Turkey seeks to boost South Asia ties
In August 2019, Turkey launched its “Asia Anew” initiative, which was inaugurated by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a bid to boost the country’s cooperation with Asian countries in a variety of areas, including defense, economy, investments, and culture. Under this vision, Ankara has fixed its eyes on strengthening its relations with South Asian countries, namely Pakistan, Bangladesh, and even India.
Turkey’s rebranding of its South Asia interests was influenced by a combination of several factors related to the domestic and international contexts. At the domestic level, the ideological approach of the conservative government in Ankara influenced the foreign policy orientation toward the South Asian countries. At the global level, structural changes in the international balance of power, which had shifted toward rising non-Western actors such as China, Russia and India, pushed Ankara to recalibrate its policy in accordance with the presence of these actors. Moreover, the widening of the gap between Turkey and its Western allies had forced it to diversify its security and economic relations. In this sense, while courting Russia and China, Ankara had also rolled up its sleeves to draw advantage from the struggle for global and regional leadership between India, Pakistan and China.
Turkey’s engagement with key Asian countries through Asia Anew has involved its soft power assets, conflict resolution methods, economic tools and defense industry. Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are the key countries due to their booming economies and strategic importance. In this respect, it is significant to consider Cavusoglu’s recent visits to Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Turkey’s top diplomat this week made a three-day trip to Pakistan, where he also participated in a second trilateral summit with Pakistan and Azerbaijan. In recent years, Ankara has boosted its ties with Islamabad in several fields, mainly political, defense and economic. Cultural ties pumped through soft power tools have also helped them further their relationship.
One of the dimensions of the Turkish policy toward Pakistan is the Kashmir issue. While cozying up with Islamabad, Turkey avoids openly condemning India. However, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2019 was not well received by New Delhi. He said that the international community had not paid “enough attention” to the Kashmir conflict. In order to show his displeasure, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi canceled his two-day official visit to Turkey that was scheduled for the following month.
Bangladesh, Pakistan and India are the key countries due to their booming economies and strategic importance.
While India had condemned Turkish operations in Syria, Pakistan threw its support behind Ankara’s involvement in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Pakistan considers Azerbaijan to be a mutual ally with Turkey and recognizes Baku’s claims over Nagorno-Karabakh. Islamabad has also not established diplomatic relations with Armenia.
During Cavusoglu’s two-day visit to Dhaka last month, he inaugurated the newly built Turkish Embassy compound and discussed bilateral and regional issues. “Bangladesh is one of Turkey’s key partners in the Asia Anew initiative, with its vibrant economy and young population,” he said. Cavusoglu met his Bangladeshi counterpart A.K. Abdul Momen and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as part of his visit. The Turkish minister expressed Ankara’s interest in establishing strong ties with Bangladesh and said that Ankara would do “whatever is needed to strengthen bilateral trade.” In that context, defense and the economy are the two key areas that can boost the mutually beneficial relationship.
Given Turkey’s cool relations with India, Bangladesh is considered to be a strategic country for Ankara, as it is India’s eastern neighbor and ally, which could play a role in expanding Turkey’s footprint in South Asia. Bangladesh has not only emerged as Turkey’s second-largest trade partner in the region after India, with a total trade volume of $1 billion in 2019, but it has also started to enhance its defense cooperation with Turkey. In recent years, Dhaka has placed a special focus on the Turkish defense industry and has already purchased Turkish-made Otokar Cobra light armored vehicles for its military. Turkish defense giant Roketsan has also inked a deal to supply medium-range guided multiple launch rocket systems to Bangladesh, while more than 3,000 Bangladeshi military officers have received training in Turkey. Most importantly, Ankara aims to expand its defense industry base by boosting arms sales to $25 billion by 2023 — a strategic year for the Turkish government and its ruling Justice and Development Party.
Turkey’s support for Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue in all international forums, including the UN and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, has significantly deepened the ties between the two countries. Not only has it provided diplomatic support, but Ankara has also, through its state institutions, built various facilities such as camps, hospitals, schools and orphanages for refugees in Bangladesh.
Cavusoglu’s visits to Bangladesh and Pakistan have brought Ankara’s expanding interest in South Asia to the fore. While Turkey is keen to further deepen its presence and influence in this region, it should take into account the assertive political and economic policies of non-Western powers such as Russia, China and India. Amid enduring rivalries in South Asia, Turkey’s Asia Anew initiative can only succeed if it manages to walk a fine line with these actors.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz