Taiwan’s Deepening Relations with Turkey: Culture, Trade, and Technical Cooperation

Taiwan’s Deepening Relations with Turkey: Culture, Trade, and Technical Cooperation

Taiwan’s Deepening Relations with Turkey: Culture, Trade, and Technical Cooperation

As US-Turkish relations continue to deteriorate amid disagreements over the arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson in Turkey in October 2016, US tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum, and conflicting goals in Syria, Taiwan views both countries as strategic and economic partners and hopes they will resolve their dispute soon. “We have noted the recent discord between the United States and Turkey and hope that this diplomatic row will end soon,” Yaser Tai-hsiang Cheng (鄭泰祥), Representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission (駐土耳其代表處) in Ankara, said in an interview with the author of this article. [1]  

Thus far, Taiwan’s relationship with Turkey has not been negatively affected by rising tensions between Washington and Ankara. For Taiwan, its growing relations with Turkey represents an important opportunity to diversify and expand its unofficial relations as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to constrict Taiwan’s international space. “Turkey is an important and strategic country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and Taiwan certainly cannot ignore its deepening and diverse relationship with Turkey,” said Cheng, who previously served as Deputy Director General of the Europe division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and First Secretary and Deputy Counselor of Taipei’s Representative Office in the European Union and Belgium.  

Turkey had diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (ROC) until 1971. Nearly two decades after the breaking of diplomatic ties, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission was established in Ankara in 1993.  That same year, the Turkish government set up the Turkish Trade Office (駐台北土耳其貿易辦事處) in Taipei. Ankara, which has stressed its adherence to the One China policy, has nevertheless sought to expand bilateral cooperation with Taiwan in non-political fields. Today, Taiwan and Turkey agree in the importance of tourism, science and technology, agriculture, disaster management and humanitarian aid, education, culture, and religion, said Representative Cheng.  

Trade is a growing area in bilateral relations. In 2017, total bilateral trade between Taiwan and Turkey reached $1.83 billion, with Taiwan enjoying a trade surplus. Turkey imported $1.56 billion in goods from Taiwan, compared to $267.4 million in Turkish exports to Taiwan. In 2017, Taiwan was the eighth largest importer of Turkish steel, and its imports of textile raw materials and non-iron steel products from Turkey have increased significantly, said Cheng. Turkey and Taiwan rank as the 13th and 19th largest economies in the world, respectively, based on PPP.

Turkey is an important export market for Taiwanese goods. Turkey is the largest buyer of Taiwanese goods in the Middle East and, if viewed as part of Europe, then Turkey is also Taiwan’s sixth largest export market after Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Italy, and France, according to Cheng. Taiwan’s main exports to Turkey are panels, machinery, integrated circuits, solar cells, lathes, and plastics, he said. Major Taiwanese computer and electronics companies such as Acer and Asus also have an established presence in Turkey.  

Turkey’s economy and financial markets are reeling from high foreign debt and rising inflation. Ankara also faces a growing trade dispute with Washington. On August 10, 2018, the Trump Administration announced its decision to double duties on Turkish aluminum and steel to 20 percent and 50 percent respectively, further straining relations with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The overall impact of the Turkish economic crisis on Taiwan-Turkey bilateral trade remains to be seen, though Taiwanese companies are likely to be affected by Turkey’s economic crisis. Taiwan’s exports to Turkey, including computers and chemical raw materials, declined in May and June 2018 due to the Turkish lira’s depreciation, noted Representative Cheng.

Other challenges to bilateral trade include Ankara’s decision to levy tariffs on imports from countries, such as Taiwan, with whom it does not have a Free Trade Agreement. Turkey’s new tariffs announced in March 2018 could adversely affect Taiwan’s manufacturing sector, said the section chief of the Bureau of Foreign Trade in Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs. Taipei would like to sign an Economic Cooperation Agreement (ECA) with Turkey to expand bilateral economic ties, but Taiwan would need to overcome the China factor, said Taiwan’s representative.

