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Turkey’s ‘Asia Anew Initiative’ provides road map for stronger ties

As one of the indicators of Turkey’s dynamic foreign policy, the Asia Anew Initiative has been seeking to enhance Ankara’s ties with the continent through its coordinated and holistic approach by including not only political and economic actors but also academia, civil society and more.

Turkey’s Asia Anew Initiative, which seeks to diversify the country’s diplomatic relations, has not only enhanced its ties with the continent but has also established a framework to outline and coordinate institutional mechanisms to further reinforce ties. Ankara’s decision to launch the initiative was the right step in today’s multipolar world and besides its economic and political benefits, the initiative may also contribute to Turkey’s growing role in humanitarian crises in the region, according to experts.

Announced by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu at the 11th Ambassadors Conference in August 2019, the Asia Anew Initiative indicated that Turkey was determined to more effectively utilize the potential of cooperation in Asia, considered the fastest growing economic region and the continent with the largest economy in terms of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The continent has increasingly become the center for global production and trade, while the share of the Asia Pacific region rose from 26.3% in 2000 to 34.9% in 2019.

“Asia, in general, has become the center of the global economy, and establishing favorable relations with these regions has become a necessity rather than a preference,” Altay Atlı, an academic who specializes in Turkey-Asia relations, told Daily Sabah. He continued by saying that the post-COVID-19 pandemic era has especially forced Turkey to further strengthen and consolidate its international relations for the benefit of its national interests.

Atlı also strongly dismissed claims that Ankara’s initiative aims to forge better ties with Asia in favor of the West.

Noting that the arguments about Turkey shifting its axis to the East are frequently voiced by pundits at home and abroad, Atlı said such claims are completely outdated because the idea of bipolar world order is a phenomenon of the 20th century.

“Western countries claim this actually means a tremendous amount of trade and investment relations with Asia, particularly with China,” Atlı said, as he criticized the double standards against Turkey:

“It is okay when everyone else does it, but when Turkey is involved, the country is forced to make a decision, but it has been 30 years since the bipolar world order ended with the end of the Cold War.” The Turkey-Asia expert continued by noting that Turkey’s position during the Cold War was very clear, and the country has been a loyal NATO member ever since.

Turkey joined the military alliance of 29 North American and European countries in 1952. The country has also been providing permanent naval assistance to NATO missions in the Aegean Sea while leading regional initiatives, including the Standing NATO Maritime Group’s (SNMG) activities in the Black Sea region. NATO has its headquarters in western Izmir province, an air base in southern Adana province, another one in Diyarbakır and a NATO Rapid Deployable Corps in Istanbul. It also hosts the AN/TPY-2 radar in eastern Malatya province as part of the organization’s missile shield project.

Apart from all these, in 2018 alone, Turkey contributed $101 million (TL 821 million) to the common funding of NATO.

To elaborate on the idea that almost all nation-states seek favorable relations with Asia, Atlı noted that although China and the U.S. are involved in bitter “trade wars” and competition, the two countries also have tremendous economic connections, dialogue initiatives and more.

“Therefore, it is out of the question for Turkey to shift its axis because the idea of axes and poles ended in 1991,” he said, adding that Ankara is entitled to seek better ties with China, Japan, Russia, European Union, the United States and all other countries because that is how things work in today’s world.

Meanwhile, professor Cengiz Tomar, the rector of Ahmet Yesevi University in Kazakhstan, told Daily Sabah that the Asia Anew Initiative has already started boosting Turkey’s ties with the region and has further enhanced Ankara’s relations with Turkic states.

“We can call it a multifaceted foreign policy approach,” he said, as he also agreed with the idea that the initiative did not constitute an axis shift in Turkey’s foreign policy.

He continued by noting that this had more to do with Turkey’s location, which serves as a geopolitical and cultural bridge between the East and the West.

Situated between Asia and Europe, Turkey has been seeking to join the EU for decades.

The country has the longest history with the union on the road to accession, including the longest process of negotiations. Ankara signed an association agreement with the EU in 1964, which is usually regarded as a first step to eventually become a candidate. Applying for official candidacy in 1987, Turkey had to wait until 1999 to be granted the status of a candidate country. For the start of the negotiations, however, Turkey had to wait for another six years until 2005, a uniquely long process compared with other applicants.

Turkish officials have been urging EU counterparts to revive the acceleration process and shore up cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, migration and more.

‘Turkic nations seem to support initiative’

Meanwhile, Tomar noted that the initiative has especially impacted the relations between Turkic states in Asia.

Referring to Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh crisis, Tomar noted that a majority of the people in Turkic states hailed solidarity and argued that their countries should also have supported Azerbaijan’s endeavor to liberate its lands that have been occupied by Armenia for three decades.

“The idea that the ‘one nation, two states’ rhetoric used by Turkey and Azerbaijan should be revised as ‘one nation, six states’ has been defended in the region (among Turkic states),” Tomar said, adding that it was a critical development.

The rector also noted that there has recently been a surge in the number of diplomatic visits, as Çavuşoğlu visited Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, while Defense Minister Hulusi Akar visited Kazakhstan to sign military deals. Kazakhstan’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister also visited Turkey last week and an online Turkic Council Summit will be held on March 31.

