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Turkey-Japan Relations: Need To Think Beyond Trade – Analysis


By Serafettin Yilmaz

Literature on Turkey-Japan relations seems to be focused largely on historical and economic areas. A quick look at the official documents released by the finance and foreign ministries of the two countries would lend support to this observation. For example, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey (MFA) allocates rather limited space for Japan on its web site, and the information provided under the title “Turkey-Japan Political Relations “hardly helps in terms of delivering a comprehensive analysis of the relationship. If this is taken as a yardstick to gauge the official interest in relations vis-à-vis Japan, it is concluded that the prospective benefits of political and security cooperation is not appreciated enough.

The similar level of an official lack of interest could be observed with respect to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), which, nevertheless, supplies much deeper insight than the MFA of Turkey. In addition to offering historical information, the ministry’s website provides a list of top-level visits to and from Turkey, of all official statements released by the MOFA as they relate to Turkey, and of the press secretary’s press conferences regarding Turkey. Thus, the early conclusion is that both nations ‘foreign relations officials need to be more proactive in creating an environment that would be conducive to a generation of more knowledge and expertise.

The ministries of finance are more readily available for the provision of updated data. According to data compiled by the Office of the Commercial Councilor of the Turkish Embassy in Tokyo, during the 1990s, Japan-Turkey trade followed an unsteady pattern and experienced deep fluctuations. The bilateral trade, however, seems to have rebounded in 2003 and has showed a strong recovery since then. As of 2009, the trade volume between the two nations stood at around $4.5 billion, the balance being in favor of Japan. It is also indicated in the report that in terms of volume, Turkey was Japan’s 47th largest trade partner in 2009.


Another recent report published by the Foreign Economic Relations Board of Turkey (DEIK) has found that Japan is the eighth largest foreign direct investor in Turkey. Also, until the early 2000s, Japan remained the largest trade partner for Turkey in the Asia-Pacific region. Although overtaken by China, Japan is likely to continue to be one of the primary countries in East Asia in terms of bilateral economic relations with Turkey. Japanese expertise and technological advantage in large-scale infrastructure projects will continue to be a crucial asset in Japan-Turkey interactions. Within this context, the recent visit paid by Japanese Foreign Minister Gemba Koichiro is an instructive indicator that maintaining closer economic relations is still considered a top priority by the two nations even though, as will be discussed below, there seem to be signs that Japan wants to be more inclusive in the regional politics through a strategic partnership with Turkey. Yet, the flag bearer in the bilateral relations remains to be trade.

It is observed that most states find it prudent to talk business in the hope of a gradual improvement in other areas of mutual relationship along the way. However, it is argued that, unless efforts are made, economic cooperation hardly translates into strategic cooperation. The protracted negotiations of the proposed Japan-GCC free trade agreement shows that trade dependency by itself may not accomplish a more comprehensive partnership. Most of the time, even one-way dependency fails to bring about cooperation in the political and security domains.

Gemba’s Visit: A Quest for a Deeper Security Dialogue?

It is held that the Japanese interactions in the Middle East, which were largely limited to Office of Development Assistance (ODA) contributions and determined by Japan’s dependency on Middle Eastern oil, have gone through a substantial transformation since the 9/11 events. Japan’s renewed interest in the Middle East coincided with U.S.’ military interventions, starting with the First Gulf War in 1990-91 and reaching its peak after 9/11.

However, some sporadic friction notwithstanding, from the oil shocks of 1973 to the war in Afghanistan in 2001, Japan displayed a rather reactionary posture. In this respect, Gemba Koichiro’s January 7 visit to Turkey might be seen as an indicator of Japan’s search for a new form of strategic partnership that would open up a larger room for it to maneuver and design alternative policies. To this end, cooperation is vital and Turkey is probably the most strategic prospective regional ally.

In Gemba’s one-day visit, a number of concrete steps were taken. However, two of them stand out as being greater importance: The first is the decision to begin considerations for a free trade agreement and the second is the statement by Foreign Minister Davutoglu in regard to the need to develop a comprehensive security partnership that would involve the two countries on the eastern and westerns tips of Asia in contributing to stability and prosperity on the continent. Defining Japan as a strategic partner, Davutoglu stressed the necessity of developing joint Asian policies.In the same vein, during his courtesy call to Prime Minister Erdogan, Minister Gemba stressed the importance of greater bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the future to bolster strategic cooperative ties. The emphasis made by the two sides on the development of a strategic partnership is noteworthy.

