Why Is Turkey Aggressively Pushing For Greater Cooperation With Bangladesh?

Analysis By Anupama Ghosh 

The year 2019 saw Turkey launch its ‘Asia Anew’ initiative in a bid to boost its cooperation with Asian countries. Increasing its footprints in South Asia, Turkey seems to be fostering closer relations with Bangladesh. So what are the reasons that make Bangladesh a viable partner for Turkey in the region? 

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Turkey’s Asia Anew initiative is aimed at building greater interaction in areas of education, defense, trade, technology, and culture. The shift of Turkey’s foreign policy towards Asia in the past decade has been interesting. 

Historically, Turkey has never shown any deep interest in expanding its influence in Asia. Since the establishment of the Republic in 1923, the country has tried to place itself closer to the West, giving more importance to its relations with the US and Europe, than with Asia and even its Middle-Eastern neighbors. But over the past decade, Turkey’s bilateral and multilateral relations with its traditional allies have been severely affected. And it is in such a scenario, that Turkey’s ‘Asia Anew’ initiative gains credence. 

Regardless of its tilt towards the West, its unique geostrategic position – straddling the east and the west, and its Islamic identity – nurtured more under the present political dispensation, gives Turkey the requisite push to foster relations with the Asian countries.  

In fact, much before 2019, the groundwork for its greater engagement was being laid. In order to foster diplomatic relations with different Asian nations, it began to expand its diplomatic network in Asia. New embassies were opened in Myanmar (2012), Cambodia (2013), Brunei (2013), and Laos (2017). 

It has also increased its engagement in the various regional multilateral forums and international organizations in Asia. 

In 2012, it became a dialogue partner for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN in August 2017. Putting forth its interest in greater engagement with the Asia- Pacific region, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs officially named China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea as its strategic partners in the Asia-Pacific region.  

Increasing its footprints in South Asia, Turkey seems to be fostering closer relations with Bangladesh. In January 2021, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visited Dhaka. Since the inception of Bangladesh, the relations between the two countries have gone through various swings.

Sharing cordial ties with Pakistan, Turkey diplomatically and militarily aided Pakistan during the Bangladesh liberation war in 1971. Despite that, Ankara officially recognized Bangladesh at the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) summit held in Lahore in 1974 and opened its embassy in Dhaka in 1976. 

Turkish President Erdogan

While their bilateral relations flourished since then, the ties came to a grinding halt when the AKP ( Justice and Development Party), known for its support to Muslim brotherhood worldwide, condemned Bangladesh’s International Crimes Tribunal’s prosecution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their involvement in the genocide committed by the Pakistani army during 1971 war.

New Initiatives

In January 2021, during his visit to Bangladesh, the Turkish Foreign Minister inaugurated a new embassy compound and pledged enhanced cooperation between the two countries. So what are the reasons which make Bangladesh a viable partner for Turkey in the region? 

With its booming economy and strategic importance, Bangladesh seems to occupy an important place in Turkey’s Asia Anew Initiative. Backed by its rapidly growing economy, it has emerged as an important trading partner. In South Asia, Dhaka is now Ankara’s second-highest trade partner after India, with a total trade volume of $1 billion in 2019 before the pandemic.

In recent years, Turkey has sought to provide and supply defense equipment to countries around the world, with the Turkish President stating his intention to expand Turkey’s defense industrial base by boosting arms sales to $25 billion by 2023. Turkey already delivered Otokar Cobra light armored vehicles to the Bangladesh Army in 2013 and secured $1 billion contracts for 680 light armored vehicles in 2017.

In March 2019, Bangladesh signed a contract with the Turkish Company, ROKETSAN for procuring medium-range guided multiple rocket launchers. Training programs and military exercises between the armed forces of the two countries are also in the pipeline.

In the past years, the Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar have found shelter in Bangladesh in large numbers. Turkey has rallied behind Bangladesh at major multilateral forums regarding the Rohingya issue, such as the UN, the G20, and the OIC. Institutions such as the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) have helped build various facilities such as camps, hospitals, schools, and orphanages for the refugees in Bangladesh.  

Since the opening years of the 2000s, Turkey’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds, giving it the financial means to pursue an extensive and expansive foreign policy. Its diplomatic, trade, humanitarian and cultural overtures in Asia, now being taken forward under the Asia Anew Initiative may be seen in this light.

However, given its recent economic slump and its troubled relations with the US and West, it would be interesting to see how far these overtures in Asia are pursued, and whether they would bring any dynamic shift in Turkey’s foreign policy towards Asian countries.  

(The author is a foreign policy researcher based in New Delhi)

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