By P. K. Balachandran/Ceylon Today
Colombo, January 31: Türkiye, which is emerging as a power for the second time in history after the Ottoman Empire, is spreading its wings beyond the Middle East to South, South East Asia and Africa. It is interested in Sri Lanka also because of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean.
Türkiye’s ties with Sri Lanka actually go back to 1864 when it established an Honorary Consulate in Galle, which functioned till 1915. The next milestone was Türkiye’s recognition of newly independent Sri Lanka in 1948. However, an Embassy in Colombo came up only in 2012. Sri Lanka opened its mission in Ankara the following year.
Meanwhile, two important visits had taken place – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Colombo in 2005 after the Tsunami, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Ankara in 2008. In June 2016, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoglu, visited Sri Lanka for the first time. His next visit this month, could be more fruitful given the detailed discussions he had held in September 2021 when he met Lankan Foreign Minister G.L.Peiris in New York.
Bilateral ties, will henceforth focus on trade and investment, both of which need vast improvement. Çavuşoğlu has said that though the two countries had set a bilateral trade target of US$ 500 million,trade stood at a measly US$102 million in the first half of 2021.Tea accounts for 80 per cent of Türkiye’s imports from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka wants Türkiye to diversify its imports from the island. Türkiye’s main exports to Sri Lanka are: steel, iron, synthetic staple fibers, electrical machines and tools. And the main imports from Sri Lanka are: Cloth and accessories, coffee and tea. Türkiye became top importer of Sri Lanka tea in 2017.
Turkish investment is welcome in Sri Lanka in pharmaceutical industries and construction as the Turkish construction sector is the world’s second largest. The two countries need to finalize agreements on Avoidance of Double Taxation and on Investment Promotion and Protection.
Between 2013 and 2017, Türkiye had concluded 17 projects in Sri Lanka. But there is no registered Sri Lankan investment in Türkiye yet. In 2018, Türkiye provided equipment and construction support to a project in Ampara run by the NGO “Child Rehabilitation Centre” to provide irrigation to 8,100 acres and benefit 15,000 people.
Anti-terrorism binds Sri Lanka and Türkiye. While Sri Lanka has crushed terrorism, Türkiye is still struggling to contain it, having to contend with multiple terror groups, some of which are allegedly supported by the US. The West-led international community is another headache for both countries as they are subject to trenchant criticism for alleged human right violations and authoritarian governance. Türkiye carries the additional burden of being in the international “grey list” for inadequate measures to curb terrorist financing and money laundering. Both Sri Lanka and Türkiye being under pressure from the international community,they are pledged to support each other in international fora on terrorism and Western meddling in their internal affairs.
Türkiye in South Asia
In August 2019, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu launched the “Asia Anew” initiative in a bid to boost cooperation in defence, economy, investments and culture in Asia. Among the countries in which Asia Anew sees potential are Pakistan and Bangladesh. Türkiye is even keen on India though Erdogan’s 2019 pro-Pakistan statement on the Kashmir issue at the UN made Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancel his official visit to Ankara. However, despite tensions, India is Türkiye’s biggest trading partner in South Asia.
According to Turkish analyst Cenim Cengiz, Bangladesh has emerged as Türkiye’s second-largest trade partner in the South Asia with a total trade volume of US$1 billion in 2019. Bangladesh has purchased Turkish-made Otokar Cobra light armored vehicles. The Turkish company Roketsan has inked a deal to supply medium-range guided multiple launch rocket systems. More than 3,000 Bangladeshi military officers have received training in Türkiye.
Türkiye’s support for Bangladesh on the Rohingya issue in all international fora, including the UN and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, has significantly deepened the ties between the two countries. Türkiye has built camps, hospitals, schools and orphanages for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
India and Pakistan
According to Ketan Mehta (“Türkiye’s India Outreach: Possibilities and Challenges”, ORF Issue Brief No. 276, January 2019, Observer Research Foundation) Türkiye is interested in pursuing cooperation with India in space, science and technology, where India has made significant progress.
But since Türkiye had been labouring under a pro-Pakistan bias, India had had problems with it. Following the partition of India into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan in 1947, Türkiye’s engagement in South Asia became Pakistan-centric. The rise of Islamist parties in Türkiye under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan in the 1970s reinforced the role of Islam in Turkish politics, Mehta says. These explain the country’s political proximity to Pakistan.
To face Soviet communism, Türkiye and Pakistan signed a Treaty of Eternal Friendship in 1954. Both joined the US-led, anti-communist Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) in 1955.During the 1962 Sino-Indian War, following Pakistan’s request, Türkiye refused to send mountain howitzers to India, Mehta recalls.
Türkiye cooperated with Pakistan in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). During the 20th OIC Foreign Ministers meet in August 1991, Türkiye condemned India’s use of force in Kashmir. Türkiye was also part of the meeting of the OIC Bureau in 1993 in Dakar, Senegal, where, on Pakistan’s request, the issue of the 1992 Babri mosque demolition was raised. Türkiye and Pakistan later became members of the OIC “Contact Group on Kashmir”, formed in 1994.
In 1998, Türkiye expressed concern about India’s nuclear tests As chair of the UN Conference on Disarmament, Türkiye opposed the nuclear testing and stated that Pakistan’s nuclear test was a reaction to India’s.
However, the opening up of the Turkish economy under Prime Minister Turgut Özal made Türkiye improve relations with India. Özal visited India in 1986, and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reciprocated his visit in 1988. Özal was accompanied by a business delegation, indicating Türkiye’s interest in strengthening economic relations with India. Economic ties have now taken precedence.
During his 2008 visit to India, Erdogan had endorsed the Türkiye–India Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Former President Abdullah Gul, in his visit to India in 2010, spoke about cooperating with New Delhi in space research, biotechnology, information technology and computerization. In 2017, Erdogan’s senior adviser, Ilnur Cevik, spoke about India’s growing relevance in Türkiye’s foreign policy thus: “Pakistan is a very good friend of Turkey but that does not mean India cannot be a close friend of Turkey. We want India to be a partner of Turkey in defense, in nuclear issues, in Africa, in all areas,we want India to be our partner.”
The focus of Erdoğan’s 2017 visit was largely economic. A business delegation of over 100 representatives accompanied him. Ankara had also shown interest in India’s ‘smart cities’ initiative, given the expertise of Turkish firms in construction and in the infrastructure sector. In the financial year 2017–18, bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to US$7. 2 billion. In 2018, much to India’s satisfaction, Türkiye supported Bangladesh’s demand for a reform of the OIC and its expansion to countries such as India, which hosts a large Muslim population, Mehta notes. Counter terrorism is an emerging area of cooperation between the two countries. Under the Joint Declaration on Terrorism, issued during former Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s visit, Türkiye recognised the need to support the India-initiated Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism.
Given Türkiye’s interest in the region, Sri Lanka can seek investments from it in order to set up industries for export to the South Asian, South East Asian and even African countries, where too, Türkiye is penetrating.