Turkey’s rough road in engaging Asean

Turkey’s rough road in engaging Asean

With a sizeable economy, Asean has become more attractive to Turkey, which wants to play a role linking the grouping with Europe. (Bangkok Post file photo)
With a sizeable economy, Asean has become more attractive to Turkey, which wants to play a role linking the grouping with Europe. (Bangkok Post file photo)

It was like a blip coming out of nowhere when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said last August that he would not mind backing Turkey’s membership in Asean. This pronouncement was the biggest example of hyperbole during his chairmanship. But this is not the case for Turkey. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Jakarta in 2015, he already had high hopes that his country would sooner or later be joining Asean.

Somehow, none of Asean’s members took Turkey’s intentions seriously. After all, Turkey has long been inspired to join the European Union, not Asean. But Ankara is losing patience with the EU for dragging its feet. Too many power plays and conditions went into the membership track. Mr Erdogan decided to turn east toward Asia in the past decade, hoping to receive better treatment. He has already made his presence felt in China and Japan. Within China’s mega-Belt and Road Initiative, for instance, Turkey would be one of the key hubs to benefit from both land and sea connectivity.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

To be precise, in the past seven years, Asean suddenly found itself in Turkey’s sights. When Turkey signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2010, Ankara hoped its accession would serve as a stepping stone toward becoming a full dialogue partner in the near future. Former foreign minister and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu (2014-2016) was instrumental in bringing Turkey closer to Asean. He thought it should be a speedy process since his country is one of the world’s leading secularised Muslim countries. But that was not the case even with backing from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Seven years have elapsed, Asean members still have not reached a consensus on granting Turkey its long-sought status of dialogue partner. Some felt that Turkey-Asean ties are not substantive enough. For instance, bilateral trade amounted to only US$8.7 billion in 2016, which pales in comparison to other dialogue members. Cooperation within the Asean framework are far and few. Other dialogue partners have more solid ties and beneficial cooperation than Turkey in all dimensions. Germany and Norway are the two latest examples. Eventually after a long debate, Asean leaders last August decided to grant a sectoral dialogue partnership to Turkey, very much to the chagrin of Ankara.

Indeed, Turkey still has a steep learning curve when engaging Asean. Otherwise, it could be stuck as a sectoral dialogue partner for a long time, which could lead to the same frustrations it has experienced in applying for EU membership. Pakistan has remained a sectoral dialogue partner since 1992, and there is still no indication today that it will be upgraded.

Turkey has good reasons to woo Asean. First, it wants to promote trade and investment with the fast-growing Asean economies. Turkey-Asean ties are growing up fast since the rise of Mr Erdogan who wants to seize Asean as a future 650-million-strong export market, much bigger than the EU.

Over the years Turkey tried to woo Indonesia, the group’s biggest economy and rising middle power. Both countries are members of the MIKTA group, comprising Mexico, South Korea and Australia. At the same time, Turkey and Malaysia have a very special relationship.

Unfortunately, domestic developments that led to Turkey’s aborted coup in July 2016 and subsequent political fallout upended Turkey’s progress in the region. Mr Erdogan’s witch-hunt for the support network of Fethullah Gulen’s group in Asean greatly affected the overall ties. In particular, Ankara pressured Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand to shut down education and other services provided by the group, which was blamed for the abortive coup.

Secondly, closer ties with Asean increases Turkey’s profile with China. It would augment Ankara’s bargaining power with Beijing over future economic and political engagements. The fate of Uighur displaced persons is a good illustration of this interlinked triangular relationship. Thailand has suffered greatly for sending back to China Uighur refugees who were detained in southern Thailand while they were en route to Malaysia. It was an open secret that those who made it to Malaysia would later go to Turkey. Bangkok’s action led to attacks on its mission in Ankara. More than officials would like to admit, there was a strong link between Thailand’s action and the bombing of the Erawan shrine in August 2015 that killed 20 people. Two men allegedly linked to Chinese Uighurs were arrested as suspects.

Finally, Turkey sees itself as a bridge between East and West, especially as a gateway for Asean to Europe. Furthermore, Turkey hopes to play a facilitating role for Asean in engaging with the West. However, Mr Erdogan’s rise and growing assertiveness both at home and abroad after the abortive coup have caused concerns within Asean.

Ankara has to be more prudent in supporting Asean centrality and its effort to construct a regional architecture. Turkey, with its strategic location, has a pivotal role to play as an extension of the IndoPacific, which is emerging as a new alignment with Japan, Australia, India and the US as the principle players. Turkey as a rising middle power could easily tilt the balance of East and West.

The security situation in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East shows Turkey’s diplomatic and military prowess. Mr Erdogan has been juggling the US and Russia on a daily basis to ensure his country’s survival in the combustible strategic environment.

Turkey hopes to extend its influence in this part of the world, bringing in its unique European aspirations. Being closely associated with Asean would help strengthen Ankara’s profile.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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