Dhaka, Ankara eye stronger ties maintaining neutral position amid “geostrategic competition”

Turkish Ambassador to Bangladesh Mustafa Osman Turan has said Bangladesh and Turkey are looking to a brighter future with vast areas of cooperation and there is a room for the two countries to make their own influence for the betterment of international relations.

While delivering his keynote speech at Cosmos Dialogue held virtually on December 23, the Turkish envoy said they are actually collaborating with all the great powers that are pursuing certain policies but they have no attachment to any of the sides.

"So, I think that provides us with a neutral position and a reliable partnership possibility with Bangladesh. And I'm particularly pleased to see the benefits of this position in our defence cooperation," said Ambassador Turan.

Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Cosmos Group, hosted the dialogue titled "Bangladesh-Turkey Relations: Prognosis for the Future" as part of its ongoing Ambassadors' Lecture Series.

The opening remarks were delivered by Cosmos Foundation Chairman Enayetullah Khan. The session was chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, a renowned scholar-diplomat and former Advisor on Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh Caretaker Government.

Research Fellow and Head, Bangladesh Centre for Terrorism Research (BCTR) at Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) Shafqat Munir, Professor at Department of International Relations, Dhaka University Dr Lailufar Yasmin and Honorary Advisor Emeritus, Cosmos Foundation Ambassador (Retd) Tariq A Karim comprised the panel of discussants.

Ambassador Turan said one needs to go beyond "symbolic gestures" in international relations and the two countries really need to base relations on mutual interests.

The Ambassador said he thinks the government of Bangladesh is very happy to collaborate with them in this "geostrategic competition" over expanding the sphere of influence in this part of the world.

He said Turkey positions itself not on any of the sides of this equilibrium, rather just like Bangladesh, tries to pursue a middle path - not taking sides between the Indo-Pacific policy or Belt and Road initiative.

Ambassador Turan said Bangladesh's journey in the last 50 years has been remarkable in the sense that it has provided hope not just for the people in Bangladesh but also for its friends and partners.

"Now, I think we can develop a partnership that is mutually beneficial in many fields, not just in the garments industry, but also in emerging sectors such as pharmaceuticals industry, health sector and ICT sector," he said, adding that obviously defense industry is prominent in the list.

Commending Ambassador Turan's relentless endeavours in cementing the bilateral relations, Enayetullah Khan said the future of the relationship has never looked brighter than it does today.

With capable leadership and seasoned diplomats such as Ambassador Turan helming the ship, Khan said he truly believes this time they will not miss the opportunity.

Under current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, relations between Dhaka and Ankara have grown stronger, Khan said.

He said it is well-known that Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was inspired by the bravery and vision for a secular Muslim-majority country of the 20th century espoused by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.

Highlighting Turkey's role over the Rohingya issue, Khan said it is President Erdogan's strong and consistent stance on the Rohingya issue since it exploded onto the international stage in 2017, with nearly a million refugees crossing the border into Bangladesh to seek shelter here that Bangladeshis find most praiseworthy.

His leadership within the OIC, in which both countries play important roles, was instrumental in fellow member state, The Gambia moving the International Court of Justice in 2019, to bring charges of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Myanmar army, in their treatment of the Rohingya, Khan said.

Deeply impressed by Ambassador Turan's commitment and dedication to strengthen the relations, Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury said he is sure Ambassador Turan's contribution will take the bilateral relations to yet greater heights.

He said Turkey has inspired them in many ways and today, President Erdogan occupies a "permanent niche" in their hearts.

Dr Iftekhar said Bangladesh and Turkey have exceedingly high order of bilateral relations be it politics, economics, cultural linkages, common values, aspirations or shared ideas - ideas both domestically, and in the wider arena of foreign relations.

Highlighting the importance of D-8 (Developing-8), the foreign affairs analyst stressed the immense potential of this grouping, if appropriately tapped at a personal level.

Shafqat Munir appreciated the role of Turkish Ambassador Turan in strengthening the ties between the two nations. "Under his (Turan's) leadership, the Embassy of Turkey in Bangladesh has done a tremendous job in taking Turkey Bangladesh relations to greater heights. Every day when we read about new strides being achieved in the relationship, it's really very impressive."

