Flashpoints

Turkey and Asia Anew: A Foreign Policy Initiative in Passing 

There are favorable conditions and arguments for Turkey to advance relations with Asia, if Ankara can overcome some existing roadblocks.

By Ümit Alperen and Eyüp Ersoy for
Turkey and Asia Anew: A Foreign Policy Initiative in Passing 
Credit: Tarik Haiga / Unsplash

Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu took the audience by surprise at the 11th Ambassadors Conference on August 5 in Ankara when he announced a new foreign policy initiative called the Asia Anew. According to Çavuşoğlu, the formulation of a new holistic approach toward Asia in a diverse set of areas from trade and defense industry to technology and culture is imperative for Turkish foreign policy to be effective. This new initiative, he added, is expected to contribute to the sustainability of Turkey’s development. Çavuşoğlu was also prompt in a subsequent press briefing to stress that the new initiative does not constitute an axis shift in Turkish foreign policy.

However assertive the declaration may be, it was only 255 words and the new initiative has not found a specific place on the web page of the Ministry yet. It was, in the words of a senior Turkish diplomat, more a declaration of intent than a real strategic vision. It was an initiative in passing.

The primary motivation behind the Asia Anew initiative appears to be the desire of foreign policymakers to diversify Turkey’s partnerships. Turkey is currently experiencing a measure of disillusionment in its relations with the West, particularly with strained relations with both the United States and the European Union. Its improving relations with Russia only increases Ankara’s dependency on Moscow, and is arguably leading to an unsustainable asymmetry in the bilateral relations. Turkey also suffers a degree of regional isolation within the Middle East. Accordingly, diversification of partnerships in Asia by means of a new vision is expected to help Turkey overcome the prevalent sense of retrenchment and closure in its current foreign policy.

In addition, Turkey intends to capitalize on the glittering emergence of Asia as a new center of productivity and prosperity in the global economy. Turkey’s commercial relations with Asia, including the Pacific, already occupy 16 percent of Turkey’s trade volume, and there is a constant interest to advance trade relations. For example, Turkey has signed free trade agreements with South Korea, Malaysia, and Singapore that came into force in 2013, 2015, and 2017, respectively. Recently, the Turkish Ministry of Trade designated 15 states around the world as “target countries.” The Turkish private sector has been encouraged with additional public incentives to develop commercial relations with these states. China, India, Japan, and South Korea are among the designated target countries from Asia

However, Turkey experiences a persistent deficit in its trade with Asia. The trade imbalance can be observed in Turkey’s commercial transactions with China and India. As of 2018, China was the 2nd biggest import partner for Turkey while being only 16th biggest export partner. The trade deficit amounted to nearly $18 billion (75 percent of total bilateral trade volume). India, on the other hand, was the 6th biggest import partner for Turkey while being 36th biggest export partner. The trade deficit was about $6.5 billion (73 percent of total bilateral trade volume). The Asia Anew initiative constitutes a political measure to address this adverse trade imbalance in Turkey’s economic relations with Asian countries by providing an impetus to the Turkish private sector for the promotion of exports.

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There are some favorable conditions to advance Turkey’s strategic interests through the Asia Anew initiative. First, while Turkey displays an interest for an eastward opening in Asia, several Asian countries have also been eager for transcontinental initiatives in their respective foreign policies. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRi) is but one example. Japan’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy is another. Asia’s westward opening presents a number of opportunities for Turkey. Asian states’ readiness to engage in bilateral and multilateral arrangements increases their receptivity to the cooperative measures introduced by other Eurasian states like Turkey. Moreover, intra-Asian rivalries enhances the comparative strategic advantage of cultivating new partnerships in Eurasia for respective Asian adversaries. The Asian scramble for global partnerships, in turn, provides an added value to relatively insular states like Turkey whose friendships assume greater significance. By the same token, the quest of emerging economies in Asia for investment opportunities in foreign markets gives substance to the collaborative foreign policy initiatives of potential partners, such as Turkey’s Asia Anew initiative.  

