By Dr Yatharth Kachiar,
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s recent visit to Dhaka involved inauguration of a new embassy compound and a pledge of enhanced cooperation with the country. The visit has raised attention regarding Ankara’s expanding interest in South Asia, particularly Bangladesh. Turkey has historically been close to Pakistan to the extent of supporting Islamabad diplomatically and militarily during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Ankara officially recognized Bangladesh during the 1974 OIC summit held in Lahore and opened its first embassy in Dhaka in 1976. The ties between the two countries flourished after that. The relations took a nose-dive from 2012 onwards when the Islamist-oriented AKP, known for its support to Muslim Brotherhood worldwide, started condemning Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal’s prosecution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their involvement in the genocide committed by Pakistani army during 1971 war. The recent visit by Turkish foreign minister to Dhaka infused a new drive in Turkey-Bangladesh relations and renewed Turkey’s Asia pivot.
Turkey’s foreign policy dilemma
Since its inception in 1923, one of Turkish foreign policy’s primary goal has been establishing itself as a part of ‘Western civilization’.However, Turkey’s unique geostrategic position, developmental profile, Islamic identity, and security threats have always been similar to those in the ‘global South’. This inherent dilemma in Turkish identity was projected on its foreign policy as well. Consequentially, Turkish policymakers have always prioritized the relations with the West and the US over their Asian and Middle Eastern counterparts. Nonetheless, Turkey is also known to play its western vs Islamic identity in foreign policy and favouring a more multi-dimensional approach depending upon its immediate strategic orientation and the tensions with its principal ally- the European Union (EU).In none of these scenarios, Turkey had historically shown deep interest in expanding influence as far as South Asia and Asia-Pacific.
Initial pivot to Asia
Under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey has vigorously started pursuing its strategic interests in ‘the global South’, including Asia. Initially launched in the early 2000s, Turkey’s extensive foreign policy outreach to traditionally neglected regions of Asia, Latin America, and Africa was the strategic vision of former Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. The impressive and sustained economic growth of the early 2000s gave Turkey the necessary confidence to relinquish its previous hesitations and embrace its strategic ambitions. Since then, Turkey has extended its global footprints by opening new embassies to engage countries in the ‘global south’ including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos.
Turkey has invigorated this similar strategic vision under the ‘Asia Anew’ initiative unveiled by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in 2019. Under this new initiative, Turkey has been focusing on strengthening its relations with Asia’s countries to build synergies in education, defence, investments, trade, technology, and culture.Turkey’s renewed activism in Asia results from structural changes at the global level and the ideological drive behind AKP’s foreign policy. The increasing rift in Turkey’s relations with the West and the ongoing fight for primacy within the Muslim world has estranged Turkey from its traditional ally, the West and the neighbouring Islamic countries. In this scenario, Turkey is bidding to extend influence toregions with less historical baggage such as Asia.
Bangladesh: the desirable candidate
With its growing economy based on a sustainable development model, Bangladesh assumes a special place in Turkey’s outreach to Asia. Turkey’s ongoing competition with Saudi-led block for primacy within the Islamic world also makes Bangladesh a desirable candidate to sway within its sphere of influence.In South Asia, Dhaka is Ankara’s second-highest trade partner after India, with a total trade volume of USD 1 billion in 2019 before the pandemic.
Further, President Erdogan intends to expand Turkey’s defence industrial base by boosting arms sales to USD 25 billion by 2023. Bangladesh could also become a critical market for the Turkish defence industry in the future. Turkey has already delivered the Otokar Cobra light armoured vehicle to the Bangladesh Army in 2013 and secured USD 1 billion contracts for 680 light armoured vehicles in 2017.In March 2019, Bangladesh signed a contract with a Turkish company, ROKETSAN for procuring medium-range guided multiple rocket launchers.Various training programs and military exercises further strengthen the defence links between the two nations.
Turkey’s unconditional support to Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue has significantly deepened the ties between the two countries. Turkey rallied behind Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue at various multilateral fora such as the UN, the G20, and the OIC. Further, Ankara through its state institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), and other Turkish NGOs has built various facilities such as camps, hospitals, schools, and orphanages for refugees in Bangladesh.
In the initial phase of Turkey’s outreach to Asia in the early 2000s, one of the most critical factors that worked in Ankara’s favour was its impressive economic growth. Driven by a booming economy, Turkish policymakers pursued trade, humanitarian, and cultural diplomacy with great vigour. The ‘Asia Anew’ initiative is the continuation of the previous policies under dramatically different circumstances. At present, Turkey’s strained relations with the West, Middle Eastern countries and its dwindling economy will pose significant constraints on Ankara’s renewed commitment towards Asia, and specifically Bangladesh. President Erdogan’s deep commitment to Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist values might also prove irksome to the leadership’s sensitivities in Dhaka if Turkey supports any such organization in Bangladesh. Undoubtedly, at present, Turkey-Bangladesh shares cordial and cooperative relations with the possibility of more intensive engagement. However, the real challenge would be to safeguard the relations from Turkey’s self-sabotaging policies.
(The author is Research Associate, Vivekananda International Foundation. Twitter: @YKachiar Views are personal.)