow-down relations with Japan
Turkey’s relations with Japan, its oldest partner in Asia, experienced a halting progress through the 2000s.The attempts in 2012 aimed at reanimating the relations were not highly successful. Japan, who had for a long time been Turkey’s largest trade partner in Asia, has surrendered this position in the last decade to China, South Korea, and India. Of course, the recession that the Japanese economy has been experiencing since the early 1990s has had a lot to do with this. Furthermore, while Turkey’s political, economic and cultural relations with South Korea, China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam have seen developments in recent years, relations with Japan could be said to be treading water, and in fact, retrograding. Much more effort needs to be put in to revive the relations in 2013 than what’s been accomplished so far.
“Friendship” with Pakistan, “partnership” with India
For a long time, Pakistan remained a steadfast friend and a sister country. Isolated during the Cold War, Turkey and Pakistan were each other’s sole supporters. The NATO intervention in Afghanistan following 9/11 also started destabilization in Pakistan, with natural disasters and political instability bringing the Pakistani economy on the brink of collapse. Turkey heads the list of countries providing support for Pakistan’s political stability and economic development. And since 2007, Turkey has been playing the role of the mediator in the process of normalization of the Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. Throughout 2012 the Turkey-Pakistan friendship has been nurtured through high level visits. However the economic and people to people relations between the two countries are highly lacking. Based on Pakistan’s predicament, the relations are not expected to become multi-dimensional in 2013.
On the other hand, India, Pakistan’s historical rival, became a significant trade partner for Turkey with the advent of the 2000s. Cooperation between the two countries started to develop at a global scale within the G20 framework. So much so that India has surpassed Japan and South Korea in recent years to become Turkey’s largest commercial partner in Asia, following China. There is currently determination between Ankara and New Delhi to extend bilateral relations further; however, Ankara is concerned about developing the aforementioned relations without necessarily neglecting Islamabad. The increased dialogue between Pakistan and India in recent times has soothed Turkey in this regard. In the final analysis, Turkey is in a position of being the sole country without direct political interest that can inspire trust on both countries. In the new era, to overcome the mistrust between the two countries, Ankara may propose a tripartite partnership of India-Pakistan-Turkey to be established, much like the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Turkey tripartite dialog that exists. If such a project is successful, Turkey may strengthen its partnership with India, while at the same time staying friends with Pakistan.
Humanitarian undertaking at Myanmar
Turkey is one of the countries most attentive to the plight of the Rohingya Muslims affected by the break out of conflict during the summer 2012 in the Rakhine (Arakan) state of Myanmar. Furthermore, Ankara started an initiative aimed at the region despite having almost non-existing relations with Myanmar. A delegation headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu made an official visit to Myanmar where a Turkish Embassy had only been established in March 2012. Davutoğlu who met with Myanmar President Thein Sein in August 2012 then traveled to the Rakhine State and visited the refugee camps sheltering the Muslims and the Buddhists. Davutoğlu’s attempt at trying to contribute to a solution to the problem by establishing a dialog with the Myanmar government can be seen as a positive undertaking by Turkey.
Successful mediation at the Philippines
The negotiations conducted between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of the mediations assumed in Asia by Turkey, were concluded successfully in October2012. Acting as the mediator in the conflict and formed under the auspices of the United Nations, the International Contact Group included Turkey as well, along with the United Kingdom, Japan and Saudi Arabia. Turkey was one of the countries extended thanks by Benigno Aquino, the President of the Philippines, at the peace agreement signing ceremony. Through this opportunity, Turkey in 2013 can develop projects that can help further develop its lacking relations with the Philippines, and also provide for the Moro Muslims to be integrated into the system.
Expanding relations with Indonesia
Indonesia, a powerful member of ASEAN and also a G20 nation, is a country of priority with which Turkey wants to further relations. The bilateral relations have started to be revitalized through mutual high level visits which took place in recent years. At the same time, as of 2012, the level of relations is far from adequate from the perspective of either country. Indonesia, named as one of the emerging economies along with Turkey, is expected in the near future to become one of the ten largest economies in the world. Accordingly, Turkey needs to continue to take steps in 2013 directed at intensifying its relations with Indonesia.
Brunei: A bonus country
Without a doubt the country with which Turkey achieved the most significant enhancement of relations in 2012 compared to the past, was Brunei. Two high-level visits took place in 2012 between this tiny and oil-rich country of the Southeast Asia and Turkey. First, the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah made a historic visit to Turkey in April 2012. During the visit, numerous bilateral agreements of cooperation were signed, including the establishment of mutual embassies. Then Prime Minister Erdoğan made a surprise visit to Brunei following the Bali Democracy Forum that took place in November 2012. Accordingly, in the one year period that ended, the initial mutual visits at the level of head of state and head of government have been accomplished. Brunei is expected to provide strong support to Turkey as part of Turkey’s strategy for furthering its relations with ASEAN.
Possible risks for 2013
It may be expressed that in 2012, Turkey’s overall Asia-Pacific strategy has continued to develop. The number of contacts has shown an increase at all levels for the last year.At the same time, it still cannot be said that Turkey has developed an overall strategy for Asia-Pacific. Turkey’s relations with the region are generally being conducted bilaterally.
The highest risk for 2013 is utmost attention in Turkish foreign politics being expanded largely on the Middle East, due to the developments related to the Arab Spring and especially the crises centering on Syria and Iraq. In such a case, Turkey may not be able to allocate sufficient time and resources to the steps it needs to take with respect to its long-term Asia-Pacific strategy. In fact, indications of this started to appear in 2012. Calls from countries in Asia to further relations were not able to be met fully. The approval afforded to Turkey by countries in Asia, much like those by the world in general, has increased in recent years. It could hurt Turkey’s credibility in the region to show itself as ambitious, yet not do what is required to bolster its Asian strategy.
In the final analysis, the relations to be established with Asia’s emerging and colossal economies carry significant importance with respect to Turkey’s vision for the future. For its performance in Asia will also be an indicator for whether Turkey will be able to attain a significant capacity for power as argued.
*The Turkish version of this article was first published in the January 2013 issue of USAK's monthly journal, 'Analist'.