Features | Diplomacy | East Asia

Japan’s Strategic Push with Turkey

With few diplomatic openings in East Asia, Tokyo has been busy forging ties with Ankara.

Japan’s Strategic Push with Turkey
Credit: REUTERS/Toshifumi Kitamura/Pool

The dearth of diplomacy in Northeast Asia since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012 has presented Tokyo with a more flexible calendar for international courtships. Much of Abe’s first year focused on improving ties with ASEAN (indeed he visited every country in the organization) and India. These engagements, together with Japan’s renewed push to resolve decades-old disputes with Russia, have largely been interpreted as an overt hedge against China’s growing power in the region. Much of this interpretation is correct, but there is a more multifaceted element to Abe’s diplomatic agenda that should not be shrouded by the acute tensions between Japan and China.

One area representative of this dynamism is Japan’s efforts to pursue stronger relations with Turkey, demonstrated through a host of Japanese investments in the country’s growing civil nuclear program and transportation infrastructure projects. Abe has put an unusual amount of effort into bolstering the relationship with Ankara through two separate trips to the country since taking office. Abe also welcomed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Japan this past January. The rapid expansion in Japan-Turkey ties is even more dramatic, given that Ankara was all but ignored by Tokyo in the five years between the Abe 1.0 and Abe 2.0 administrations. Indeed, the last Japanese Prime Minister to visit Turkey (before Abe) was former LDP leader Junichiro Koizumi.

Japan-Turkey ties are longstanding and most diplomats who have been posted in Ankara and Tokyo will point to a bond forged by a sunken frigate off the coast of Japan in the late 19th century. In 1890, the Ottoman frigate, named the Ertugrul, sunk on the way home from a visit with Japan. While more than five hundred sailors died, sixty-nine survived and were both rescued and escorted safely home by the Japanese navy. “Ertugrul” is consistently recognized by the leaders of both countries and has served as the basis of a friendship between geographically distant states.

The contemporary focus on ties between Tokyo and Ankara is rooted in economics and energy. While bilateral trade remains low at less than $4 billion, investment opportunities are growing. During Abe’s second visit to Turkey in October, the Japanese leader attended the opening ceremony of Turkey’s massive undersea tunnel in Istanbul spanning the Bosphorus. The ambitious project’s largest foreign investor was the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC) which invested more than $1 billion in the $4 billion plan.

The Marmary tunnel project in Istanbul is an example of Japan’s emphasis on using soft power in the Middle East to complement its increased role in international security issues (such as its antipiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden). At the grand opening, Abe noted: “This project has been accomplished thanks to the cooperation of Japan’s high-technology and Turkey’s experienced labor power. The upcoming year is the 90th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Japan. I hope this project will be the new symbol of the two countries’ friendship.” Abe seems keen to increase Japanese investment and trade with Turkey ahead of the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the latter’s modern republic. The Marmary project is significant for a couple of reasons. First, JBIC’s investment outweighed any contribution from European banks. And second, the project provides a degree of symbolism as a link with Asia.

Yet while the Marmary project caught headlines, the real driving force here is Japan solidifying its footprint in Turkey’s nuclear energy plans. A landmark deal, won by Japan-based Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and French nuclear giant Areva, for the Sinop nuclear power plant is reportedly worth $22 billion. Mitsubishi beat out other bids from Chinese, South Korean and Canadian companies. Moreover, Erdogan has stressed that Turkey would “welcome future bids” on nascent plans for future reactors. Abe and Erodgan signed a joint statement last year pledging further cooperation on science, technology and nuclear power, among other issues. Meanwhile, Abe reassured Turkey that Japan’s nuclear industry has learned lessons from the Fukushima disaster: “Japan has a responsibility to share the lessons of the Fukushima nuclear disaster with the rest of the world and to promote nuclear safety. We will help ensure the safety of nuclear power in Turkey and other countries that decide to introduce nuclear technology by assisting in their institution-building and human resources development.”

This influx of Japanese investment has helped push along the Japan-Turkey joint study to explore a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA). Both sides have stressed a desire to enter into negotiations this year and it is possible that a Japan-Turkey agreement may come before Tokyo is able to finish a pact with the European Union (currently under negotiation). A finalized deal would only be the second FTA for Japan in Europe, including its current agreement with Switzerland. Ankara meanwhile has no FTAs in Asia and is looking for an opening with Japan.

Finally, on the political and security front, Japan has been stepping up its engagement on Syria and has been working as an interlocutor of sorts between Iran and the P5+1. Abe’s commitment to enhancing Japan’s reach in the region on these issues is something that should appeal to Turkey, which is looking for other players under the tent besides Washington. Looking ahead, Abe will likely continue his courtship of Turkey through his remaining tenure. Yet, although there are no obvious fissures in the bilateral relationship, the partnership may suffer as Japanese attention is overtaken by other competing concerns (namely China and South Korea).