Taiwan’s donations for humanitarian relief and rescue operations in Turkey following last month’s devastating earthquakes could potentially open a new chapter in Taiwan-Turkey bilateral relations.
Although Taipei and Ankara have not had any formal diplomatic relations due to Turkey’s adherence to its “one China policy” since 1971, the countries have had economic and cultural exchanges, such as when the Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission was established in Ankara in 1993. The mission and the Turkish Trade Office in Taipei act as de facto embassies promoting cultural and economic exchanges between the countries.
Due to the lack of official diplomatic relations between the countries, there have been no leader-level visits since 1993.
Despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, efforts have been made to enhance Taiwan-Turkey economic relations. A memorandum of understanding was signed in 2016 between the Taipei Economic and Cultural Mission and the Turkish Trade Office to expand trade and investment cooperation.
Bilateral trade volume between the countries totaled US$1.97 billion last year. Turkey’s exports to Taiwan totaled US$394.6 million, with major exports including automobiles, marble, etc. Taiwan’s exports to Turkey amounted to US$1.58 billion, with major exports such as solar cells, machinery equipment and semiconductors. Turkey was Taiwan’s 34th-largest trading partner and 24th-largest export market last year.
Aside from bilateral trade, Taiwan’s cumulative investment in Turkey from 1952 to last year was US$165 million, primarily in the information communication technology, automobile and textile sectors, data from the Ministry of Economic Affairs’ Investment Commission showed.
Turkish investment in Taiwan reached US$6.2 million between 1952 and 2022, predominantly in the trade, leather and information communication technology sectors.
In addition to economic relations, Taiwan and Turkey have organized events in each other’s countries in the past few years to promote cultural exchanges. For example, Turkish language and culture have been promoted in Taiwan through language courses at universities and cultural events organized by Taiwan’s Turkish community. Likewise, Taiwan has showcased its culture and products in Turkey through cultural events.
Furthermore, every year, the Taiwanese government provides scholarships to Turkish students, enabling them to study at Taiwanese universities. This not only enhances bilateral relations, but also serves as a long-term investment.
Some initiatives seek to bolster bilateral cultural and economic relations between Taiwan and Turkey. Mutual visa facilitation between the countries and the launch of direct flights between Taipei and Istanbul have consolidated bilateral relations. The Taiwanese government in 2015 announced that Turkish citizens would be granted visa-free entry through e-visas or by obtaining visas at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, which Turkey reciprocated in 2017. Mutual visa facilitation is critical for increasing economic and cultural interaction between the countries.
Previously, there were no direct flights connecting Taiwan and Turkey. Instead, people had to travel via hubs in Hong Kong or Bangkok. Turkish Airlines established a branch in Taipei in 2012 and has been providing direct flights from Istanbul to Taipei since March 2015. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, about 100,000 people traveled between the countries. Not only do direct flights between Taiwan and Turkey benefit tourists, they also benefit mutual trade and collaboration.
Taiwan’s heart-warming earthquake diplomacy toward Turkey might help take those relations to another level. Taiwan’s search-and-rescue team was one of the first teams to arrive in Turkey after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6.
Following the disaster, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) visited the Turkish Trade Office to express condolences to Turkish Representative Muhammed Berdibek on behalf of Taiwanese and the Taiwanese government. The next day, Vice President William Lai (賴清德) visited the office to offer his condolences to the Turkish people and their representatives in Taiwan.
The announcement by Tsai and Lai that they had contributed a month’s pay to Turkish emergency relief efforts touched the Turkish people. Tsai also shared a picture of an orchid featuring petals with the star and crescent of the Turkish flag on them with the words “pray for Turkey” from the Presidential Office on her social media accounts to offer her sympathies for the catastrophe.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs held a news conference on aid for earthquake relief in Turkey and Syria on Feb. 19. In his statement, Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu (吳釗燮) said that Turkey dispatched a search-and-rescue team to assist after the 921 Earthquake on Sept. 21, 1999, and now it was Taiwan’s turn to offer help.
Tsai on Feb. 23 personally thanked the Taiwanese search-and-rescue team after it returned home. Additionally, Representative to Turkey Volkan Huang (黃志揚) visited the earthquake area, and closely supervised Taiwan’s rescue and humanitarian activities, evoking broad gratitude from the Turkish people and media.
Taiwan has provided a significant amount of financial aid to Turkey after the earthquake. In addition to the US$2 million contributed by the government, Taiwanese have also collected and donated US$38 million to disaster relief efforts. This has provided 400 tonnes of material aid through the Turkish Trade Office, as well as cash donations.
The government’s efforts in assisting Turkey during the search-and-rescue process were seen as significant gestures of goodwill toward the country. Despite the geographical distance between Turkey and Taiwan, the solidarity shown by Taiwanese during the disaster exemplified the sincerity, closeness and potential between the two nations and their citizens.
This exceptional circumstance, which emerged outside of the two nations’ existing connections, is crucial in showing the potential of Taiwan-Turkey bilateral relations. Taiwan’s effective disaster diplomacy toward Turkey might mark the beginning of a new era in the countries’ relations. It could pave the way for further cooperation and exchanges, especially in areas such as culture, trade and tourism.
Umit Alperen is a Ministry of Foreign Affairs fellow at National Chengchi University’s Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies, assistant professor in Suleyman Demirel University’s Department of International Relations in Turkey and a member of the Ankara Policy Center.
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