Cooperation in the education field has also significantly increased, while more Turkic states have started ramping up efforts to use the Latin alphabet and cooperation agreements have been made with Ahmet Yesevi University in Kazakhstan and Manas University in Kyrgyzstan.

For instance, the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB) provides scholarships for students to study in Turkey, while the Turkic Council, the Yunus Emre Institute, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) and others play a positive role in the region.

But Turkey’s efforts are not limited to the Turkic states in Central Asia, according to Tomar, who noted that Ankara has also been enhancing its relations with China, Russia, India and South Korea.

Work done despite COVID-19 pandemic

Many of the meetings planned as part of the initiative had to be canceled as a result of the pandemic in 2020, but Ankara has still managed to get a great deal of work done regardless of the situation. The Foreign Ministry has established a series of institutional mechanisms to boost ties with Asia, based on a holistic and comprehensive approach, diplomatic sources told Daily Sabah.

A deputy minister level coordination committee, an implementation committee responsible for tracking and execution of the decisions made by the committee and a New Asia Coordinator were assigned to manage the operation of institutional mechanisms, organization and sharing of data, and ensure coordination with businesspeople and academic circles, according to sources. Furthermore, two-year action plans, including details about activities that need to be prioritized, were also prepared with the countries included in the initiative.

The country has also been dynamically participating in regional initiatives and chaired the Asian Parliamentary Assembly (APA), the Developing Eight (D-8), the Economic Cooperation Organization and the Asian Cooperation Dialogue (AID).

Turkey also considers the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) a key organization in the region and applied to become a sectoral dialogue partner for ASEAN in 2015. Its application was accepted on Aug. 5, 2017, during the 50th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting held in the Philippines.

There are also projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with China and various trade relations with many other regional countries. Bilateral visits have also increased in recent years.

Recently on March 25, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi traveled to Turkey and discussed bilateral relations with his Turkish counterpart and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Atlı noted that embracing a holistic strategy was one of the most critical features of the initiative because Asian countries are all different from one another.

“These countries are completely different in every sense. For instance, Cambodia, Laos, China, Japan all have different systems and ideologies,” he said.

Since 2003, Turkey’s relations with Asia have seen an upward trend, as the country has established 17 new missions, including five embassies and 12 consulates in the region, with 30 embassies in Asia in total.

“Turkey already had dialogue with Asia, but until now, all actors, including the bureaucracy, civil society and the business actors, had been carrying out activities independently and nobody had any idea about what the other side had been up to,” Atlı said, adding that Asia Anew is an initiative that combines all actors under a single umbrella through mutual synergy.

The initiative also allows the other side to get a more clear sense of the current state of relations, prevents confusion and allows both sides to draw up a road map to come up with mutually beneficial policies, according to Atlı.

“The initiative seeks to deepen and diversify the relations with Asian countries, with whom we have close historical and cultural bonds, through scientific, educational, cultural, arts and sports projects,” diplomatic sources said.

Trade and economic relations need to be strengthened

One of the most important goals of Turkey is to balance the trade deficit with Asia, Atlı said, adding that this would be possible by facilitating more balanced economic relations with Asian countries, which includes attracting investors.

“What really matters is for Turkey to utilize the technological advancements in these countries to further boost its own capacity in these fields,” he added.

Diplomatic sources also noted that the work that is being done as part of the initiative prioritizes balancing trade with Asia and boosting reciprocal investments.

The ministry expects to strengthen cooperation in value-added sectors like advanced technology, tourism, finance and defense industry sectors, infrastructure, transportation, logistics and energy projects, as part of the initiative, according to sources.

Asia Anew to bolster Turkey’s hand in regional humanitarian issues

Besides its economic and political goals, the initiative could also enable Turkey to have more say in ongoing humanitarian issues in the region, like the Rohingya crisis in Southeast Asia, the Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India, and the rights violations against the Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.

Turkish officials have been closely following the situation in China’s Xinjiang region and have noted that Ankara’s “utmost priority is that Uyghur Turks are treated well.”

The Foreign Ministry also previously said that Turkey is concerned about the human rights situation in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, adding that Ankara expected Uyghurs to be treated as equal citizens of China.

Regarding the Rohingya crisis, Turkey has provided the greatest amount of humanitarian aid to refugees living in camps in Bangladesh since the Myanmar military crackdown in 2017.

“We’ve seen the U.S. and EU plans to impose sanctions against China, but it did not really have any impact, because the only way to take constructive steps in such issues is through dialogue,” Atlı said, adding that one of the favorable features of the Asia Anew Initiative is that it involves the academics, bureaucracy, diplomacy, the business world, civil society and much more.

He continued by highlighting the importance of nondiplomatic actors in forging better ties, as he said Asian officials already have diplomatic ties with the country. Strengthening bonds through these actors may greatly contribute to and complement already-existing diplomatic initiatives, the expert said.

Tomar also agreed, saying that a large trade volume and a strong economy may impact political relations in the long run and act as deterrents in humanitarian crises.

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