Both Turkey and Vietnam have drawn attention to themselves with their economic development performance during recent years. Vietnam is steadily turning into one of the most important economies not only of ASEAN but also of the whole Asia-Pacific region. On the other hand Turkey has been a member of the EU Customs Union since 1996 and has become one of the most dynamic economies in the Black Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean basin. The past few years have also witnessed attempts to further the relations between these two rising global economies Turkey and Vietnam. One example is a seminar entitled “Vietnam and Turkey in the New Development Context” jointly organized by the Institute for Africa and Middle East Studies (IAMES) of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS), the Centre for Strategic Research (SAM) of the Turkish Foreign Ministry and the Turkish Embassy in Hanoi and held at the VASS Headquarters in Hanoi, on April 5, 2013. This seminar also carries a special significance, in that it is the first international gathering that deals with Turkish-Vietnamese relations. The seminar drew an illustration of the existing bilateral relations in all their dimensions, it also investigated possible areas of cooperation as well as existing problems and methods for resolving them. The conference also covered the contemporary foreign policy strategies and economic policies of Turkey and Vietnam.

Outgrowth of bilateral relations

The establishment of the diplomatic relations between Turkey and the United Vietnam lead back to 1978. However the relations have fared at a very low rate of engagement until the signing of the Bilateral Trade Agreement in 1997. Therefore the embassies in the two countries are relatively young with the Turkish Embassy in Hanoi being established in 1997 and the Vietnamese Embassy in Ankara in 2003. Last 15 years have witnessed a great surge in the exchange of mutual senior level visits. This exchange first began with the Vietnamese Trade Minister Le Van Triet in 1997 and the latest addition to this exchange occurred when Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç coordinated several meetings in Vietnam in 2011. In this perspective one could express that a new era has unfolded in Turkish-Vietnamese relations after 1997. However it is a striking shortcoming of the relations, to note that there haven’t been any visits in the prime ministerial and presidential level from both countries.

This political picture also finds its parallel in economic relations. For example as of 1990 the bilateral trade between the two countries was virtually non-existent. While the bilateral trade volume stood at 29 million dollars as of 2000, this number has significantly increased to 1.3 billion dollars in 2012. Alongside this, the current account deficit that is characteristic of Turkey’s trade with East Asian countries in general also manifests itself in its trade with Vietnam. While Turkey’s exports to Vietnam total up to 90 million dollars as of 2012, it has imported about 1.2 billion dollars thus producing a serious account deficit. Furthermore both the current level of cooperation and the bilateral trade volume do not reflect the potential that both Turkey and Vietnam carries.

Areas for economic cooperation

Firstly there is a consensus between Ankara and Hanoi that economic cooperation ought to be prioritized in order to increase the trade volume. However it is also of importance to develop relations in a balanced manner. Otherwise Turkey, producing a significant amount of deficit in relative terms will be disinclined to increase its trade with Vietnam. With regards to this point it is also increasingly important for the two countries to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Vietnam needs to negotiate for an FTA with Turkey independent from the FTA it is planning to operate with the EU. Turkey, which is a member of the customs union, is disparaging of FTA’S conducted with the EU without minding for Turkey’s rights. In fact precisely for this reason Turkey is debating whether to exit the customs union and sign a Single Trade Agreement (STA) with the EU instead. Therefore Vietnam ought to separately evaluate opting for an FTA with Turkey and seek for a negotiating basis with Turkey. Otherwise Ankara seeks to mitigate its losses by imposing non-tariff barriers to countries that try to reach Turkish markets not through signing an FTA with Turkey but rather through an FTA they have signed with the EU. Furthermore the FTA’s signed by the EU without the inclusion of Turkey may hinder Turkey’s relations with the EU as well as third party countries.

The banking sector has also drawn attention to itself as another possible area of cooperation. The Turkish banking system, restructured as per the IMF program subsequent to the 2001 financial crisis, is in an exemplary status thanks to its effective regulation system and efficient working methods. Throughout the 2008 financial crisis that first erupted in the US and later spread to the Euro zone leading to a sovereign debt crisis, Turkish banks have continued being attractive with their high rates of return. Therefore Turkey could share its experiences in the banking industry with Vietnam, the two countries could even jointly establish a bank.

Alongside this, Turkey and Vietnam could undertake joint enterprises in the regions and sectors they have a competitive advantage. For example Turkish companies are placed in an advantaged position in Eurasia and Africa in industries such as construction, textiles, agricultural production and food security. Vietnam is also emerging as an investment and production base for East Asia. Therefore Turkish and Vietnamese companies could increase both their revenues and their profits through joint-ventures they would undertake in third countries.

The health industry also presents an important opportunity for cooperation between the two countries. Through the projects it has developed in the health industry over the past few years, Turkey is now in a position to provide health services to all its citizens free of charge as well as considerably increasing the quality of its health services. Therefore Turkey could cooperate with Vietnam in both training Vietnamese health personnel and establishing joint hospitals in Vietnam.

