Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Bangladesh have usually been friendly and cooperative since they were established in 1974, with the exception of the first half of the 2010s.[i] Dhaka was a staunch supporter of Turkish claims to Cyprus in the 1970s and 1980s and Turkey provided technical and financial assistance to Bangladesh during its state-building process and helped it create a stable and sustainable national economic system. The partnership has continued between Turkey and Bangladesh in the post-Cold War period.
The 2010s: A Brief, Unusual Rift
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, following its adoption of a political Islamist ideology in 2011 instead of its previous liberal democratic stance, began to provide support to the Muslim Brotherhood network across the world, including the Jamaat-e-Islami Party in Bangladesh.[ii] In December 2012, President Abdullah Gül wrote a letter to his Bangladeshi counterpart Zillur Rahman, urging Bangladeshi courts to grant suspects from the 1971 war clemency, but this request was declined by Dhaka, which was reluctant to put the issue on the negotiation table with Ankara.[iii]
On May 12, 2016, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan scathingly condemned the Bangladeshi government’s use of capital punishment against Motiur Rahman Nizami, the leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami Party.[iv] Shortly after Erdoğan’s statement, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Bangladesh, precipitating a diplomatic standoff. Bangladesh’s ambassador to Turkey, M. Allama Siddiki, was also recalled to Dhaka just a few months after starting his duty in Ankara. The bilateral relationship hit its lowest level since diplomatic relations began. Three months later, however, Turkish and Bangladeshi ambassadors returned to Dhaka and Ankara.[v]
The other problem between Ankara and Dhaka concerned the Gülen Movement’s involvement in Bangladesh, after the Movement was declared a terror organization in Turkey in May 2016.[vi] The Turkish AKP put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to ban the Gülen Movement, close its businesses and schools and deport its activists. The Turkish Embassy in Dhaka labelled the International Turkish Hope School (ITHS), which was established in Dhaka in 1996 and reached six branches with 33 Turkish and 210 local teachers in 2016, as a Gülenist institution[vii] and asked Dhaka to hand over ITHS to Turkey’s official Maarif Foundation. However, Bangladesh saw the Turkish government’s request as a violation of diplomatic norms and property rights[viii] and preferred to solve the problem with Ankara smoothly. Instead of Ankara’s demand to hand over the Gülen schools to the Maarif Foundation as Pakistan did in January 2019[ix], Dhaka facilitated the selling of the schools to local communities.
Despite the political setback in their relationship, both Turkey and Bangladesh have close economic and security linkages that have forced their leaders to heal the rift.[x] The Rohingya issue has also helped the two countries to improve what was perceived to be a frayed relationship. The visits of the Bangladeshi President Md. Abdul Hamid and Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım in 2017 are no doubt indicative of a normalization of strained political relations that depend on mutually beneficial actions. Bangladeshi ambassador to Turkey, Mosud Mannan, described in 2021 the current level as the best period for the relationship, due to the high level of contacts between Ankara and Dhaka in all fields.[xi]
The Rohingya Issue and Turkish Aid Organizations in Bangladesh
The October 2016 incidents in the Rakhine State in Myanmar resulted in around 600,000 desperate Rohingyas taking shelter in Bangladesh. This is on top of the approximately 250,000 undocumented Myanmar nationals who have stayed in Bangladesh long-term, meaning that the number of Rohingyas living in Bangladesh is around 1 million. Denial of “Myanmar citizenship” and basic rights, including political, civil, human and economic rights of the Muslim minority of Rakhine State is the root cause of the problem.[xii]
The Rohingya issue has helped to normalize the relationship between Ankara and Dhaka since late 2016. Firstly, Ankara has driven an active diplomatic campaign to put the Rohingya issue on the agenda of the international community through the United Nations (UN), the G20, MIKTA (a middle power grouping comprising Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia), the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and others.[xiii] Ankara has also extended all support to Dhaka for ensuring the safe and secured repatriation of forcibly displaced Rohingyas from Bangladesh to Myanmar.[xiv]
Furthermore, Turkish institutions and charities have helped the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh resolve their difficulties. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), the Turkish Red Crescent, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), and Turkish NGOs have become active in Cox’s Bazar and other poor areas of Bangladesh. Turkish aid organizations have constructed camps, hospitals, schools, orphanages, and facilities for refugees and poor people across Bangladesh. Turkey has become a burden-sharer for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. For example, TIKA has distributed hot meals to approximately 25,000 Rohingya refugees daily since August 25, 2017. TIKA also provided N95 and medical masks, PPE suits, and ventilators to support Bangladesh in fighting COVID-19 in 2020.[xv] Ankara has also delivered support to Dhaka in relocating Rohingya refugees from Cox’s Bazar to Bhashan Char Island in the Bay of Bengal. All these Turkish efforts make the Bangladeshi government grateful to Turkey.[xvi]
Deepening Economic and Trade Relations
The current level of economic interactions between Ankara and Dhaka can be elaborated in the categories of trade relations, the ongoing free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations, foreign direct investments (FDIs), official development aid (ODA) by Turkey and cooperation on other economic sectors. There have been promising developments in all these areas of cooperation over the last decade.
