On February 24, 2015, the German Marshall Fund of the United States held a discussion on Turkey’s relations with Asia. The discussion opened with an introduction from Barry Lowenkron, chief operating officer of the German Marshall Fund, followed by remarks from the main speaker, Dr. Altay Atlı of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. Dr. Joshua Walker, a GMF transatlantic fellow in the Asia program, delivered a response to Dr. Atlı’s remarks and moderated the subsequent question-and-answer session. In his introduction Lowenkron, drawing upon his experience in the U.S. government, emphasized that Turkey is both a European and Asian power.
Dr. Atlı opened his remarks by outlining Turkey’s bilateral relations in Asia, with an emphasis on China, Korea, and Japan. Trade and technology form the basis of Turkey's relationships with these industrial powerhouses, said Dr. Atlı, whereas religion is integral to Turkey’s relations with Pakistan and many nations in Southeast Asia. The issue of Uighur Muslims in China is an example of how Turkey's economic and religious interests can be at odds, he noted, but its economic interests usually take precedence. Turkey's economic ties with East Asia have increased significantly in the past decade and China is currently competing with the EU and US to supply a new missile defense system to Turkey.
Dr. Atlı also discussed Turkey’s ambition to be a regional power through its involvement in multilateral organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). He also noted shortfalls in Turkey’s capacity to transform its ambitions into reality in Asia and said that serving as G20 host was an important opportunity for Turkey to realize its ambitions of being a player on a larger stage. In concluding, Dr. Atlı affirmed that Turkey has an Asian agenda, but said that this did not detract from its primary focus on Europe and the Middle East.
In his response to Dr. Atlı, Dr. Walker noted Turkey is much more interested in Asia today than it was fifteen years ago. Turkey's contemporary belief that Asia offers an alternative model for development to the West, said Dr. Walker, has parallels to Ottoman modernization efforts that were inspired by Japan's Meiji restoration. Arguing that an Asian 'pivot' need not be zero-sum, Dr. Walker emphasized that East Asian nations are attracted to Turkey precisely because of its important role in Europe and the Middle East. Dr. Walker encouraged Turkey to cooperate more with the United States and Europe on policy toward Asia in order to more effectively leverage its unique geostrategic location.
The event, which was attended by a diverse and distinguished group of foreign policy professionals, concluded with a lively discussion between participants and the two speakers that touched on the role of Islam and business in Turkey's foreign policy, the potential impact of TTP and TTIP, and Europe's enduring centricity in Turkey's external relations.