Nevertheless, Representative Cheng sees great potential in enhancing science and technology cooperation between Taiwan and Turkey. Taiwan’s machine tools have displayed a considerable degree of importance to Turkey’s industrial development, he said. Taiwan’s comparative advantage in smart machines, information and communication technology, biomedicine, green energy, and modern agriculture are areas of future bilateral cooperation.  

Tourism is another arena that strengthens people-to-people ties. Turkey is a popular destination in the region for Taiwanese tourists, who flock to major cultural and historical sites in Istanbul. Since Turkish Airlines began direct flights from Istanbul to Taipei in 2015 and both governments agreed to a free e-visa arrangement in 2016, tourism between the two countries has increased. Nearly 80,000 tourists from Taiwan visited Turkey in 2016, up from 50,000 Taiwanese travelers in 2015. In addition, tens of thousands of Taiwanese transit through Turkey to reach Europe and Africa. Despite the Turkish economic crisis, Taiwanese tourists continue to visit Turkey, Cheng noted.

Taiwan and Turkey are also fostering educational exchanges and cross-cultural understanding. The Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission in Ankara hosts many cultural activities, such as teaching Chinese language and calligraphy to Turkish students. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ 2018 International Elite Leadership Seminar (2018亞非青年研習營) invited a group of 23 young people from North Africa and the Middle East, including Turkey, to visit Taiwan and learn about the local culture. Taiwan’s promotion of friendly cultural ties with Turkey comes amid broader outreach to the Muslim world, spurred in part by Taiwan government’s New Southbound Policy targeting Southeast Asian countries. Other programs include the 2018 Taiwan Muslim Youth Exchange Camp for Southeast Asian countries (2018年伊斯蘭青年交流研習班). Both governments offer scholarships to invite Turkish and Taiwanese students to study in each other’s countries.

Tsai Ing-wen’s Administration is also seeking to boost Taiwan’s attractiveness to Muslim tourists, particularly from Southeast Asia, in an effort to offset the precipitous drop in tourists from China. The number of halal-certified (Muslim dietary) restaurants and hotels and Muslim prayer rooms in public spaces in Taiwan have increased. Such national efforts to increase Taiwan’s friendliness towards Muslims may help boost tourism from Muslim countries, such as Turkey. The 2016 Global Muslim Travel Index ranked Taiwan as the seventh most Muslim-friendly place among non-Muslim countries.

In addition, the Taipei City Government wants to create a friendly atmosphere for its growing Muslim population, many of whom are immigrants from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Of Taiwan’s 260,000 Muslims, 200,000 are immigrants , according to government statistics. Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) acknowledged the contributions of Muslim domestic helpers, particularly those from Indonesia, in taking care of Taiwan’s elderly population. He wrote on Facebook, “We should sincerely appreciate what Muslim friends have contributed to Taiwan.”

Turkey is also helping to meet the needs of Taiwan’s Muslim population. Ankara has offered to work with Taipei City Government to build a new mosque in Taipei. Under President Erdoğan, Turkey has pursued an international mosque-building initiative –where it has built or plans to construct mosques in the United States, Russia, Albania, and the Philippines, among other countries- to enhance the country’s soft power and leadership in the Muslim world, drawing a distinction to the traditional religious role played by Saudi Arabia. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), in particular, has focused on restoring the long suppressed rights and freedoms of Muslims, according to Representative Cheng.  

A third mosque in Taipei is needed because the city’s largest mosque —the Taipei Grand Mosque near Da’an Park— is unable to accommodate the growing Muslim population, particularly during major Muslim festivals such as Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Last year on Eid al-Fitr, thousands of Indonesians gathered inside Taipei Main Station to celebrate the end of Ramadan. “Turkey views Taiwan as a country with freedom of religion, and Turkey is very pleased to have more in-depth exchanges on Islam with Taiwan,” said the Representative.  

The main point: Taiwan and Turkey have the potential to enhance bilateral cooperation in trade, science, and technology, and through the promotion of cultural and religious ties.

[1] Author’s interview on August 23, 2018.