Another favorable condition is the progress, albeit limited, Turkey has made in fostering diplomatic relations with Asian states. For example, the diplomatic network of Turkey in Asia is incrementally expanded with the opening of new embassies in Myanmar (2012), Cambodia (2013), Brunei (2013), and Laos (2017). Besides, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially names China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea as Turkey’s strategic partners in the Asia-Pacific region.

In addition to bilateral relations, Turkey has furthered its engagement with informal multilateral forums as well as regional international organizations in Asia. In 2012, Turkey became a dialogue partner for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Similarly, after acceding to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2010, Turkey became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in August 2017. Another example is Turkey’s membership to Asian Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) in 2013. As of September, Turkey assumes the chairmanship of the ACD for 2019-2020. These sorts of bilateral and multilateral engagements sustain the diplomatic and institutional infrastructure of Turkish foreign policy in Asia, potentially bolstering the Asia Anew initiative. Turkey’s FDI in ASEAN countries, as an example, witnessed a 55 percent increase in 2018 compared to the previous year. 

One final favorable condition to advance Turkey’s strategic interests through the Asia Anew initiative is related to the flourishing interest among the Turkish public in Asia. There is a palpable interest among the private sector, academia, and general public alike in understanding and engaging the region. The private sector is increasingly keen on benefiting from the commercial and financial opportunities Asian economies present. There is, on the other hand, a noteworthy degree of curiosity and scholarly activity about Asia among Turkish academia, as observed in new courses and postgraduate programs in universities, regular conferences and workshops, and a new generation of researchers. 

Turkey’s relations with Asian states and peoples finds a wider place in the discussions of the general public as well. The Asia Anew initiative chimes with quite pervasive anti-Western sentiments in Turkish public opinion. In addition, several Asian states pursue active public diplomacy in Turkey through a diverse range of activities promoted by their respective institutions. The Embassy of India in Ankara, for example, runs yoga courses on the embassy premises. Accordingly, the flourishing interest in several segments of the Turkish society in Asia, in part stimulated by the public diplomacy of Asian states, raises the prospects of the Asia Anew initiative. 

Still, there are some issues that could frustrate Turkey’s new initiative if not addressed properly. The first is the proclivity in foreign policy thinking to present and exploit the willingness to develop a multidimensional approach as a leverage in Turkey’s relations with the West, especially at times of elevated contention, in addition to exposing Turkey to denunciations of an axis shift from its Western orientation. Asia Anew runs the risk of becoming another diplomatic bargaining measure in Turkey’s currently challenging relations with the U.S. as well as the EU. Additionally, a false conception of opportunity is sometimes observable in Turkish diplomacy. Strained relations with a party, be it a state, a coalition, or a region, is conceived to confer an opportunity for Turkey to advance its relations with other party, or parties. However, distant openings are not solutions for proximate closings; they both have peculiar dynamics. A conception of the Asia Anew as a transient opportunity until the restoration of Turkey’s relations with the West or the Middle East is certain to compromise its prospects.

The center of gravity in global geopolitics is shifting eastwards, and Turkey, like so many international actors, intends to review its foreign policy priorities and accommodate its strategic interests accordingly. Although announced in passing, Turkey’s Asia Anew initiative is another statement to that end. Be that as it may, in its relations with Asia, Turkey needs more a systematic framework based on a long-term strategic vision than a foreign policy initiative in passing. Despite sanguine intentions, improvised diplomacy would prove to be counterproductive for Turkey.

Dr. Ümit Alperen is a visiting researcher at the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing. Dr. Alperen is a lecturer at Suleyman Demirel University in Turkey.

Dr. Eyüp Ersoy is a non-resident fellow in the Center for Foreign Policy and Peace Research (CFPPR) in Ankara, Turkey. He is the author of the book “Turkish-Chinese Military Relations: Spinning More, Moving Less.”