Defence Cooperation

The security analyst said defence and security cooperation is an area where the Embassy, Ankara and Dhaka are attaching a lot of importance to.

Munir said Bangladesh's cooperation on defence and security is no longer between the armed forces alone.

The security expert said right from the 70s, Bangladesh and Turkey have had very significant military exchanges.

"But what we're seeing right now is an up-scaling in terms of bilateral cooperation, particularly in the area of defence acquisition and technology," he observed.

Similarly, he said, there are already talks underway between Bangladesh and Turkey based on the recent agreement that has been signed to acquire ships in the maritime space and there is also talk about enhancing Air Force cooperation as well.

"As we look at enhanced defence and security cooperation, I think there's an opportunity or there's a need for our two strategic communities to come together and actually discuss more with each other about our worldview how we look at regional and global affairs and seek a common understanding on many of these issues," the expert said.

As the Rohingya crisis enters its fifth year, he said, Bangladesh will continue to see Ankara's cooperation and support, both in the global forum or elsewhere also within the OIC, to seek a peaceful solution to this problem.

Dr Lailufar Yasmin said Turkey has taken a proactive foreign policy as a middle power is a transcontinental country itself. "So, we believe that as a middle power, Turkey with this image, geopolitical situation, geopolitical standing and location, it'll be able to play a sort of our proactive role in international politics."

Echoing other speakers, she said there had not been a better time and a better chapter in Turkey-Bangladesh relations than exists now.

Turkey has taken up its "Asia Anew Initiative" that is re-engaging with Asia as its foreign policy priority. "That actually puts Bangladesh in a very favorable position, Dr Lailufar said.

Talking about technology transfer or joint ventures, she said, these are the areas that Bangladesh defence sector can benefit from.

Ambassador Tariq Karim agreed on what the Turkish Ambassador said to have focused beyond the symbolism. "I agree totally with that. I already see a large degree of cooperation emerging from that and much of that has already been covered by Shafqat (Munir) and Lailufar (Yasmin)."

Middle Power

The former diplomat said Turkey is a middle power, not just in the sense of the conventional IR (international relationship).

"It's a middle power. It's a bridging power. It has a bridging role between East and West. And we're a bridge between South and Southeast Asia and East Asia. We both have this role to play," he said.

Tariq Karim said they see a commonality in ensuring the Indo-Pacific (I don't mean the Indo-Pacific in the sense it's being touted by certain Western powers).

On vaccine sharing and vaccine development, he said this is an area where the two countries can join forces together.

The former diplomat said President Erdogan in a message to the UN has already said that when Turkey's work was ready, he would share that technology with the world to prevent the spread of this virus.

The Ambassador said they are hoping that through international regional organizations in Asia, they would like to contribute more to peaceful and prosperous relations in Asia. "Peace and stability in Asia is extremely significant for us. "Bangladesh is our natural partner in this part of the world."

On the Rohingya issue, Ambassador Turan said they opened their doors and today they are hosting over 4 million refugees in Turkey.

He said Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has earned the title of 'Mother of Humanity' by doing exactly the same, opening the door of Bangladesh to the Rohingya people who were fleeing from persecution and execution. "So, Bangladesh and Turkey have a lot to offer in this field to be examples to the rest of the world."

He said they are developing currently their own vaccine called "TurkoVac" which will certainly be in an avenue where the two countries want to see their partners around the world to join them in sharing that technology and serving humanity and making vaccines a global good, which was a call made by many wise leaders around the world.

"Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical industry, particularly in the West, is putting a lot of pressure on governments not to go down that way," said the Ambassador.

Echoing the Ambassador, Dr Iftekhar said it is absolutely right to say that the relationship should go beyond symbolism and should be built on the grounds of mutual interests.

"We're natural allies, both based on the fact that as you said, that you've this principle of following the culture of peace at home and peace in the world, and we've our expression of friendship towards all and malice towards none," Dr Iftekhar said.

So, he said, there is a basis for this common understanding, and indeed, that you have described the way that the relationship and cooperation has been built over the years.

With inputs from Abdur Rahman Jahangir, Muhammad Syfullah, Anisul Islam and Md. Ishtiak Hossain.

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