Bangladesh- Turkey Relations: Recent Trends and Directions
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Relations between Bangladesh and Turkey can be traced back to the medieval periods. Both of them have strong historical and cultural roots, dating back to the late Ottoman period and decades before the founding of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The Muslims of South Asia, including the Bengalis, supported Turkey during the First World War (1914-1918) and the Turkish War of Liberation (1919-1922).
However, Turkey diplomatically and even militarily supported Pakistan during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971. Following the war, relations remained very complicated as Turkey continued to support Pakistan. Turkey officially recognized Bangladesh on February 22, 1974, at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit, which was held in Lahore. In 1976, the Turkish Embassy in Dhaka was opened. The Embassy of Bangladesh in Ankara opened its gate five years later, in 1981. Eventually, the relationships between these two countries started flourishing and growing.
A new dimension emerged during the last decade, particularly over the last five years. This period is marked by a growing partnership between Turkey and Bangladesh following then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‟s visit to Dhaka in 2010. The Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also reciprocated by visiting Turkey the following year. Those visits served the formation of the Turkey-Bangladesh Business Council and the development of a broad agenda for diversifying cooperation. This has paved the way for strategic and highly warm relations between the two countries. Bangladesh has been cultivating relations with a grand vision of diversifying its foreign relations which signifies the criticality of this bilateral relationship.
From 2012 to 2016, Turkey-Bangladesh relations were strained as a result of Turkey’s strong condemnation of the International Crimes Tribunal’s (Bangladesh) indictment, conviction and execution of leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, the country’s largest Islamist party. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which adopted a political Islamist ideology in 2011, forsaking its liberal democratic stance, has provided support to the Muslim Brotherhood network across the world, including the Jamaat-e-Islami Party in Bangladesh. Therefore, AKP leaders‟ reactions to this tribunal were likely a function of their solidarity with the Muslim Brotherhood, and not consistent with Turkey’s established Kemalist foreign policy tradition.
The second source of friction in the bilateral relationship was the Gülen Movement‟s activities in Bangladesh. After declaring the Gülen Movement a terrorist organization in May 2016, the ruling AKP put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to ban it, close its businesses and institutions, and deport its activists. The Turkish Embassy in Dhaka designated the Turkish Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TBCCI) and the International Turkish Hope School (ITHS), the latter having been established in Dhaka in 1996 and grown to six branches with 2,000 students, 33 Turkish and 210 local teachers as Gülenist institutions. TBCCI closed in late 2016. Turkish Ambassador Devrim Öztürk asked the Bangladeshi government to hand over ITHS to the Turkey-backed Maarif Foundation. However, the Bangladeshi Foreign Ministry demurred, having regarded the request as a violation of diplomatic norms.
Yet, despite the political setbacks experienced during the period 2012-2016, Bangladesh’s then State Minister for Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam left the door open for normalization. The reciprocal visits of Bangladeshi President Md. Abdul Hamid and his Turkish counterpart 2 BinaliYıldırım in 2017 are indicative of the healing of the relationship. Bangladesh Ambassador to Turkey AllamaSiddiki recently described the current state of the relationship as the best it has ever been.
Turkey’s response to the Rohingya refugee emergency has served as a vehicle to put the relationship back on a stable and productive footing. The Turkish government has mounted an active diplomatic campaign on behalf of the Rohingya and in support of Bangladesh in the United Nations, the G20, MIKTA (a middle power grouping consisted of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia), the OIC, and other multilateral fora.
This healing continues to flourish and took a leap recently. In 2019, Turkey launched its “Asia Anew” initiative. The main goal of “Asia Anew” is to boost the country’s cooperation with Asian countries. The initiative includes diverse areas, including defence, trade, investment and culture. Apparently, Turkey has renewed its activity in Asia, this renewed activism results from structural changes at the global level and the ideological drives behind AKP‟s foreign policy. The increasing complications between Turkey and the West, particularly with the United States and the European Union, and the ongoing clash for primacy within the Muslim world has moved Turkey away from its traditional ally, the West and the neighbouring Islamic countries. On the other hand, if Turkey improves its relations with Russia it will create an asymmetric condition increasing Turkey’s dependency on Moscow, in other words, Moscow’s influence over Ankara. In this case, Turkey has become more interested to extend influence to regions with less historical issues such as Asia.
In this regard, Turkey is keen to foster its relations with Bangladesh due to its strategic importance and a booming economy. Turkey’s economy is growing based on a sustainable development model, Bangladesh seems to have a special place in Turkey’s outreach to Asia. Turkey’s competition with Saudi-led block for primacy within the Islamic world also helped make Bangladesh a key candidate to sway within its sphere of influence. In South Asia, after India, Dhaka is Ankara’s second-highest trade partner, with a total trade volume of USD 1 billion in 2019 before the pandemic.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, for instance, noted, “Bangladesh is one of Turkey’s key partners in the Asia Anew‟ initiative, with its vibrant economy and young population.” Bangladesh’s foreign minister recently said the country could be an excellent economic market for Turkey because of its large population and strategically important location between two emerging Asian powers, China and India. Certainly, Bangladesh would be prioritized to attract economic cooperation and foreign direct investment from Turkey. Their bilateral trade volume reached $936 million in 2018, with the ready-made garment sector taking the lead.
Further, President Erdogan expressed to extend Turkey’s defence industrial base by boosting arms sales to USD 25 Billion by 2023. Bangladesh seems to be a critical market for the Turkish defence industry in the upcoming days. Turkey has already delivered the Otokar Cobra light armoured vehicle to the Bangladesh Army in 2013 and secured USD 1 billion contracts for 680 light armoured vehicles in 2017. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute, two-way trade reached $858 million in 2018. The textile industry has been a lucrative source of bilateral trade, as the Turkish carpet industry relies extensively on Bangladeshi jute. In March 2019, Bangladesh signed a contract with a Turkish company, ROKETSAN. This seeks to procure medium-range guided multiple rocket launchers. Various military exercises training programs and further strengthen the defence ties between the two brother states.
Bangladesh-Turkey signed a military training agreement in 2004; with this, their defence cooperation progressed. In recent years, Bangladesh has purchased military equipment and arms from public and private Turkish defence companies. Defence links between the two countries have been further strengthened through training programs and military exercises. The recent visit of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in the inauguration of the new embassy compound in Dhaka has been marked successful and aspiring. The visit also shed light on the increasing interests in expanding its foreign policy towards South Asia, particularly Bangladesh. Bangladesh seems to be very welcoming since always.
Despite the complications during 2012-2016, Turkey-Bangladesh relations have become considerably warm and friendly. Now, these two newly emerging economies are into developing more and more cooperation with each other. This will require that Turkey and Bangladesh find ways to boost people-to-people contacts and invigorate FDI. Even in the area of trade, there seem to be obstacles to reaching the desired targets the two sides have set. However, if Ankara and Dhaka go to bilateral relations with a view to developing a comprehensive partnership, they might be able to leverage their increasing cooperation in the defence sector to stimulate economic activity in other areas. The next five years seem to be very crucial in determining whether this is likely, or even possible. From Bangladesh perspective, it is a great opportunity to strengthen relations between two countries on three specific grounds: diversification of Bangladesh’s defence and foreign policies for geopolitical and economic opportunities; South-South cooperation framework; and sharing experiences of Turkish development and strategic achievements