Cooperation in tourism

Another area for cooperation between the two countries is tourism. Turkey, being one of the most attractive tourist sites in the world has drawn over 32 million foreign tourists in 2012. Furthermore, Turkey hosts some of the best hotel chains in Europe and has gained a considerable experience with regard to its facilities and its tourism policies. With the expansion of the Turkish middle class over 11 million Turks have visited other countries in 2012. In this context Turkey is a desirable partner both with regards to its tourism industry and with regards to Turkish tourists. On the other hand although Vietnam carries an important tourism potential, it has only drawn around 7 million tourists as of 2012. To attract more tourists, Vietnam needs to increase both the number of touristic facilities inside the country and the quality of service in its facilities. Turkish and Vietnamese companies could cooperate in these fields including jointly setting up and managing facilities. Tourism industry specialists from Turkey could share their experiences and know-how with their Vietnamese counterparts.

The twinning of the two capitals Ankara and Hanoi as sister cities in 2011 is a positive beginning in terms of increasing cultural change. Mutual cultural exchange could be increased through twinning of other cities. Therefore the content of the Bilateral Tourism Agreement, signed in 2004 could be grounded on concrete projects.

Travel obstacles between Turkey and Vietnam have been overcome to a certain extent, with direct Turkish Airlines flights between Istanbul and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), a business centre, being established in 2011. However it is important to increase the number of direct flights as well as establishing new flight routes. It would be beneficial to establish new flights both through Vietnamese Airlines direct flights to Istanbul as well as through establishing direct flights from Turkey to the capital Hanoi in order to make access to northern areas of Vietnam more available.

Visa obstacle

The biggest obstacle facing the citizens of the two countries with regards to trade and cultural exchange is the visa regulations. Citizens of both countries have to obtain visas for mutual visits. It is especially difficult, costly and time consuming for Turkish citizens to obtain a Vietnamese visa. To be frank one couldn’t expect Turkish citizens to persist on visiting Vietnam through a tedious visa application process, when they could easily visit Thailand, a country far ahead in terms of tourism and trade, without a visa. As a result Turkish citizens often prefer visa-exempt countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and even South Korea and Japan, instead of bothering to obtain a visa from Vietnam. Firstly it would be beneficial for Vietnamese officials to stop viewing Turkey as an unstable Middle Eastern country and instead assess it as a European country preparing for membership of the EU. After visa exemption had been granted for official passports in 2007, mutual lifting of visa requirements would be an encouraging step for further deepening of relations.

Cooperation in education

One of the most pressing priorities in terms of bilateral relations is cooperation in the field of education. This is because it would be difficult to further strengthen relations without mutual constituent bases who are acquainted with one another. Currently there exists no a cooperation agreement or exchange programs between Turkish and Vietnamese universities. As of 2012 there are 19 Vietnamese students in Turkish universities and 15 Turkish students in Vietnamese universities. At this stage it is necessary to increase mutual student and academic exchange programs. Also there are no institutions instructing in Vietnamese in Turkey and vice-versa. It is also important to set up centres that would conduct research on possible opportunities for political, economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries. A crowning achievement in increasing the cooperation in the field of education would be to establish a joint Turkish-Vietnamese university. Campuses in Ankara and Hanoi could be established for such a joint university. As a first step for this a Turkish university could be incentivised to open a campus in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese participants of the seminar stressed that cooperation in the field of education had more tangible benefits as opposed to other fields and that the Horizon Vietnamese-Turkish Schools operating in the primary, secondary and high school levels in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, constitutes a good model. Therefore Vietnamese participants indicated that to accelerate the level of cooperation in education, joint centres for education and culture should be extended not only through Vietnam but also should start operating in Turkey.

Cultural cooperation

It is also possible to increase the level of cooperation in the culture and media fields between the two countries. Firstly Vietnamese and Turkish people aren’t well acquainted. Therefore activities to increase awareness in both countries are necessary. In the coming few years, through cooperation in both countries a “Cultural Year of Vietnam” could be declared in Turkey and a “Cultural Year of Turkey” in Vietnam to organize mutual cultural activities.

In media, a great level of cooperation could be attained in a short period of time through joint use of news networks. Through this both peoples could receive direct information about each other. The next step in this cooperation would be reporter exchanges between the two countries. As a result Vietnamese and Turkish reporters could have a closer view of each other, and could report directly on the two countries.

Another opportunity for cooperation in the area of culture is screening of television serials and movies between the two countries. As a result Vietnamese and Turkish publics could be easily acquainted with the respective cultures in a shorter period of time. Similarly cooperation between the films producers in both countries could be stimulated to produce jointly made film projects.

The need for strategic vision

An important issue stressed by the participants during the seminar, was the need for a strategic roadmap with regards to developing the relations. Therefore it is necessary for Turkish and Vietnamese decision makers to draw a strategic roadmap based on opportunities for cooperation and existing problems. Starting such an undertaking through the most senior level would accelerate the process. As a result a mutual prime ministerial or presidential level visit without delay, would expedite Turkish-Vietnamese relations.

On the occasion of the 35th Anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Turkey, the Center for Strategic Research (SAM) of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Turkish Embassy in Vietnam in collaboration with the Institute for Africa and Middle East Studies (IAMES) of the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences (VASS) organized an international conference entitled “Vietnam and Turkey in the New Development Context” on 5th April 2013 in Hanoi.

The Search for a Strategic Vision in Turkish-Vietnamese Relations

April 12, 2013 - The Journal of Turkish Weekly

Selçuk Çolakoğlu