Turkey and Bangladesh share a lot in common in terms of historical relations, values and culture. Relations between Turkish and Bengali-speaking peoples have deep historical and cultural roots, reaching back to the late Ottoman Empire and decades before the establishment of Bangladesh’s People’s Republic. During the First World War and the Turkish War of Liberation, Muslims in South Asia, including Bengalis, backed Turkey. The epic poem “Kamal Pasha,” written by Kazi Nazrul Islam, Bangladesh’s national poet, in 1921, reflects a reverence for Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Republic of Turkey’s founder. When Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman led the Bengali nation to statehood in 1971 through a war of independence, he was profoundly inspired by Atatürk.
During the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, Turkey, on the other hand, supported Pakistan diplomatically and even militarily. Relations remained tense following the war due to Turkey’s sustained backing for Pakistan. On 22 February 1974, at the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) Summit in Lahore, Turkey formally recognized Bangladesh. After Bangladeshi President Ziaur Rahman’s formal visit to Turkey in 1976, the two countries established diplomatic relations. The Turkish Embassy in Dhaka was opened in 1976, while the Embassy of Bangladesh in Ankara became operational in 1981.
Turkey-Bangladesh relations developed when diplomatic links were established, and Bangladesh became Turkey’s diplomatic partner in international affairs. Through the 1970s and 1980s, Dhaka was a strong backer of Turkish claims on Cyprus, while Turkey gave technical and financial aid to Bangladesh during its state-building process and the development of a stable and durable national economic system. Hussain Muhammad Ershad urged Turkey to develop an airbase in Bangladesh to provide better security to the country in 1983, a year after gaining power in a bloodless coup. Ankara, on the other hand, politely declined.
The founding of the Turkey-Bangladesh Business Council and drafting a comprehensive agenda for broadening collaboration emerged from visits to Dhaka by then-President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2010 were reciprocated by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina in 2012.
However, Turkey-Bangladesh ties were strained from 2012 to 2016 as a result of Turkey’s strong condemnation of the International Crimes Tribunal’s (Bangladesh) accusation, conviction, and execution of leaders of the country’s main Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which abandoned its liberal democratic stance in 2011 and adopted a political Islamist ideology, has backed the Muslim Brotherhood network around the world, including Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami party. President Abdullah Gül issued a letter to his Bangladeshi colleague Zillur Rahman in December 2012, urging Bangladeshi courts to offer pardon to 1971 war criminals. Gül warned in the letter that if these leaders were executed, Bangladesh’s socioeconomic growth would be jeopardized, as well as social unrest and bloodshed. Bangladeshi police seized and deported a 14-member Turkish-Islamist NGO team that had come to Dhaka in December 2012 to monitor the International Crimes Tribunal. The Turkish condemnation of the Bangladesh War Crimes Tribunal went against Turkey’s established diplomatic standards and outraged the Bangladeshi government and the public. Despite going through political and diplomatic hurdles from 2012 to 2016, Bangladesh left the door open for normalization following the emergence of the Rohingya mass exodus in 2017. In 2017, Bangladeshi President Md. Abdul Hamid and his Turkish counterpart Binali Yldrm paid reciprocal trips, indicating that the relationship is repairing. Turkish approach to the Rohingya refugee crisis has been essential in reestablishing a stable and fruitful partnership. In the United Nations, the G20, MIKTA (a middle power grouping consisting of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia), the OIC, and other multilateral fora, the Turkish government has conducted a strong diplomatic campaign on behalf of the Rohingya and in support of Bangladesh. In September 2017, Emine Erdoğan, the president’s spouse, along with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu and Family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya visited the Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps.
But in today’s context, economic relations between Turkey and Bangladesh, while promising, are uneven. Turkey-Bangladesh trade ties have accelerated in recent years, with annual bilateral trade volume hovering around USD 1 billion over the last decade. In 2018, two-way commerce reached USD 858 million, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. Because the Turkish carpet industry relies heavily on Bangladeshi jute, the textile sector has proven to be a valuable source of bilateral trade. By the end of 2020, Turkey wants to grow bilateral commerce with Bangladesh to USD 2 billion. However, given the slowing Turkish economy and the fact that bilateral trade volume has been stagnated at approximately USD 1 billion since 2010, this aim appears unattainable. In 2012, Turkey and Bangladesh attempted to negotiate a free trade agreement (FTA) to strengthen their economic ties, but ratification was put on hold indefinitely due to EU opposition, which wants to maintain its Customs Union with Turkey. Shipbuilding and pharmaceuticals are two sectors where the two countries could pool their investment capital. Similarly, sparse person-to-person exchanges could benefit from a boost. Ankara and Dhaka appear to need to do more to build a comprehensive plan to take their current economic collaboration to the next level.
