Turkey-Taiwan relations: Opportunities and limitations

Taiwan Insight  -  April 5, 2018

​Written by Selcuk Colakoglu


During the early stages of the Cold War, Turkey was one of the many countries looking to recognise the Republic of China (ROC) on the island of Taiwan, over the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which governed the Mainland. These diplomatic ties lasted until Turkey switched its position, like many other countries, after the Sino-American rapprochement in 1971. As a result, Turkey moved its embassy from Taipei to Beijing and halted all diplomatic relations with the ROC.

However, as the success of Taiwan’s development model bore fruit in the 1980s, Taiwan became regarded world-wide as an “Asian Tiger”, placing it in the same economic bracket as South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.

This renewed Turkey’s interest in Taiwan, and thus Ankara began to seek ways in which to improve their economic relations with the ROC without eliciting a response from mainland China. Turkey officially established relations again in 1993 under the auspices of the “Turkish Trade Office” in Taipei and the “Taipei Economic & Cultural Mission” in Ankara and since that time the economic relations between the two partners have notably grown.

Taiwan’s Strategy towards Turkey under the Ma Administration

In 2010, Taiwan drew up a road map of how to improve its relations with Turkey, given the promise of stronger cross-strait relations under President Ma Ying-Jeou’s Kuomintang (KMT) government. The Ma Administration had reassured Ankara that advancements in bilateral relations would not upset Beijing, by claiming that Taiwan’s relations with mainland China had grown decidedly closer since 2008, and that Taipei and Beijing have a consensus about not breaking the status quo. Taipei specified four main policy priorities to improve Taiwan’s relations with Turkey consisting of (1) seeking a Visa-Waiver Agreement, (2) operating direct flights from Taiwan to Turkey, (3) opening an Economic & Cultural Office in Istanbul, and (4) signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

The first positive outcome of these policy priorities occurred in May 2013 in relation to the Visa-Waiver system between Turkey and Taiwan. Ankara made Taiwanese citizens eligible for electronic visas, meaning that they are not required to go to a Turkish consulate to apply for a visa. Taipei, in turn, first granted Turkish nationals a landing visa at the airport upon arrival, and then an e-visa in 2016. In this manner, people-to-people exchange  increased during this period.

The second positive development to come out of Turkey-Taiwan relations was the establishment of the first ever direct flight between the two actors.

Turkish Airlines started operating direct flights from Istanbul to Taipei in March 2015. Eva Airlines also started direct flights from Taipei to Istanbul, but these flights were halted in the same year due to lack of demand. Presently, Eva Airlines has been code-sharing for Turkish Airlines’ Istanbul-Taipei flights, because both are members of Star Airlines. As of early 2018, Turkish Airlines started to operate direct cargo flights from Istanbul to Taipei. Initially, Beijing did not permit Turkish Airlines to use Chinese air space and all flights from Istanbul to Taipei had to use Vietnamese air space, extending the journey by more than 2 hours.

In 2017, around 80,000 Taiwanese visited Turkey, and several thousand Turkish nationals visited Taiwan in the same year.

The Ma Administration had hoped to open a “Taipei Economic & Cultural Office” in Istanbul,  the most important business hub in Turkey. The lack of such a diplomatic office in Istanbul to guide both Taiwanese tourists and businessmen constitutes a significant obstacle for the development of the two countries’ bilateral relations. The initiatives between Turkish and Taiwanese officials for opening a new diplomatic mission in Istanbul were prevented by the reactions from mainland China, despite President Ma’s at the time very positive relations with Beijing.

Another step which had hoped to improve economic relations between Turkey and Taiwan was the signing of an FTA. Being a member of APEC, Taiwan has already signed FTAs with various countries in the Pacific. However, Turkey is a member of the European Union’s Customs Union (CU), which prevents Ankara from signing an FTA with Taipei, unless the EU signs a parallel agreement. The premise of this is Taiwan wanting closer economic cooperation with Turkey; within this,  avoiding double taxation and developing investment facilitation agreements are concrete priorities for both sides.

A Changing Climate in the Beijing-Taipei-Ankara Triangle under the Tsai Administration

When the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government came to power under President Tsai Ing-wen in May 2016, Cross-Strait relations turned sour, due to the DPP’s implicit rejection of the “One China consensus”, the backbone of Beijing’s Taiwan policy.

This resulted in Beijing adopting a more assertive strategy to curb Taipei’s relations with third countries. China’s changing position over Taiwan has caused concern in Ankara. Under these circumstances, Taiwan’s remaining two goals regarding Turkey – opening an Economic & Cultural Office in Istanbul and signing an FTA –  are unlikely to be achieved in the near term. On the other hand, President Tsai has worked to reduce Taiwan’s excessive economic dependence on China and has focused on developing new economic partnerships with other countries. Turkey as a regional economic hub is an attractive country that Taiwan will seek additional avenues to further economic integration under the current status quo.

From an economic perspective, there has been no remarkable increase in bilateral trade despite the initial progression of bilateral relations between Turkey and Taiwan during the past ten years.

Annual trade numbers have fluctuated between $1 and $2 billion from 2008 to 2018. According to the Taiwan Bureau of Foreign Trade, the bilateral annual trade figures were at $1.6 billion in 2008, $1.8 billion in 2012, and $1.4 billion in 2016. In 2017, the trade volume was around $1.4 billion in the first eleven months. The emerging problem of Turkey’s trade with Taiwan is that it is highly imbalanced – to the detriment of Ankara. In fact, of the $1.4 billion in bilateral trade in 2016, $1.2 billion was Turkish imports from Taiwan. Considering Taiwan’s competitive advantage, Ankara wants to compensate for this imbalance through tourism and Taiwanese investment into Turkey. For instance, a total of $820 million of Taiwanese investment into Turkey in 2010 set a good precedent and signaled the potential for future economic cooperation between Ankara and Taipei.

Given the context of Taiwan’s wider international position, for now Turkey-Taiwan relations to have plateaued. From now on, further development of bilateral relations will be dependent upon Cross-Strait relations and the evolving nature of the “Taiwan question” in general.

Selcuk Colakoglu is a professor of International Relations and Director of The Turkish Center for Asia-Pacific Studies in Ankara, Turkey.