Turkey’s trade links with Bangladesh have grown rapidly in recent years, and annual bilateral trade volume has fixed around $1 billion in the last decade. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute[xvii], the annual trade volume in 2020 was $918 million. It consists in $349 million in Turkish exports to Bangladesh and $569 million Bangladeshi exports to Turkey. The highest trade volume was in 2013, at $1.2 billion. Dhaka has demanded that Ankara withdraws anti-dumping duty on yarn from Bangladesh imposed on October 16, 2018, considering it a barrier to further increases in the bilateral trade volume.[xviii] As Dhaka’s demand has not been met by Ankara, which is considering a technical procedure, the problem may not be fixed any time soon. Turkey regularly places anti-dumping duties on certain products imported from other countries to protect related Turkish sectors.
The textile industry has been a lucrative source of bilateral trade, as the Turkish carpet industry relies extensively on Bangladeshi jute. Turkey has also sought to assist the diversification of the Bangladeshi economy through foreign investment. Energy, healthcare, agri-processing, shipbuilding and other sectors in Bangladesh have provided increasing opportunities for Turkish investors. Bangladeshi State Minister of Shipping, Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, urged Turkey in January 2021 to recruit Bangladesh’s skilled and trained sailors on Turkish merchant ships and recognise the two countries’ Certificates of Competency (COC) in the maritime sector.[xix] The demand has not been met yet, but it is on the agenda as part of efforts to build further cooperation on shipbuilding and the sailing industry between the two countries in near future.
As Bangladesh has considerable economic growth potential, Turkey has optimistically targeted an increase in bilateral trade to $10 billion over the next decade. However, this seems to be an unrealistic target, as it is believed that the Turkish economy has undergone a slowdown since 2014 and bilateral trade volume has remained stuck around $1 billion since 2010. Ankara and Dhaka even attempted to forge a preferential trade agreement (PTA) in 2012 to increase economic partnership, though its ratification was indefinitely suspended due to disapproval from the European Union (EU) to protect its customs union with Turkey.[xx]
Turkey has played an important role in economic development in Bangladesh since the beginning of diplomatic relations. Turkey’s official development assistance (ODA) to Bangladesh between 2004-2014 is around $13 million. The majority of this aid is in education, healthcare and vocational training. The opening of the TIKA Program Coordination Office in Dhaka in 2014 has made Turkey’s ODA to Bangladesh more coordinated and visible. Turkey has sought to extend cooperation in developing Bangladesh’s food processing sector, for Bangladesh lags behind in this crucial component of agricultural production. Bangladesh and Turkey signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on scientific and agricultural cooperation in 2012. As per the MoU, both countries reiterated a desire to strengthen mutual cooperation on science and technology related to agriculture, biotechnology, food processing and packaging, farm machineries, seed production, invention of stress tolerant different crop varieties and research works.[xxi] TIKA has been playing a significant role to carry out related projects that are sponsored by Turkey.
