Turkey’s ties with south east Asia can be traced to the year 1565 when the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I sent an expedition to the Aceh Sultanate in present day Indonesia to protect the independent state from Portuguese subjugation. For centuries Ottoman Turkey protected Ache against attempted conquests by both the Portuguese and Dutch empires although ultimately, Aceh was conquered by the Dutch in 1903 during years of declining Ottoman leadership.
In the 21st century, Turkey looks to rekindle ties with the modern Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) as Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu heads to Singapore to observe the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting. Most crucially, the ASEAN-Turkey Trilateral Ministerial Meeting will take place during the summit as Ankara looks to develop ever closer ties with the bloc of nations which includes Singapore, Malaysia, The Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and Brunei.
The logical conclusion to the recently intensified Turko-ASEAN cooperation should be a free trading agreement between ASEAN and The Republic of Turkey. 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 could allow for a widely increased trade regiment to eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern markets to which some ASEAN members have far too little connectivity.
Furthermore, as Turkey continues to enjoy record economic growth, the rapidly growing and increasingly diverse economies of ASEAN would make for a healthy long-term sustainable trading partner with Turkey whose own economy continues to now only grow but to diversify in terms of development in new sectors and in terms of increased trade with partnerships from around the world, including with both China and Russia. Also, as multiple currencies of ASEAN and the Turkish Lira continue to experience similar trends owing both to parallel trends in high growth/high inflation Keynesian economic cycles which has been further augmented by a strong US Dollar – goods from Turkey and much of ASEAN remain incredibly competitive in each respective market.
In terms of security, Turkey also has a great deal to offer ASEAN. As part of President Erdogan’s goal of turning Turkey into a major military hardware manufacturer, ASEAN markets represent a major future market for Turkish military hardware. Likewise, with the threat of terrorism in parts of the ASEAN bloc serving as a constant reminder of the need to intensify anti-terror training and intelligence operations, Turkey’s recent success in fighting back terrorist groups including FETO, Daesh (ISIS) and the PKK could prove highly valuable particularly for The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Finally, ASEAN states contesting China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea can learn a vital lesson from Turkish history regarding a peaceful and Asian authored, owned and executed resolution to their own disputes. In 1841, the western powers effectively bullied Turkey into signing the London Straits Convention which while confirming the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty over the Straits, also prohibited any warships other than Ottoman ships from passing through the straits during war time. This had the desired effect of provoking further hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, all the while British and French ships had open access to all sides of the Mediterranean.
After the First World War, the victorious western powers attempted to remove Turkish sovereignty over the Turkish Straits by making them an international zone under no one state’s authority. Ataturk refused and as a result the 1936 Montreux Convention allowed for all nations with ports on the Black Sea to pass through the Turkish Straits in times of war or peace while foreign ships would be banned in war time. It is this convention which continues to govern the status of the Turkish Straits to this day.
In The South China Sea, Beijing wants essentially what Turkey wanted and got in the age of Ataturk. China has no desire to close the South China Sea to the wider world, let alone the ASEAN countries who contest sovereignty over parts of the Sea. Instead, China seeks to use its military might and traditional role as the major power of the region in order to ensure that foreign provocations from powers who do not border the Sea are not able to effectively colonise the South China Sea as the western powers attempted to colonise the Turkish Straits in the early 20th century.
By explaining how cooperation with regional powers rather than those of distant western Europe helped to strengthen Turkey’s own security and stability, the ASEAN states could learn a great deal about peaceful coexistence in the South China Sea from a modern Turkish state that for decades has lived peacefully with fellow nations with Black Sea fleets.
Taken in totality, there is a great deal that Turkey and ASEAN can offer one another in terms of trade, two-way investment, security cooperation, conflict resolution consultation and cultural exchange. A new major win-win partnership appears to be very much on the horizon.