By Dr. Altay Atlı*
Indonesia and Turkey have many things in common. They both have large and predominantly Muslim populations with the majority of the people adhering to the Sunni version of Islam. They both have large economies with Indonesia having the sixteenths and Turkey the eighteenth place in the ranking of countries by GDP; they both are members of the G20; and they both are part of MIKTA, the group of middle powers, which also includes Mexico, South Korea and Australia.
It is due to these commonalities that Indonesian and Turkish politicians never miss an opportunity to assert that there has to be more cooperation between the two countries. In practice, however, there has not been much progress toward that end so far, and a real partnership between Indonesia and Turkey, be it economic, political, cultural or otherwise, is yet to emerge.
More pressing concerns, rather than common values and characteristics, can change this picture. The quagmire in Syria and Iraq is spilling over to Turkey with metropolitan centers like Ankara and Istanbul having become targets of deadly terrorist attacks several times over the past few months. Indonesia is suffering from terrorist attacks as well, and the increasingly global nature of fundamentalist terrorism is generating new linkages and hence concerns for both countries.
Last year, Turkish authorities detained a number of Indonesian citizens, 16 in March and six more in November, who attempted to cross the Syrian border illegally to join the ranks of the terrorist group Islamic State (IS). These arrests came after the detainment of four individuals carrying fake Turkish passports (who later turned out to be Uighur Turks from the Xinjiang region of China) on terrorism charges in Indonesia.
As the threat and destructiveness of terrorism escalates, not only in the Middle East but also in many parts of the world including South East Asia, Turkey and Indonesia have to do more to combat this evil.
There has been some serious talking so far. In January, Indonesia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Retno Marsudi, met with her Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to discuss possibilities to establish more intensive communication between the intelligence and law enforcement agencies of the two countries to improve intelligence cooperation and exchange of information.
The meeting between Marsudi and Çavuşoğlu was held on the sidelines of the Ministerial Conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jeddah. Another OIC summit, held last week in Jakarta, hosted a similar meeting, between the Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla and Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş, who agreed to strengthen cooperation in the fields of security, intelligence, and law enforcement forces for combating terrorism.
There are two questions here. The first one is whether and to what extent these expressions of interest for cooperation will translate into concrete action and actual policy outcomes.
In April 2011, Indonesia and Turkey agreed to upgrade their relationship to the level of strategic partnership. Now, statesmen like to boast that their relationship is strategic, but usually little information is available about what this strategic-ness entails in practice. At this point, one can expect that the strategic partnership between Indonesia and Turkey will provide a framework and help accelerate cooperation in security issues. After all, if security cooperation is not strategic, what actually is?
In a positive note, a specific field of cooperation where there has been significant progress recently can be expected to have a spillover effect on security cooperation. Defense industry is an area where both Turkey and Indonesia have been exchanging ideas on possible collaborative projects since the mid-1990s, and over the past few years a number of important steps have been taken.
A cooperation agreement was signed back in 2010, and in May 2015 the project to co-produce medium-weight battle tanks was commenced. This project involves companies from Turkey and Indonesia, as well as transfer of technology between them; it will continue for 37 months, and as the primary objective, two prototypes will be manufactured, one in Turkey, the other in Indonesia. Stronger collaboration in defense industries can bring a momentum to cooperation in security issues, and this is why during the Kalla-Kurtulmuş meeting in Jakarta last week, the two issues were discussed together.
The second question is whether the intended security cooperation between Indonesia and Turkey can be functional at the multilateral level as well.
The Turkish government has been expressing its interest to form some kind of partnership with ASEAN in several instances, but there has not been much progress so far. A more appropriate platform for making the Indonesian-Turkish collaboration effective at the multilateral level could be the OIC, and it is surprising to nobody that the two ministerial meetings between Indonesia and Turkey over the past two months have taken place during OIC events.
Indonesia and Turkey may be two of the influential members of the grouping. However, even if they can improve their security cooperation at the bilateral level, prospects for them to spearheading collective efforts through the OIC seem bleak, to say the least. The grouping is simply too divided on many issues relevant to the Muslim world, with sectarian differences, political and economic concerns drawing lines between member countries. Far from joining forces and undertaking collective action against the threat of terrorism, member countries of OIC cannot even agree on how to define terrorism and who a terrorist is. Not much to expect here.
As this article was being written, television channels gave the breaking news that there was another terrorist attack in the heart of Turkey’s capital, costing dozens of innocent lives. Security concerns related to terrorism are real, serious and urgent. They have to be addressed collectively by Turkey, Indonesia and all of the actors in the international system, with determination that goes far beyond mere expressions of interest in cooperation.
*Dr. Altay Atlı is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Studies Center of USAK. He is also an adjunct professor at Boğaziçi University Asian Studies program
Note: This piece first appeared at the Asia Times on 14 March 2016.