In this vein, high level interactions have been accelerated between Turkey and Bangladesh to deepen the cooperation in the agricultural sector. As a recent example, Bangladesh Food Minister Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum had a bilateral interaction with the Turkish Minister of Agriculture and Forestry on 27 October 2021 on the side-line of the 8th OIC Ministerial Conference on Food Security and Agricultural Development. During the meeting, both ministers agreed for inclusion of food and agricultural items in each other’s trade basket for mutual benefit.[xxii]
Foreign direct investment (FDI) is very important to strengthen and diversify the Turkish-Bangladeshi economic cooperation, but FDI inflows in both directions are not at a particularly high level. Nevertheless, Turkey’s electronic and home appliances company Arçelik acquired a 57% stake in Singer Bangladesh for $75 million in 2019 [xxiii]. Turkish leading LPG Company Aygaz decided to invest $100 million in February 2021 in LPG filling and distribution business in the port city Chittagong.[xxiv] These two big Turkish direct investments in Bangladesh are very crucial steps to deepen bilateral economic cooperation in the field of FDIs.
Turkey’s competitive contracting companies have also expressed interest in mega infrastructure projects in Bangladesh. In addition, Turkey is planning to build an international standard hospital in Dhaka. Railways Minister Md Nurul Islam Sujan invited Turkey in October 2021 for involving for the development of the railway sector.[xxv] Despite having made great progress on Turkish involvement in critical construction projects in Bangladesh, Ankara and Dhaka strongly show their willingness to cooperate in the field in the near future.
In December 2020, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina invited more Turkish investment in the special economic zones being built across Bangladesh for mutual benefit of both the countries. Bangladesh was also grateful to Turkey for repairing the Bangladeshi navy ship, BNS Bijoy, which was badly damaged in the Beirut blast in Lebanon in August 2020.[xxvi]
Despite having a stagnation in trade relations, the bilateral economic relations have been promising on joint investments in various sectors like transportation, energy, agriculture, shipbuilding, and manufacturing. All this dynamism in economic sectors will likely make the Turkish-Bangladeshi partnership deeper and more multifaceted in the coming years.
People to People Exchanges
People to people exchanges are still far from being satisfactory. The pandemic has also negatively affected people to people exchanges like other parts of the world. Every year Bangladesh sends around 25,000 students abroad, but there are only 600 Bangladeshi students in Turkey, which comprise 90% of the Bangladeshi community in Turkey. Only a few Turkish students go to Bangladesh for university education.[xxvii] Yet, Bangladesh State Minister for Youth and Sports Mohammad Zahid Ahsan Russel, said in June 2021 that an MoU on development of youth and sports would be signed with Turkey to increase the cooperation in the related fields.[xxviii] These small steps are just a beginning to accelerate people to people exchanges between the two countries.
Increasing Military and Defence Industry Cooperation
Although, historically, Bangladesh has bought military equipment from Russia, China, the United States, the United Kingdom and North Korea, Dhaka has determined that military equipment imported from Turkey would help Bangladesh to diversify its sources. In a similar vein, Turkey considers Bangladesh to be a critical market for the Turkish defence industry in the future and has strengthened its defence links with Dhaka in recent years.
