Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 33 Issue 1
Authors: Guido Keller
Turkey’s engagement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has evolved into a strategic endeavour, marked by Ankara’s quest for deeper economic, diplomatic, and cultural connections.
Despite challenges, Turkey’s attainment of the Sectoral Dialogue Partnership (SDP) status in 2015 and its subsequent commitment to the “Asia Anew Initiative” underscore its resolute dedication to bolster relations with ASEAN.
This report comprehensively examines the multifaceted aspects of Turkey-ASEAN ties, delving into their historical progression, geopolitical implications, and potential for further cooperation.
ASEAN, an influential regional entity boasting substantial GDP, extensive trade networks, and a considerable population, holds a pivotal role in the geopolitical landscape.
Turkey’s aspiration for an elevated partnership with ASEAN traces its origins back to 1999, which culminated in its attainment of the SDP status in 2017. Turkey’s bilateral engagements with individual ASEAN member states have showed notable dynamism.
A tangible illustration of this dynamism is the remarkable expansion of trade volumes from a modest $1.3 billion in 2002 to a robust $8.7 billion in 2016. Turkey’s diplomatic commitment to ASEAN is further exemplified by its establishment of embassies in each of the ten ASEAN nations.
Noteworthy is the contribution of the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) which invested a substantial sum totalling $147.8 million between 2005 and 2015 in various developmental projects across the ASEAN region.
Turkey’s forward-looking “Asia Anew Initiative” illuminates its strategic approach to strengthening connections with ASEAN. Of particular significance are engagements with key ASEAN members such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Thailand under the ambit of the “Far Countries Strategy.”
Noteworthy economic progress is clear in the trade domain; the exports from ASEAN countries to Turkey surged from $5.6 billion in 2020 to a commendable $8.4 billion in 2021. Simultaneously, Turkey’s direct investments in ASEAN experienced an upward trajectory, ascending from $257 million in 2015 to $471 million in 2021. An intriguing reciprocal trend is evident as well, with ASEAN countries escalating their investments in Turkey, reaching a noteworthy $10.3 billion in 2021.
The establishment of the ASEAN Working Group within the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) substantiates the bilateral engagement’s broad-based nature, encompassing not only governmental but also private sector stakeholders. Notably, the Foreign Minister of Turkey has underscored ASEAN’s demographic dynamism, comprising a population of 650 million and a collective GDP surpassing $3 trillion, as a lucrative market for Turkish enterprises. This market focus includes spheres such as tourism, science and technology, higher education, and infrastructure development.
Moreover, Turkey’s limited free trade agreements (FTA) with ASEAN members, currently encompassing Malaysia and Singapore, signify a strategic step towards enhancing economic cooperation. The dynamic pursuit of increased bilateral trade with Malaysia, targeting a value exceeding $5 billion over the next five years, exhibits Turkey’s proactive engagement. The innovative notion of utilising palm oil for payment in defence transactions reflects Malaysia’s initiative to amplify ties with Turkey.
Indonesia, another significant ASEAN member, is the subject of Ankara’s economic endeavours, with the Turkey-Indonesia Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (IT-CEPA) under contemplation. The shared aspiration to elevate bilateral trade from $1 billion to $10 billion by 2023 encompasses a diverse spectrum of sectors, including defence and healthcare.
Turkey’s engagement extends to collaborative ventures, as evident in the joint development of the Tiger tank and the potential participation in Indonesia’s transformative capital city project.
Ankara’s longstanding association with Singapore is marked by bilateral trade surpassing $1 billion, supported by the Turkey-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (TRSFTA). Singaporean investments in Turkey and their involvement in strategic sectors, notably the port operations sector, further consolidate this relationship. Turkey’s aspiration to leverage Singapore’s expertise in technology and smart city development to fortify its own urban development agenda is indicative of the mutual exchange of knowledge.
Possible Future Scenarios for Turkey-ASEAN Relations
- Deepened Economic Integration and Diplomatic Collaboration: Turkey’s concerted efforts to strengthen economic ties with ASEAN nations yield substantial outcomes. Bilateral trade between Ankara and ASEAN witnesses sustained growth, driven by trade agreements and joint initiatives in sectors ranging from technology to infrastructure. This scenario envisions the realisation of comprehensive free trade agreements with more ASEAN members, expanding market access for both parties. As economic interdependence deepens, diplomatic collaboration intensifies, translating into more coordinated efforts on regional and global issues. Joint developmental projects, research collaborations, and knowledge-sharing in various fields become hallmarks of this scenario. The convergence of economic interests leads to a virtuous cycle of increased investments, cultural exchange, and people-to-people interactions.
- Strategic Geopolitical Alignment and Enhanced Security Cooperation: Turkey’s “Asia Anew Initiative” matures into a framework that aligns ASEAN’s economic dynamism with Ankara’s geopolitical goals. The collaboration extends beyond trade and investment to encompass security and defence cooperation. Joint exercises, information sharing, and capacity-building efforts become focal points, reflecting a mutual commitment to regional stability. Turkey’s evolving role within ASEAN’s security architecture contributes to shaping a more secure and resilient regional environment. This scenario envisions Turkey playing an active role in initiatives such as ASEAN’s non-traditional security mechanisms and counter-terrorism efforts, thereby enhancing its influence within the region’s security landscape.
- Stalled Progress and Limited Engagement: Despite initial enthusiasm, economic and cultural disparities pose significant hurdles, impeding the growth of bilateral trade and investments. Geopolitical factors, including competition from other major powers in the region, might also limit Ankara’s engagement. Diplomatic frictions or shifts in policy priorities could cause a stagnation of the Sectoral Dialogue Partnership. This scenario sees missed opportunities for both sides, preventing the realisation of substantial economic, diplomatic, and cultural synergies. Turkey’s engagement remains limited to a nominal level, with only incremental progress made in select areas, while comprehensive integration remains elusive.
The emerging contours of Turkey-ASEAN relations underscore a pattern of progressively deepening connections across economic, diplomatic, and cultural dimensions. Turkey’s attainment of the Sectoral Dialogue Partnership status and its proactive “Asia Anew Initiative” are emblematic of its steadfast commitment.
The potential for mutually beneficial collaboration and cooperation between Ankara and ASEAN is clear, necessitating the persistence of efforts to bridge gaps in awareness and cultivate more profound interaction. By capitalising on opportunities that this engagement offers, both parties stand poised to navigate challenges and construct a comprehensive framework for enduring collaboration.
Turkey’s strategic orientation towards ASEAN resonates with its larger ambitions in the global value chain. The country’s proactive stance and substantial trade and investment ties with the EU, coupled with its historical affinities with Middle Eastern and North African economies, position Turkey as a potential alternative hub amidst the evolving landscape of regional supply chains.
This vantage point could enable Turkey to assert a more significant influence within the international trade system, particularly as it strategically aligns with initiatives such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The establishment of key transportation routes, such as the Trans-Caspian International Transport Route, and extensive Chinese investments in Turkish infrastructure projects further reinforce this narrative.
In summation, the evolving partnership between Turkey and ASEAN encapsulates a strategic alignment underscored by economic synergies, diplomatic endeavours, and mutual aspirations. While acknowledging the complexities and challenges inherent in such an engagement, the prospects for a constructive, long-term collaboration are substantial, positioning both entities to contribute effectively to the global socio-economic tapestry.
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