Turkey’s Policy towards Taiwan: From Cross-Strait Relations to Syrian Refugees

Turkey’s Policy towards Taiwan: From Cross-Strait Relations to Syrian Refugees

Turkey’s Policy towards Taiwan: From Cross-Strait Relations to Syrian Refugees

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) expressed her condolences to people affected by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey’s third-largest city Izmir back in October 2020. Subsequently, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission in Ankara (駐土耳其代表處)—Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Turkey—donated USD $70,000 to victims of the Izmir earthquake. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thanked the countries and organizations that reached out to Turkey after the Izmir quake by posting pictures of their flags—including Taiwan’s flag—in his tweet on October 31. However, the tweet was later taken down and replaced with a new one that did not include the Taiwan flag. In response, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) said Chinese authorities had pressured the Turkish government to take down the tweet. Beijing rejected the claim that it had pressured Ankara to remove the Turkish president’s tweet containing Taiwan’s flag, but expressed its appreciation for Turkey’s adherence to Beijing’s “One-China Principle” by deleting the tweet. This incident has shown the extent of Chinese influence on Turkey’s approach towards Taiwan.

Turkish Policy Towards Taiwan

Turkey has considered the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole representative of China since August 1971. [1] Turkey closed its embassy in Taipei in 1971 and opened a new one in Beijing in 1972. Turkey and Taiwan reopened their representative offices in the early 1990s and intensified their economic relations without facing a strong reaction from China. However, starting in 2000, Ankara adopted a more Beijing-leaning policy, which had implications for its relations with Taiwan. When Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP, 民進黨) became president in 2000, cross-Strait relations became strained, and thus Turkey did not want to be seen as being too close to the Chen administration. [2]

Beijing does not usually object to other countries having economic relations with Taiwan unless it involves a formal agreement. However, Turkish decision-makers were not well familiarized with the nuances and delicate balance of cross-Strait relations, and due to its deepening political and economic relations with Beijing, Ankara preferred to stay away from Taipei during this period. Nonetheless, Ankara has tried to develop economic relations with Taipei as long as there was no objection from Beijing under the “One-China Principle.”

After the Kuomintang (KMT, 國民黨) came to power in 2008 under the leadership of President Ma Ying-Jeou (馬英九), Taiwan’s relations with China grew decidedly closer based on the Ma administration’s commitment to the so-called “1992 Consensus” (九二共識). [3] Ma drew up a road map in 2010 to improve relations with Turkey and reassured Ankara that advancements in bilateral relations would not upset Beijing. Taipei specified four main policy priorities to improve relations with Turkey, consisting of: (1) a visa-waiver agreement; (2) direct flights between Taiwan and Turkey; (3) opening an economic and cultural office in Istanbul; and (4) a free trade agreement (FTA). While the Ma administration successfully achieved the first two targets, the plans for opening a Taipei representative office in Istanbul and signing an FTA with Turkey were not realized.

When the DPP came to power again following President Tsai Ing-wen’s election in May 2016, cross-Strait relations took a turn for the worse, due in part to the DPP’s rejection of the PRC’s “One-China Principle.” As a result, Beijing adopted a more assertive strategy to curb Taipei’s relations with other countries. China’s changing position regarding Taiwan has caused concern in Turkey. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) have formed an anti-West coalition and view China and Russia as balancing powers against leading Western countries such the United States and Germany. At this juncture, the AKP-MHP government has been very keen to keep friendly relations with Beijing, and has thus adopted a more reluctant stance towards Taiwan and ignored human rights concerns regarding China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.

Deepening Economic Partnership

Bilateral trade has become the backbone of the economic partnership between Turkey and Taiwan. Annual trade numbers had fluctuated between USD $1.5 billion and USD $2.2 billion from 2011 to 2019 according to the Turkey Statistic Institute (TurkStat). The bilateral trade volume reached its highest level of USD $2.2 billion in 2017, but dramatically dropped to USD $1.5 billion in 2019. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA), the bilateral trade volume in the first eleven months of 2020 was around USD $1.3 billion. The emerging problem of Turkey’s trade with Taiwan is that it is highly imbalanced—to the detriment of Ankara. In fact, according to MOEA, Taiwanese exports to Turkey comprised USD $1.6 billion of the USD $1.8 billion in bilateral trade in 2017.

Considering Taiwan’s competitive advantage, Ankara wants to compensate for this imbalance through tourism and Taiwanese foreign direct investment (FDI) into Turkey. For instance, Taiwan Cement Corporation (TCC, 台灣水泥) bought 40 percent of Turkey’s OYAK Cement Group shares, at USD $1.1 billion, in October 2018. As of 2019, Taiwan’s commercial banks, security firms, and fund management companies have invested around USD $4.5 billion in Turkey. Taiwanese FDI to Turkey has signaled the potential for future economic cooperation between Ankara and Taipei.