In 2013, Turkey supplied Otokar Cobra light armoured vehicles to the Bangladeshi Army.[xxix] In 2015, Turkey offered Bangladesh guided missile frigates in a major government-to-government deal. The Turkish firm Delta Defence was awarded a $1 billion contract for 680 light armoured vehicles in August 2017.[xxx] Turkish ROKETSAN secured a contract in March 2019 to supply a regiment of medium range guided multiple rocket launchers to the Bangladeshi Army.[xxxi]
In addition to military weapons, various training programs and military exercises further strengthen the defence links between the two nations. Bangladesh’s navy has particularly close links with Turkey. Turkey, along with South Korea and the United States, provides military training to the SWADS, Bangladesh’s most sophisticated naval unit in recent years.[xxxii] The Bangladeshi National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office, Tarique Ahmed Siddique, and Chief of Army Staff General, Aziz Ahmed, participated in the Turkish military’s Winter-2019 training exercise in the eastern province of Kars in February 2019. Some 251 personnel from 15 countries including a platoon of special forces from Bangladesh took part in Winter-2019.[xxxiii]
Bangladesh’s Liberation War Affairs Minister, Mozammel Haque, has said that the military cooperation has been growing, and all three chiefs of Bangladesh’s defence wings visited Turkey in 2021.[xxxiv] Most recently, the Bangladeshi army chief, General S M Shafiuddin Ahmed, met several senior officials of the Turkish Armed Forces and inspected the operation control room of the Turkish Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Army Aviation Headquarters, and the Turkish Aerospace Industries on the occasion of the International Defence Fair in August 2021.[xxxv]
A military contingent of about 40 people has been deployed to Turkey in 2021 for training, mostly for peacekeeping missions of Bangladesh to the UN.[xxxvi] Bangladesh’s military and police forces also want to benefit from the opportunities offered by Turkey for modernization and training to Bangladesh’s staff, forBangladesh would benefit from Turkey’s expertise as a member of NATO for high-quality training for its military and sophisticated defence procurements at a reasonable price. It is expected that there will be more military training exercises and student exchanges between the two countries’ war academies in coming years. However, the challenge for Turkey lies ahead with the increasing political tensions with its NATO allies. Turkey’s defence products rely on imported software, engines, and critical weaponry systems from other NATO members. After purchasing Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems in 2019, Turkey has been sanctioned by the United States under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and removed from the F-35 fighter jet program. The United States, Germany, Canada, and others have ceased their delivery of critical parts to Turkish defence companies or put Turkey under an export ban. For instance, in July 2019, the United States prevented the sale of Turkish helicopters T129 ATAK to Pakistan because they were equipped with the U.S. made CTS800 engines. With no alternative to replace these, the $1.5 billion contract became void.[xxxvii] If these direct and indirect sanctions continue from other NATO members, Turkey’s defence contracts’ offers to Bangladesh will remain limited.
Strategic Challenges to the Bilateral Political Cooperation
Political and military cooperation between Turkey and Bangladesh has been steadily moving towards the “strategic partnership” level since 2017. However, there are not enough signs to show how Turkey and Bangladesh can develop a joint international and regional strategy to overcome potential difficulties and challenges to the Turkish-Bangladeshi partnership in the international sphere. Both Ankara and Dhaka are very vulnerable against the rise of strategic rivalries in South Asia. Turkey`s deepening security cooperation with Pakistan has caused a rift with India.[xxxviii] If New Delhi considers making counter steps to restrict Ankara’s strategic openings, Turkey may face some additional difficulties in South Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. The rise of strategic rivalry between India and China may cause some repercussions to Bangladesh’s delicate balancing foreign policy strategy in South Asia.[xxxix] As a developing country that is trying to move from absolute poverty to a middle-income level, Bangladesh has needed to attract all potential FDIs from China, India and others without facing political repercussions. It seems that, at this stage, both Turkey and Bangladesh prefer to focus on bilateral cooperation and the Rohingya issue at the international level rather than focusing on more complicated regional issues.
Ankara and Dhaka have successfully overcome the crisis period in the early 2010s and, since the beginning of 2017, the relationship has become more promising for both sides. Economic and trade relations and cooperation on defence industry and military training are the main aspects that comprise Turkish-Bangladeshi relations. Ankara and Dhaka have continued to cooperate on international platforms particularly on the Rohingya issue. However, Ankara and Dhaka need to develop more coordinated policies to enhance their relationship to a stable and strong long-term “strategic partnership”.
[i] Selçuk Çolakoğlu, “Turkey-Bangladesh Relations: A Growing Partnership between Two Friendly Nations”, The Middle East Institute, June 25, 2019.
[ii] Stasa Salacanin, “Not so splendid isolation: Erdogan’s geopolitical nightmare,” Qantara.de, February 19, 2019.
[iii] Samuel Ramani, “Can Bangladesh and Turkey Mend Frayed Ties?”, The Diplomat, July 4, 2016.
[iv] Kumar Sarker, “Turkey goes to bat for executed Jamaat leaders again”, Dhaka Tribune, June 17, 2017.
[v] “Turkey is my 2nd home: Bangladeshi envoy’s bittersweet farewell”, Anadolu Agency, October 17, 2020.
[vi] “Turkey officially designates Gulen religious group as terrorists”, Reuters, May 31, 2016.
[vii] “Gulenists exist in Bangladesh”, The Independent, July 16, 2017.
