The oceans, history and very different cultures have separated The Philippines and Turkey for obvious enough reasons, but it is the less obvious but nevertheless very compelling realities of the 21st century that ought to create a history making Phil-Turk partnership.
The economies of both nations have grown at incredibe rates in recent yeas. At the end of 2017, President Duterte’s first full year in office, The Philippines had an economic growth rate of 6.9%, nearly tied with the much smaller Laos at 7% for the fastest growing economies in East/South East Asia. At the close of what many falsely described as a geopolitically turbulent 2017 for Turkey, the economy grew a staggering 11.1% and currently boasts the fourth fastest growing economy in the world.
Considering the remarkably different topography of the two nations, both have sustained their economic growth in surprisingly similar ways. For both countries, infrastructural investment has been a key factor. In The Philippines, President Duterte’s ‘Build, Build, Build!’ programme has seen the country working on the construction of new highways and roads, airports, shipping ports, energy facilities, mass transit heavy and light rail, new buildings and spaces, as well as projects to improve micro-environments throughout the country. All the while, The Philippines has become the number one investment spot on the planet according to a recent survey from US News and World Report.
In Turkey, President Erdogan has overseen massive rejuvenation, constructions and ‘clean-up’ projects throughout Turkey’s large cities while with the help of Ankara’s Russian partner, Turkey’s first ever nuclear power plant will be online by 2023. Additionally the Russo-Turkish Turk Stream 2 pipeline looks to create a new efficient route for Russian gas into the eastern Mediterranean and ultimately to all of Europe.
While the internal political systems of Turkey and The Philippines are operationally quite different, both President Erdogan in Turkey and President Duterte in The Philippines have worked against tremendous odds to change the geopolitical trajectory of their countries. Prior to Erdogan, Turkey was a rather inert member of a wider western alliance. Today, Turkey works closely with Russia and Iran, while Ankara’s participation in China’s One Belt–One Road trading initiative remains strong and is growing stronger.
Likewise, under Duterte, The Philippines has abandoned its post-colonial mentality of effective servitude to the US and is accruing partnerships with both the Chinese and Russian superpowers as well as becoming a vital partner with fellow ASEAN members. Both Duterte and Erdogan have worked to put historic disputes to rest. In the case of Erdogan, what could have been another Russo-Turkish war at the end of 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet on the Syrian border, turned into an opportunity to ultimately embark on a wholesale reevaluation of ties which has led to an important partnership for peace through prosperity. In The Philippines, Duterte’s renunciation of hostility as a means of solving the disputes in the South China Sea has led both countries to engage in what Duterte calls a “co-ownership” endeavour wherein China and The Philippines will work cooperatively to exploit the resources of the Sea.
While The Philippines and Turkey have both pivoted towards ‘eastern’ partners at the expense of their old stagnant western alliances, crucially neither Erdogan nor Duterte have shut doors to the west, they have simply both insisted that western partners treat Turkey and The Philippines with respect. Thus far, this has led to western countries rallying towards the PKK aligned YPG terrorist group (the PKK being Turkey’s version of the NAP), while western countries continue to make weapons sales to The Philippines difficult, leading Duterte to turn to other partners for security matters, including to Russia. Likewise, while both Erdogan and Duterte remain popular at home, in the west, both democratically elected leaders are portrayed as ‘dictators’.
How to capitalism on the similarities?
The most logical step for The Philippines to take in order to turn the political and economic similarities between the two countries into something meaningful for both, is to spearhead an ASEAN-Turkey free trade agreement. Turkey already has a free trade agreement with the even more geographically remote Caribbean Community (CARICOM), while Turkey and South Korea have bilateral free trade agreements. An ASEAN-Turkey free trade agreement would open up large and important international markets to producers and consumers on each side of the agreement and for The Philippines in particular, it could allow for a widely increased trade regiment to eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern markets to which The Philippines has far too little connectivity.
Turkey is fast turning into an economic colossus and in future years will almost certainly be transformed from a net receiver of foreign investment into a country that itself invests in developing economies.In respect of the Middle East and Africa, this is already the case.
The Philippines and Turkey could work on bilateral businesses exchange initiatives wherein Turkish businesses are allowed to set up base in The Philippines and Philippine businesses and business people are allowed to do the same in Turkey. This could be a boost to the growth potential of medium sized businesses in both countries and would likely pave the way for future large scale investment projects as both economies become more geo-economically assertive over the next 5 to 10 years.
President Duterte has made it a priority to diversify the security partnership of The Philippines, something which was for decades necessary due to the lopsided US-Philippine security relationship. The result has been Russia gifting the country free weapons, Japan gifting free emergency vehicles, while at the end of 2017, China and the Philippines signed a defence industry pact, which itself has helped pave the way for historic agreements regarding a renunciation of hostilities in the South China Sea.
Some Filipinos are worried that Duterte is merely shifting one superpower umbrella, that of the US, to the increasingly joint superpower umbrella of China and Russia. These fears, many of which are talking points for the anti-Duterte yellow media are categorically misplaced as both Russia and China take a hands-off/respectful approach to security partnerships vis-a-vis what Duterte has referred to as the ‘strings attached’ model of the US and its western partners.
That being said, the more diversity one has in terms of security partnerships – the better. Turkey has sown a readiness to expand its security partnerships and cooperative projects to the wider global south. For Turkey, this has meant increased involvement in Africa, including in Sudan where Ankara is re-building the old Ottoman port at Suakin. As China and The Philippines look forward to intensified trading relations in respect of One Belt–One Road and as Turkey pivots its trading endeavours towards One Belt–One Road, a Phil-Turk security cooperation arrangement could be economically and geopolitically beneficial for both sides.
Whatever one’s view of the recent events in the Middle East, Turkey’s army is now more battle hardened than at any time since the early 20th century and its therefore an asset to any would be partner, whether Qatar, Sudan or possibly The Philippines. Likewise, as the NPA insurgency in The Philippines operates on a similar basis to the PKK insurgency in Turkey, both countries could share their expertise on how to fight a similar threat. With President Duterte keen on making peace with Moro rebels in Mindanao, a goal which looks increasingly likely due to Duterte’s federalist approach, it would be a great geopolitical asset for both countries to see Muslim majority Turkey forming a security partnership with a Catholic majority Philippines that itself has fought both secular and Islamist terrorists in recent decades, but which under Duterte is close to curtailing the dangers of both.
Finally, a Phil-Turk security cooperation partnership would help balance Manila’s historic relations with the US against currently important security ties with Russia and China. Turkey is clearly embracing its Eurasian history as is demonstrable in respect of its eastern pivot, but as a country that is still technically part of the NATO alliance, the US could say little about a Phil-Turk relationship without further embarrassing itself over the ‘loss’ of subservient leaders in both Manila and Ankara.
Finally there is the power of culture. Because Turks and Filipinos have had little exposure to one another’s culture, this is all the more reason to set up cross-cultural events throughout major cities in both countries. The power of cultural exchange is a vital tool in convincing ordinary people that there is something at stake in further bilateral economic, security and geopolitical cooperation. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain from intensifying currently negligible cultural ties between The Philippines and Turkey.
At a personal level, as two leaders that western elites love to hate, both Duterte and Erdogan would probably have a great deal to say to one another. Both men are very different in their approach to politics, but in spite of different political styles, both have become towering figures in the politics of their nation. As both countries grow economically and form partnerships with many of the same nations, including Russia and China, this should be the moment for both counties to seize the moment and begin working towards a partnership that could be greatly beneficial to both sides.