Yaser Tai-hsiang Cheng (鄭泰祥), representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission in Ankara, said in July 2019 that Turkey and Taiwan are cooperating on culture, healthcare, medicine, agriculture, science, and development of smart cities. According to Cheng, Taiwan wants to use Turkey as a regional investment hub for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. However, the two countries’ continuing double-taxation problem has shifted Taiwanese investors away from Turkey and towards Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, which are also investment hubs within the European Union (EU) customs union with lower production costs. Indeed, avoiding double taxation and developing investment facilitation agreements are concrete priorities for both sides. Furthermore, Ankara’s additional customs duties of up to 25 percent on 78 categories have had immediate adverse effects on Taiwanese exports to Turkey since February 2018. In addition to growing economic ties, people-to-people exchanges between Taiwan and Turkey are also blossoming. In 2019, around 100,000 Taiwanese visited Turkey, while several thousand Turkish nationals visited Taiwan.

Reaching a bilateral FTA would further strengthen economic relations between Turkey and Taiwan. As a member of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Taiwan has already signed FTAs with various countries in the Indo-Pacific. Taipei is also interested in signing an Economic Cooperation Agreement (ECA) with Turkey to expand bilateral economic ties. However, reaching an FTA would require both Taipei and Ankara to overcome the “China factor.” Given the tense circumstances in cross-Strait relations, Taiwan’s desire for signing an ECA with Turkey is unlikely to be realized in the near term. Furthermore, as a member of the EU customs union, Turkey will likely follow a parallel course with the EU on the issue of ECA talks with Taiwan. This means that progress on the EU-Taiwan ECA talks could positively impact Turkey-Taiwan FTA talks.

Taiwanese Aid to Syrian Refugees

In recent years, Taiwan has adopted an active strategy to aid Syrian refugees living in Turkey, which has hosted around 4 million Syrians since 2012. In June 2020, the Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission in Ankara launched a humanitarian assistance effort to help Syrian refugees in Turkey fight COVID-19. Taiwan’s representative office distributed 100,000 Taiwanese-made surgical masks, 7,500 pairs of gloves, and 2,100 head covers to the Syrian refugees living in Turkey’s southern provinces of Kilis and Hatay. In addition, a Taiwan-funded civic center on the border between Turkey and Syria was completed in October 2020. The Taiwan-Reyhanli Center for World Citizens in Hatay serves the Turkish government—as well as non-governmental organizations and enterprises from around the world—by providing logistical support for aid campaigns for Syrian refugees. The Taiwanese government and private sector have committed to supporting the project.

In November 2020, Taiwan also donated a total of USD $500,000 to education programs supported by the Global Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (D-ISIS Coalition) to help students resume formal education in northeast Syria. The donation was made during a virtual ceremony attended by Hsiao Bi-khim (蕭美琴), representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in the United States, and Ingrid Larson, managing director of American Institute in Taiwan. However, the Turkish government considers northeast Syria—controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—as a terrorist hub, because the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the dominant actor within the SDF, are viewed as the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Therefore, Taiwanese aid to northeast Syria will likely anger Turkey, particularly if there is no policy coordination between Ankara and Washington towards the Syrian Kurdish region.

Turkey’s Taiwan Policy under the Trump Administration

Generally speaking, the status of Turkey’s relationship with Taiwan is a political problem between Ankara and Beijing. Unlike the Xinjiang Uyghur issue, Ankara and Beijing have never faced a downturn in the relationship over Taiwan. However, some problems between Ankara and Beijing have emerged due to the deterioration of cross-Strait relations. After the DPP came to power in 2016, Beijing has adopted a more hardline stance towards Taiwan, including by preparing for potential unification by a military intervention.

It is not clear whether the incoming Biden administration will continue the Trump administration’s tough stance towards Beijing on trade issues and Taiwan. It is highly likely that President Joe Biden will be more critical of China’s human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Following Beijing’s crackdown and implementation of a national security law for Hong Kong, President Biden will likely continue US political support for democratic Taiwan. Thus, the chaotic relationship between Beijing and Washington could potentially affect Ankara’s approach to Taipei in a positive or negative manner. After the recent US CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions imposed on Turkey over its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, Turkish-American relations have moved to a critical juncture. If Washington and Ankara can overcome their differences on the Russian S-400 missile, then Turkey will have freer hands in its relations with both China and Taiwan. If not, the AKP-MHP government will likely seek to use China as an alternative economic hub against the United States and the EU and will continue to adopt a more Beijing-leaning approach towards Taiwan. In conclusion, further development of bilateral relations between Ankara and Taipei will depend upon the status of cross-Strait relations and the evolving nature of the “Taiwan question” between Beijing and Washington.

The main point: While economic ties between Turkey and Taiwan and cooperation on humanitarian issues have grown in recent years, the future of this relationship will depend on the state of cross-Strait relations.

[1] Selçuk Çolakoğlu, Turkey and China: Political, Economic, and Strategic Aspects of the Relationship, London: World Scientific, 2021.

[2] Chien‐Min Chao, “National Security vs. Economic Interests: Reassessing Taiwan’s Mainland Policy under Chen Shui‐bian,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 13, No.41, 2004, 687-704.

[3] Christopher R. Hughes, “New Trends in Taiwan’s China Policy,” The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2009, 59-74.