[viii] Syed Zainul Abedin and Adil Sakhawat, “Turkish nationals in Bangladesh living in fear”, Dhaka Tribune, August 4, 2017.
[ix] “Turkish organisation takes over Pak-Turk schools”, Dawn, January 9’ 2019.
[x] Samuel Ramani, “Can Bangladesh and Turkey Mend Frayed Ties?”, The Diplomat, July 4, 2016.
[xi] Sorvar Alam, “Turkish president’s visit to Bangladesh will boost ties”, Anadolu Agency, February 4, 2021.
[xii] Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Md. Shahidul Haque’s briefing on “migration governance and the Rohingya crisis” in Ankara on May 19, 2019, The Turkish Center for Asia-Pacific Studies, http://www.asianpacificcenter.org/apac-news-in-2019.html
[xiii] Yatharth Kachiar, “Why is Turkey wooing Bangladesh?”, Financial Express, January 6, 2021.
[xiv] “Turkey will never abandon Rohingya to their fate: Foreign minister”, Anadolu Agency, September 23, 2021.
[xv] “Turkey hands out winter aid to Rohingya in Bangladesh”, Anadolu Agency, November 29, 2020.
[xvi] “Turkey to substantially increase trade with Bangladesh”, Anadolu Agency, February 7, 2021.
[xviii] “Turkey keen to invest in Bangladesh’s agro-industry, light engineering, ICT”, The Bangladesh Today, February 2, 2021.
[xix] “Turkey keen for huge investment in BD : Turan”, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, January 3, 2021.
[xx] Refayet Ullah Mirdha, “FTAs far away”, The Daily Star, June 28, 2018.
[xxi] “Turkey keen to assist Bangladesh in food processing”, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, September 29, 2020.
[xxii] “Food Minister joins 8th OIC’s Ministerial Conference in Turkey”, The Daily Observer, October 28, 2021.
[xxiii] Niaz Mahmud, “Turkey’s Arçelik to buy 57% stake in Singer Bangladesh”, Dhaka Tribune, March 24, 2019.
[xxiv] “Turkey to substantially increase trade with Bangladesh”, Anadolu Agency, February 7, 2021.
[xxv] “Turkey is keen to invest in Bangladesh Railway: envoy”, The Bangladesh Today, October 10, 2021.
[xxvi] “PM seeks Turkey’s engagement in Rohingya repatriation”, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, December 23, 2020.
[xxvii] Sorvar Alam, “Turkish president’s visit to Bangladesh will boost ties”, Anadolu Agency, February 4, 2021.
[xxviii] “MoU to be signed with Turkey on development in sports: Russel”, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, June 16, 2021.
[xxix] “Turkey delivers Otokar Cobra II LAV’s to Bangladesh Army, BD Military, May 1, 2017.
[xxx] “A Turkish Company Will Supply 680 Armored Vehicles to Bangladesh Army”, Medium, August 15, 2017.
[xxxi] “Turkey secures Bangladesh Army medium range guided multiple rocket launchers to the Bangladesh Army”, BD Military, March 27, 2019.
[xxxii] “Strategies for the Bangladesh Navy leading up to 2030”, BD Military, December 29, 2017.
[xxxiii] “Army chief set for Turkey visit”, Dhaka Tribune, February 17, 2019.
[xxxiv] Riyaz ul Khaliq, “Wrong impression about Bangladesh disappearing”, Anadolu Agency, September 28, 2021.
[xxxv] “Bangladesh has strategic friendship with Turkey: General SM Shafiuddin”, Bangladesh Post, August 21, 2021.
[xxxvi] Priyanka Agarwala, “Bangladesh-Turkey relations: What’s behind the new intimacy?”, SEEHRA Times, September 29, 2021.
[xxxvii] Emile Bouvier, “Turkey. The Arms Industry on the Fast Track to Autonomy”, Orient XXI, October 27, 2021.
[xxxviii] Selçuk Çolakoğlu, “Turkey and India: “Natural Allies”?, Middle East Institute, August 11, 2020.
[xxxix] Ashraful Islam, “FM: Bangladesh tied to India by blood, to China by economy”, Dhaka Tribune, August 8th, 2020.