Nevertheless, unless backed up by related parties, what might be called an emerging political will for a wider regionalism will face the danger of being marginalized. An extensive Japanese-Turkish commitment to and relentless follow-up of what has been officially announced during the visit will prevent the Japan-Turkey dialogue from falling behind the planned steps. Turkey, for that matter, needs to remain vigilant and proactive in the proposed FTA so as not to let it drag on for years due to a lack of interest and/or because of an underestimation of the initiative’s benefits. Equally important, if not more, is to further expand on the idea of a strategic partnership that would benefit the two countries in their ability to get involved in and project power from their respective regions. It follows that the burden lies on the expert community in the corresponding agencies to provide data and insight for policymakers to capitalize on.

Thinking Beyond Trade

At this point of the mature relationship, Turkey needs to explore further cooperation in traditional and non-traditional security areas. It seems that Japan, having suffered from a nuclear disaster and currently being exposed to pressure from the U.S.-Iran standoff over Iran’s nuclear energy program, is in search of deeper relations with regional actors to diversify and secure its energy sources as well as assert itself as a relevant player with political weight on the issues beyond its near periphery. Given the fact that Japan will remain oil-dependent for the seeable future, Japan’s economic and political interest in the Middle East is going to continue. Hence there is an opportunity for Turkey to initiate a security dialogue with Japan, a country with great soft power capabilities, and seek deeper political and economic access to East Asia via this partnership.

In spite of its post-war unwillingness to utilize hard power in international relations (and perhaps because of this), Japan could provide a venue for Turkey to be involved in East Asia more closely in return for a “soft access” to Middle Eastern affairs. Proving to be an impartial partner and drawing on its own experience (successes and failures) of dealing with the historical legacies it shares with its own neighbors, Turkey might contribute to a Japan-China rapprochement. On the other hand, the depth of the Japanese participation in regional organizations that range from economic groups such as APEC and APT to more security-related institutions such as the ARF could provide Turkey strategic access into the issues that are traditionally considered East Asian. Without a doubt, Asian institutionalism tends to remain regional; however, Turkey can make inroads into the East Asian sphere starting from more loosely-constructed Track II groupings. This would open up an enormous opportunity for Turkey to assert itself as a global power that could think and function beyond its immediate periphery.

Japan, in this scenario, would prove to be a reliable partner.

Furthermore, Turkey has several advantages over other countries in the Middle East for Japan to capitalize on: First and foremost, it is one of the few viable democracies in the region with which Japan can more easily identify itself. Also, over the years, Turkey has garnered the good will of peoples and many governments by playing a constructive role in conflict resolution (at least until recently when the U.S.-led discourse over Iran’s civilian nuclear program and the popular uprisings split the region into camps). This is as opposed to other major states such as Israel which are not trusted by the majority of peoples and governments. Additionally, Turkey maintains a stable relationship with NATO and is not subject to any economic and/or political sanctions. On the contrary, even though the GCC countries enjoy firm U.S. support, they are authoritarian and repressive, characteristics with which Japan would naturally find difficult to build partnerships beyond trade.

For Japan to have more of a say on regional affairs that will have a direct bearing on its economy dependent on imported oil, it needs to develop policies that are less influenced by Washington. A more comprehensive partnership with Turkey will enable Japan to more easily differentiate between its security alliance with the U.S. in the Asia Pacific and its energy policies in the Middle East. With U.S.-Iran tensions running high, it would be unwise for Japan to place all its bets on the GCC member states for oil and natural gas procurement, since these countries are authoritarian and suffer from a legitimacy crisis; hence, their control over popular dissent will only get weaker overtime. Consequently, Minister Gemba’s visit to Turkey is timely and of great strategic importance for both nations in expanding cooperation.

Serafettin Yilmaz is a doctorate student in Asia-Pacific Studies at National Chengchi University in Taiwan. He can be reached at [email protected]

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JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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