Representational image. Photo: iStock
Image: iStock

Turkey’s budding military industry is trying to gain stable access to the Indo-Pacific market. Ankara is investing a great deal in its defense sector in a bid to ease dependence on foreign acquisitions and commercialize home-built weapons systems abroad.

And given that arms deals are also conducive to the deepening of diplomatic relations, the Turkish government will probably exploit defense cooperation to expand its web of foreign ties in the Asia-Pacific region.

Turkey aims to reach self-sufficiency in the defense industry by 2023. Its goal is ambitious, perhaps too much so. It expects to export US$25 billion worth of arms and military equipment by that year.

In this regard, Ankara’s industrial military cooperation with fellow Muslim countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia could serve as a showcase for marketing Turkish-made weapons in South and Southeast Asia.

Tanks, submarines, warships…

Turkey has so far been a relatively modest arms supplier, with Pakistan and Malaysia being its top defense customers in South and Southeast Asia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. From 2000 to 2016, Ankara delivered $179 million and $142 million worth of arms systems to Kuala Lumpur and Islamabad respectively.

The Malaysian government bought armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, and Pakistan’s single biggest acquisition was a navy fleet tanker manufactured by Turkish shipbuilder STM.

Turkish defense giant Roketsan is now ready to sell Pakistan its UMTAS medium-range anti-tank weapon system, Pakistani and Turkish media reported last week. Ankara’s Ministry of Defence hopes this sale will be part of a big-ticket package that includes Turkish Aerospace Industries’ T-129 attack helicopter.

Last month, Ankara and Islamabad inked a memorandum of understanding for the transfer of four Turkish-built MILGEM Ada-class corvettes. It is said they will be jointly produced in Pakistan and used by the Pakistani navy to protect both Gwadar and Karachi ports from potential external attacks.

Turkey’s industrial defense partnership with Malaysia and Indonesia is focused on tanks and submarines. Malaysian company Etika Strategi, in cooperation with Turkey’s BMC and Germany’s Rheinmetall AG, is pushing hard to win a multi-billion contract for the serial production of the Altay tank, the prototype of which has been developed for Ankara’s military by Turkish armored vehicles producer Otokar.

Turkey’s FNSS and Indonesia’s PT Pindad displayed the prototype of their jointly developed KAPLAN MT medium-weight tank at the International Defense Industry Fair in Istanbul in May. The KAPLAN MT is mostly designed to face asymmetric warfare threats and will be inducted in both the Turkish and Indonesian armed forces. Developers also hope to market it in other countries, not least in the Middle East and Central Asia.

The KAPLAN MT program, which began in 2014, is part of a defense cooperation arrangement between Ankara and Jakarta and meets the latter’s need for a low-cost tank, at a time when the Indonesian government is facing budget problems.

Further, during the defense fair in Istanbul last month, Turkish STM and German ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems announced they would offer Indonesia a variant of the Type-214 diesel-electric submarine. The two defense manufacturers are building the Type-214 for the Turkish Navy at the Gölcük naval shipyard near Istanbul.

Religious and, by extension, political-cultural links with Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia can help Turkey eliminate geographical distance and boost its geopolitical presence from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific

Jakarta plans to construct a fleet of 10 to 12 submarines under its Minimum Essential Force program. The Turkish-German Type-214 will have to compete with France’s Scorpene-class submarine and Russia’s Varshavyanka-class submarine, which have already been proposed to the Indonesian government.

Diplomatic assets

Religious and, by extension, political-cultural links with Pakistan, Indonesia and Malaysia can help Turkey eliminate geographical distance and boost its geopolitical presence from the Indian Ocean to the Western Pacific.

In the end, Turkey is eager to get a foothold in the South and Southeast Asian defense markets. But Turkish defense cooperation with countries in the region is not only about trade ties and commercial returns. It is also about Ankara trying to secure some diplomatic depth in the Asia-Pacific region.

Turkey is dealing with the current fracture in the Sunni Arab world between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on one side, and Qatar and Islamist political organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas on the other. Ankara is attempting to foster a diplomatic solution to this intra-Arab spat, even though its established connections with the Qatari government and Sunni political Islam make it an unlikely broker.

Islamabad, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur all have deep-seated relationships with both Riyadh and Doha, for their part, and could become important diplomatic assets for the Turkish government if tensions on the Arabian Peninsula were to escalate.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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