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Opinion

Erdogan will boost ties with Asia after election triumph

But Turkish president should take care, especially in playing the Muslim card

With more power in his hands, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan can extend his foreign policy into East Asia.   © Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan secured outright victory in elections last weekend to the newly constituted executive presidency that will concentrate more authority in his hands.

More powerful than any other leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, Erdogan is in a position to reach out far beyond his country's borders, including to East Asia.

After over 15 years as prime minister and president, he has made Turkey into a diplomatic and economic power in the Balkans, the Middle East, Central Asia and in parts of Africa. Turkish military bases have been established in Qatar and Djibouti.

And now as the West grow increasingly wary of him and his authoritarian ways, Erdogan will increasingly concentrate on his growing ties in Eurasia and Asia -- in particular with Russia, China and several other states including Malaysia and the Philippines.

The key to the success of Erdogan and of his AK Party, which emerged victorious in parliamentary polls held at the same time as the presidential vote, has always been the economy. Although the last few months have seen a plunge in the Turkish lira, which is down around 20% this year against the U.S. dollar, Turkey has been spared the doom scenario that many analysts have predicted. Gross domestic product expanded by 7% in the first quarter of 2018.

Many analysts still warn that this is unsustainable and a crisis may well come, pointing to high inflation (12% year-on-year in May), high debt levels and a growing current account deficit of 7% of GDP.

But Erdogan has always had a plan to keep Turkey afloat. As Western-dominated foreign investment began to dry up in 2014 because of the uncertainty of terrorism, a wide-ranging crackdown on political opponents, and the exodus of tourists -- Erdogan had already started looking to Russia, China and the Gulf States as alternatives.

In a significant move, Finansbank, one of the largest lenders, was sold in 2016 by its owner, the National Bank of Greece ,to Qatar-based QNB Group. This year came the sale of the Denizbank, another big bank, by its Russian majority shareholder, to Dubai-based Emirates NBD.

Despite the conflicts in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Erdogan's skillful maneuvering succeeded in securing both Russian and Gulf investors to become players in the Turkish banking and equity markets.

Erdogan's biographer Soner Cagaptay in his book, "The New Sultan," argues that the rise of Erdogan has been based on his use of economic geopolitics: After earlier courting the EU, he has now opened up to the Gulf States and China, not to mention Central Asia, where Turkish business groups have long been active.

This coupling of diplomacy with economic incentives for Turkish businesses abroad has helped Turkey increase influence in global affairs in the last decade. Erdogan is now ready to take this formula to South and East Asia.

So how will Erdogan look East? It will be more of the same but with a renewed focus on East Asia which has traditionally been beyond Turkey's reach. The relationship with China will be at the forefront.

Historically speaking, Turkey and China have had extremely poor relations because of Turkish support for the Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighur minority in western China. This intervention, which Beijing saw as interference in its internal affairs, almost resulted in a complete break in relations a decade ago.

But Ankara has since diluted its backing for the Uighurs because it needs Beijing as an economic and defense procurement partner. Turkish media have, for example, stopped attacking "Chinese oppression." With EU states and the U.S. increasingly reluctant to sell weapons to the authoritarian government in Ankara, Turkey is interested in buying Chinese missile defense systems, even if this means causing further damage to its position in the NATO alliance.

Xi and Erdogan share a strongman approach to politics that makes them natural partners.

Even further afield Erdogan still wants to project himself as a protector of minority Muslims in countries such as the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar. He now believes there is no contradiction between close ties with these governments and support for Muslim minorities. He thinks he can use economic ties -- and sometimes opportunities to buy arms -- to convince Asian leaders with Muslim minorities to go soft on restive Muslim subjects.

In Myanmar, for example, Turkey negotiated with the authorities to become the first foreign country to secure permission for diplomats and aid workers to support the beleaguered Muslim Rohingya people, many of whom have fled the country to escape repression. The approach -- which could also be applied on the Philippines and Thailand -- is all about using economic incentives and soft power to pacify the insurgents without alienating the host government.

Many Muslims of the region see Erdogan as a savior -- his official spokesperson has claimed that many Muslim countries are happy with Erdogan's election victory and Turkey's leadership role in the world.

Meanwhile, some governments in Asian Muslim-majority states, such as Malaysia, are unhappy with the strong -- and well-financed -- Saudi role in promoting Islam in the region, as Saudi-backed mosques often promote Islamist ideas. The new Malaysian leadership under Prime Minister Mohamed Mahathir is among those publicly supporting Erdogan's victory and entry into East Asian politics.

But Erdogan must take care over how he plays his cards, as his approach sometimes backfired when it was applied earlier in Africa, the Middle East and Europe.

Egypt, Algeria and Syria all accuse Turkey of political interference. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have even called Turkey part of an axis of evil in Arab affairs, with Qatar and Iran.

Meanwhile in Europe, Turkey's interference in the Turkish diaspora in Germany, Austria and Netherlands has brought restrictions on Turkish political appearances and a decline in relations with the European Union.

Erdogan has, in sum, managed to burn Turkey's historical bridges with the EU and the U.S. and alienated major Arab countries.

So his outreach to East Asian countries will not guarantee results. For example, in China, his most important Asian partner, he can never completely abandon the Turkic cause, despite the recent rapprochement with Beijing. The possibility of a future dispute remains.

Everything suggests that the Turkish president will need all of his famed political skills.

Kamal Alam is a visiting fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.

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