Since the signing of a military training agreement in 2004, Bangladesh and Turkey have boosted their defence cooperation. Bangladesh has recently purchased military equipment and arms from both governmental and private Turkish defence businesses. Military exercises and training programs have aided in the strengthening of defence ties between the two countries.
In Turkey, more than 3,000 Bangladeshi military officers underwent training. Bangladesh’s navy has formed very close connections with Turkey’s navy. The SWADS, Bangladesh’s most advanced naval outfit, receives military training from Turkey, South Korea, and the United States. Besides, Bangladesh Navy and the Turkish Navy exchange training and knowledge seminars regularly. BNS Bijoy, which patrolled Lebanese waters as part of the UN peacekeeping mission Maritime Task Force, was partially destroyed by an explosion in a warehouse in Beirut’s port on 4 August 2020. Necessary repairs to BNS BIJOY were carried out at the facilities of the Turkish Navy as the move of exhibiting brotherly relation between these countries. Besides, Bangladesh Army received Otokar Cobra light armoured vehicles from Turkey in 2013. In a major government-to-government contract in 2015, Turkey offered Bangladesh guided-missile frigates. Two years later, a USD 1 billion order for 680 light armoured vehicles was given to the Turkish company Delta Defence. In March of 2019, Turkish ROKETSAN was awarded a contract to supply Bangladesh with a regiment of medium-range guided multiple rocket launchers.
Tarique Ahmed Siddique, Bangladesh’s National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister’s Office, and General Aziz Ahmed, Bangladesh’s Chief of Army Staff, participated in the Turkish military’s Multinational Winter Exercise KIS-2019 in Turkey in February 2019 with a 31-member team. All of these considerations lead to a bright future for defence cooperation between Bangladesh and Turkey.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşolu paid an official visit to Bangladesh in December 2020 to learn more about what Turkey can offer in terms of defence cooperation with Bangladesh. Cavuşolu met with Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister AK Abdullah Momen during his visit. Bangladesh is keen on the Turkish offer of defence cooperation since it will diversify its military arsenal and reduce dependency on Chinese weapons.
In the cultural exchange sphere, it is decided by both countries that a sculpture of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman will be set up by Turkey in Ankara and a sculpture of Kemal Ataturk, father of modern Turkey, will be set up at Dhaka.
The Asia Anew initiative, launched by Turkey, aims to foster closer cooperation in the fields of education, defence, trade, technology, and culture. Turkey’s foreign policy tilt towards Asia during the last decade has been fascinating. Turkey has never shown a strong desire to increase its influence in Asia in the past. Since its founding in 1923, the country has attempted to align itself with the West, prioritizing relations with the United States and Europe over those with Asia and even its Middle Eastern neighbours. However, Turkey’s bilateral and multilateral relations with its traditional allies have deteriorated significantly during the last decade. However, Turkey’s bilateral and multilateral relations with its traditional allies have deteriorated significantly during the last decade. In such a context, Turkey’s “Asia Anew” initiative gets credibility.
Regardless of its proclivity toward the West, Turkey’s unique geostrategic position straddling east and west and its Islamic identity – which has become stronger under the current political regime – provide the necessary impetus to cultivate connections with Asian countries. In Asia, it has also boosted its participation in regional multilateral forums and international organizations. Bangladesh is a growing country with a sizable Muslim consumer class, so Turkey sees it as a promising market for bilateral business. In addition, considering the hostile behaviour of Myanmar on Rohingya expulsion to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh must safeguard its growth and sovereignty and seek ordnances with strategic deterrence capacity from Turkey as a way to diversify defence purchases in order to ensure its long-term sustainability while the world enters into a new cold war between China and the USA. However, there is a concern that Turkey’s unrestricted operation and interference in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs may degrade Bangladesh’s secular reputation. Given Turkey’s alleged support for terrorism in the Middle East, Bangladesh must be cautious and draw a line in the sand when it comes to cooperation with Turkey.
Written by Rajeev Ahmed