TOKYO Despite the fact that 95% of Turkey's territory is in Asia, the country has traditionally looked to Europe as its political and economic lodestar. In 1987, it applied to join what was then the European Economic Community. Ten years later it was declared eligible for European Union membership.
But after years of negotiations, Turkey remains outside the bloc. "Joining the EU is still a strategic target," Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent interview. "But there are realities. ... Only a quarter of the population now wants to join."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself appears to be veering toward the East. Last year he said Turkey was looking to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In May, he attended the Belt and Road Summit. Both of these are Chinese initiatives.
"The world's economic power is shifting to the East from the West at a rapid pace," Cavusoglu said. "The importance of Asia in the world economy is rising."
The Belt and Road Initiative, a massive international infrastructure project, is enhancing Turkey's status, Cavusoglu said, and with the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway completed, a route from China and Central Asia to Europe has opened. "We are an important route in transferring energy sources like natural gas and oil," Cavusoglu said. "We are, geopolitically, a very important country."
He hastened to point out that Turkey's diplomacy is multilateral. "We are not trying to substitute our relationship with the EU [for] one [with] Asia," he said. "In the same way, our relationship with the EU should not become a hindrance in our relationship with Asia. We will look to strike a balance between the East and the West."
MEDIATING ROLE The foreign minister also spoke at length about the diplomatic crisis between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, saying Turkey is willing to play a mediating role.
In early June, four Arab nations -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt -- took the unprecedented step of cutting ties with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorist groups. Doha denies this. The quartet also imposed a land, sea and air blockade. In addition, the three Gulf states ordered all Qataris out of their countries within 14 days and called for their citizens in Qatar to return home.
Cavusoglu said the decision came as "a big surprise" to Turkey, and said it is willing to talk directly with the countries involved and bring them to the negotiating table.
"We have friendly relationships with all these countries," he said. "We are advising them to get together, to sit down around the table. They need to talk to each other. They have to share in a sincere and candid manner, then we can all work on this issue, not through blockades and embargoes."
Cavusoglu stressed that Turkey is "not taking any sides," though the country has been supportive of Qatar since the dispute began, supplying it with goods amid the trade freeze with Saudi Arabia and its allies. It also has made attempts to ease tensions, with Erdogan speaking by phone with Saudi Arabia's King Salman and the country's new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
Qatar relies on imports for 90% of its food, most of which comes through Saudi Arabia. The blockade has imposed hardships on ordinary Qataris, drawing complaints from the Turkish foreign minister. Blockades are "wrong from a humanitarian standpoint," Cavusoglu said. "When you look, for example, at the Bahrainis working in Qatar, there are 16,000 of them making a living. What have they done?"
While Cavusoglu said he hoped for a quick resolution of the dispute, he admitted it is likely to take time. "We were hoping to overcome this issue before the end of Ramadan, but it is already at the end" of the Islamic holy month, he said. "Emotions are still there. We need to take some measures to de-escalate first, have confidence through the [de-escalating] measures and engage in talks, step by step," he said.