Sri Lanka and Türkiye: Renewing an old friendship

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (L) addresses media as his Sri Lankan counterpart Gamini Lakshman Peiris watches in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Jan. 28, 2022. (AP Photo)

The Sri Lankan government has tasked the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute with a review of the country’s foreign relations. While officials have not yet come out with details, the review will include a reconsideration of Sri Lanka’s ties with various countries, in light of recent developments. The Executive Director of the LKI, Dr D. L. Mendis, has emphasised the need for a more robust foreign policy, observing that while “Sri Lanka comes first”, relations with the region, “especially India”, will have to be “a bit better.” In other words, while maintaining the country’s tradition of being a friend to all, it must prioritise its relations with its neighbourhood.

This is timely, both for Sri Lanka and its people. For too long, we have, as Dr SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda once noted, been made to feel like a junior partner. What the country needs is a foreign policy that is multidirectional: a policy which takes into account the big players as well as the small. Such a policy can be accused of being vague, obscure, and unrealistic. But Sri Lanka’s priority must be to engage with countries with which it has cooperated for so long. Instead of latching ourselves on to one bloc or another, it has to be more concrete, specific, and certainly forward-looking.

When assessing its relations with South Asia and its immediate neighbourhood, the country should thus be as ready to mend broken ties with traditional partners, like Japan, as to seek new friendships or consolidate friendships that have never been allowed to grow. Over the years, numerous delegations have been sent to regions like Central Asia. These have never been followed up. To quote Arshad Cassim, Sri Lanka’s pursuit of new bilateral relations has been “momentary in approach” and “driven by circumstances.” Far from winning friends, this has only served to distance us from them. It is in light of these developments that Sri Lanka needs to expand to other countries. Among them, Türkiye.

Türkiye is a complex country. It is also a growing giant. Though beset by various economic and political tensions, the country is picking up speed: its economy grew by 7.6% in the second quarter this year, driven by an expanding financial sector, strong domestic demand, rising exports, and burgeoning tourism. A year ago, it was assailed by inflation and a steep depreciation of its currency. Today, Goldman Sachs has raised its growth forecast for 2022 from a meagre 3.5% to a respectable 5.5%. This has been buttressed by a strong industrial base: manufacturing accounts for more than 20% of the economy, and its key industries include not just chemicals, but also motor vehicles. The country just unveiled its first electric car, the TOGG, with plans to increase annual production to 175,000 units.

Sri Lanka’s relations with Türkiye go back decades and centuries. Even though Ankara opened an Embassy in Colombo in 2013, formal diplomatic relations were established in as early as 1864. Trade between the two countries remains low if not negligible, running into around USD 150–200 million, but plans are underway to build on them. Tunca Özçuhadar, one-time Ambassador to Colombo and the Director General of Protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Ankara, has described Türkiye’s relations with the island as “completely friendly.” Türkiye is one of the few countries with which Sri Lanka has enjoyed warm ties throughout. In a number of sectors — not only trade, but also industry, defence, people-to-people, and cultural — there is scope to deepen these common interests.

Türkiye’s shift to Asia, and specifically to South Asia, is one of the more fascinating foreign policy developments of the last 25 years. The country’s economy is growing by leaps and bounds, and it has made this the centrepiece of its foreign policy. According to Temmuz Yigit Bezmez and Selma Bardakci of the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey, its outreach to the Asia-Pacific has become “a crucial part of its foreign policy diversification.” This marks a significant rupture in its external relations since the 20th century. On its founding in 1923, the country initially looked to the West. It sided with the US and Western Europe during the Cold War and joined NATO. These commitments guided its external relations for the next 50 years, gaining a new lease of life after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In the 1970s, it realised the limits of these engagements and began seeking new alliances. In 1978 Türkiye signed a “friendship agreement” with the Soviet Union, affirming “principles of good neighbourly and friendly cooperation” while remaining in NATO. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 enabled it to cement relations with Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Snubbed by its European partners and frustrated in its bid to join the EU, Türkiye looked at other regions. Among these was Asia. By the dawn of the new millenium, the continent’s prospects seemed limited. But by 2003, the year Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister, Türkiye had recognised the importance of Asia, especially South-East Asia and South Asia.

The country had reached out to South Asia before. In 1968, Foreign Minister İhsan Sabri Çağlayangil visited India. On his arrival Çağlayangil highlighted both countries’ commitment to democratic values. The joint declaration that led from the delegation highlighted India’s and Türkiye’s desire to form relations with as many countries as possible, “regardless of these countries’ social and political regimes” (Aslan 2022). However, Cold War geopolitics made it difficult for Türkiye to pursue these relations. The 11 September 2001 attacks and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan pushed the country to revisit these countries. A series of engagements with India hence followed. It was in this context that Prime Minister Erdogan visited Sri Lanka, two months after the December 2004 tsunami.

Erdogan’s visit was reciprocated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2008. Negotiations to establish formal diplomatic relations immediately ensued. Türkiye had been one of the first countries to recognise Sri Lanka upon its independence in 1948, yet it was only five years after Rajapaksa’s visit to Ankara that Türkiye established an Embassy in Colombo. These developments had a positive impact on bilateral trade: from USD 139 million in 2015, trade volumes between the two countries rose to USD 219 million in 2018. This was a period of expanding ties with South Asia as well: Türkiye reactivated relations with Bangladesh and Pakistan via areas such as defence, industry, and people-to-people ties. While ambitious in scope, these engagements have widened the potential for industrial and infrastructural cooperation: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s recent proposal to include Türkiye in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a case in point.

All these were captured in Türkiye’s official announcement of its shift to Asia, the Asia Anew Initiative, in 2019. Coming in seven years after Hillary Clinton’s declaration of the US’s Pivot to Asia and six years after Xi Jinping’s declaration of China’s One Belt One Road Initiative, the Asia Anew Initiative signals not just Asia’s geostrategic importance for major powers, but also its potential for up-and-coming players like Türkiye.

Sri Lanka is obviously playing a part here. Over the last few years, it has pursued a number of avenues to deepen bilateral relations, including a double taxation avoidance treaty. Yet while these have been justly commended, their limits too have been recognised. Türkiye’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, for instance, has admitted that while trade between the two countries is low, relations should be bolstered through sectors like tourism. Sri Lanka’s exports to Türkiye consist predominantly of tea; as former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris has acknowledged, if trade is to be meaningful for both sides, Sri Lanka needs to move away from commodity exports. This point has been echoed by his counterpart in Ankara, who has argued that it is pointless to base economic ties on “specialised products.” This calls for cooperation in sectors like agriculture, construction, and pharmaceuticals.

For the last 25 or so years, Sri Lanka has been pushed back by the notion that its relations with the world should be limited to its neighbourhood. Yet a country like Sri Lanka cannot be restricted to this region or that. It must seek new ground and establish new friendships. But to cement ties with the world beyond South Asia, it must employ professionals who can look into other regions and territories. Türkiye has been a reliable ally and a faithful friend. As Türkiye’s Ambassador in Colombo Demet Şekercioğlu recently put it, “Sri Lanka requires her friends more than ever before.” Sri Lanka has for far too long been at the receiving end of major power rivalries. Countries like Türkiye can help us diversify our foreign relations. As the island embarks on an overhaul of its foreign policy, then, it would do well to remember who its friends are, and what it should do to cultivate and keep them.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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