Recently there has been intense diplomatic traffic from Turkey to Southeast Asian capitals. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Jakarta, where, along with the signing of a number of agreements to cement the bilateral relationship with Indonesia, he uttered Turkey’s interest in building closer ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“We aim to boost our relations with the region,” said Turkey’s president, “Indonesia, due to the size of its economy and its leading position in ASEAN, has a special place in our eyes. We, Turkey, would like to be a member of ASEAN, not a dialogue partner. I would like to express that we are ready for this.”
A few days after Erdoğan’s visit to Jakarta, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, was in Kuala Lumpur to attend the 48th ASEAN Regional Forum Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, where Turkey was invited as a special guest of the Malaysian chair.
Çavuşoğlu repeated his country’s interest in ASEAN, reminded that Turkey has already upgraded its relations to a strategic level with many of the member countries, and claimed that ASEAN has a great deal benefit from Turkey’s involvement, especially in areas such as anti-terrorism activities and efforts against racial discrimination and Islamophobia.
Party to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation back in 2010, having a resident ambassador accredited to the association and embassies in all ASEAN capitals except Vientiane, Turkey now wants to be a fully-fledged partner to the association. While the association’s charter rules out full membership on geographical grounds, dialogue partnership can still be possible.
But why is Turkey, despite being located more than 3,500 miles away from the nearest member country, so much interested in ASEAN?
Reasons behind Turkey’s growing keenness in ASEAN can be found at different levels.
In 2013, during a visit to Hanoi, Turkey’s prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was the foreign minister then, had said: “We are determined to join all regional organizations either as a member, a dialogue partner, an observer or a cooperation partner. We are actively taking part in the workings of almost every regional organization in the world.”
Until recently, Turkey’s foreign policy paradigm under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government was defined through Davutoğlu’s mantra of “zero problems with neighbors” coupled with greater foreign policy activism at the global level including active involvement in the workings of global and regional institutions.
With the first part of this strategy being fatally undermined in the current chaotic environment of the Middle East, Ankara sees value in breathing new life into the second. Finding itself between a rock and a hard place in the Middle East, Turkey can reenergize its foreign policy and improve its reputation at the global level by adopting a proactively constructive stance through structures like ASEAN.
There are risks involved, capabilities and resources under disposal may not match objectives, and this can lead to a failure to deliver which would do more harm than good. However, still it is a definite go for Turkey.
At the bilateral level, Turkey seeks to reinforce its relations with the two Muslim-majority heavyweights of ASEAN, Indonesia and Malaysia, and improved ties with these countries are expected to strengthen Turkey’s bid to establish some form of partnership with ASEAN.
Recently, there has been significant improvement in this respect. For instance, Turkey and Indonesia agreed on cooperation in defense industry, joint production of medium-sized tanks to be precise, and the Turkish-Malaysian free trade agreement entered into effect as of August 1. Together with Vietnam, these two countries are Turkey’s main trading partners in the region.
In the meantime, both Indonesia and Malaysia are vocally supporting Turkey’s ambitions for ASEAN. In an op-ed for The Jakarta Post, Indonesian senior diplomat Agung Kurniadi wrote that “Indonesia can and will continue to be an ardent supporter for Turkey in the path to becoming a full ASEAN Dialogue Partner”.
Erdoğan and Çavuşoğlu’s recent visits have shown that this positive attitude is shared by many in the two countries.
The third reason behind the Turkish government’s growing interest in ASEAN is related to the country’s domestic power struggles.
For many years, Turkey’s presence in Southeast Asian countries was predominantly defined through the activities of non-governmental organizations, educational institutions and charity foundations run by and/or affiliated with Hizmet (literally meaning ‘the Service’), a transnational social and religious movement led by the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen who is living in self-imposed exile in the United States.
The de facto alliance between the AKP government and the Hizmet movement, which had served both sides for a long time, is now severely broken; the rift deepens between the two and as the government intensifies its efforts to eradicate the movement’s influence within Turkey, this struggle will have repercussions outside the country’s boundaries as well.
For the Turkish government, improved dialogue with ASEAN and its member countries will help dealing with the Hizmet movement’s presence in the region.
Turkey is increasingly keen on partnering with ASEAN, and now is the time for Ankara to push forward with this agenda. Being the current chair of G20 and serving on the organization’s troika for three consecutive years provides Turkey with profound leverage when dealing with other multilateral institutions.
In the meantime, ASEAN’s moratorium for admitting new dialogue partners expires by the end of 2015. Turkey’s diplomatic performance in this and the following year will determine whether and in what form it can become a partner to ASEAN.
Dr. Altay Atlı is a lecturer at the Asian Studies program of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul and a non-resident research fellow at the Center for Global Studies of Shanghai University.
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