Ferhat Durmaz*


In the 20th century, the focus of Turkey’s foreign policy orientation was the Western world, and non-Western regions such as Asia did not occupy an important place in Turkey’s foreign policy agenda. By the 21st century, Turkey, under the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AK Party), has adopted a multidimensional foreign policy approach aiming to establish strong relations with all actors in the international area. However, in the first two periods of the AK Party government, Turkey’s foreign policy orientation has generally been towards the Middle East region. In the post-2011 period, due to the problems in relations with its allies and regional actors, Turkey has wanted to diversify its foreign policy and regions such as Asia have gained more importance for Turkey. In 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan brought up the issue that Turkey could become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization due to the problems in relations with the EU (Erşen, 2013: 15). During this period, Turkey’s commercial relations with Asian countries gained dynamism and the Free Trade Agreement signed with Malaysia on 17 April 2014 entered into force on 1 August 2015 (Republic of Turkey Ministry of Trade, 2022a).

Turkey’s interest in Asia was expressed more systematically and concretely with the Asia Anew Initiative announced on 5 August 2019. Asia Anew Initiative aims to establish cooperation between Turkey and Asian countries in areas such as politics, security, and economy in parallel with Asia’s increasing economic and political importance in the international arena. Some countries, such as Malaysia, are more prominent in the Asia Anew Initiative. The reason for Malaysia coming to the forefront is that Turkish decision-makers attach special importance to Malaysia within the initiative’s framework, and the Turkey-Malaysia relations, which had reached a certain level before the initiative, have the potential for further development (Daily Sabah, 03.08.2022).

This article first analyzes the goals of the Asia Anew Initiative and the factors that led to these goals. Then, I will focus on relations with Malaysia as a case country due to the development of relationships to a certain extent before the initiative and the emphasis of Turkish decision-makers on the development of relationships.

Asia Anew Initiative: Goals and Factors

Ensuring strategic diversity in Turkish foreign policy

In the 2010s, Turkey faced some challenges in its foreign policy. Due to developments such as the US aid to the PYD/YPG, the priest Brunson crisis, and the S-400 crisis, Turkey-US relations followed a negative course, and relations with the EU came to a standstill.

In addition, Turkey’s intense assistance to the opposition in the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war and its support to Qatar in the Gulf Crisis negatively affected Turkey’s relations with the Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, Turkey faced various problems in its foreign policy and aimed to strengthen and diversify its relations with Asian countries to enhance its position in the international arena. Within the framework of the initiative, Turkey wanted to reinforce its relations with Asian countries, especially with global powers such as China and Japan, or with countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, with which it has strong cultural ties. Thus, Turkey aimed to be more effective in global politics by getting the support of Asian countries or developing a common approach with Asian countries in the face of various regional and international problems.

Being an influential actor in the Asia region

In parallel with the increasing economic and political importance of the Asian region in global politics, Turkish decision-makers have argued that Turkey needs to develop a new approach for becoming a more visible and influential actor in Asia. In this framework, the initiative includes Turkey’s adoption of various roles, such as ‘mediation’ and ‘peacebuilding/protection,’ in matters related to Asian politics (Seren, 2022: 139). Turkey has aimed to mediate or create channels of dialogue between the parties in various conflicts concerning Asian politics, such as the Kashmir issue, the Uyghur problem, and the Rohingya crisis. The most significant example of Turkey’s attempts to play an active role in Asian politics is its organization of various diplomatic meetings, such as the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process. Thus, Turkey has aimed to establish a positive atmosphere between Asian countries and Turkey, increase the trust of Asian countries towards Turkey, and have a say in matters related to Asian politics (Seren, 2022: 143).

Providing economic benefits and attracting investments

The Asia continent has become the center of the global economy in the 21st century. The most important reason for this is that Asia has extraordinary potential in developing bilateral trade relations and creating new investment areas (Alagoz, 2021: 5). Another reason is that China has become the world’s second-largest economy. At a time when the economic power of the Western world was relatively diminished, China has launched alternative economic cooperation initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt-Road Initiative. Asia’s economic potential and China’s rising economic power have led regional and global powers to attach particular importance to the Asian region in their foreign policies. Like other actors that have turned to Asia, Turkey has aimed to develop economic cooperation with Asian countries. In other words, Turkey has wanted to benefit positively from the economic potential of the Asian continent and the rise of China.

Specifically, three interrelated developments have led to the increase in the importance of the Asian region in Turkish foreign policy in terms of economy and Turkey’s desire to develop economic relations with Asian countries within the framework of the Asia Anew Initiative. First, the critical issue in foreign policy for Turkey under the leadership of the AK Party is the desire to gain economic benefits (Alagöz, 2021). Turkey, under the AK Party’s leadership, has prioritized diversifying trade partners and increasing mutual investments by developing economic relations with Asian countries, particularly East Asia. Second, Turkey lost some of its economic markets in the Middle East due to the deterioration of Turkey-Middle East relations in the post-Arab Spring period. Thus, the initiative aims to promote exports to Asian countries and, therefore, seeks to find new markets in the Asian region for the private sector. Third, Turkey’s most significant and largest trade deficit comes from economic relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region (especially China) (Medina, 28.01.2021). Accordingly, the initiative aims to eliminate or reduce the unfavorable trade balance in Turkey’s economic ties with Asian countries by promoting exports to Asian countries and increasing the amount of foreign investment from Asian countries, especially from China.

Developing defense cooperation

Under the leadership of the AK Party, Turkey has made strengthening its defense capacity one of its most important priorities. Turkey has signed agreements with many countries, primarily its ally, the United States, for defense product trade. However, since the USA did not take concrete steps in the defense trade due to political issues, Turkey has aimed to ensure self-sufficiency in the defense industry and thus reduce foreign dependency, especially since the 2010s. Within this framework, Turkey, which produces unmanned aerial vehicles and domestic military products, has aimed to provide economic benefits by exporting defense industry products and being an important actor in the world in the defense industry. In this framework, the Asia Anew Initiative includes two crucial objectives: (i) Strengthening Turkey’s defense cooperation network and technological autonomy by developing defense cooperation with different countries in the Asian continent; (ii) Meeting the increasing defense procurement demands of Asian countries by expanding access to Asian markets in the defense sector (Seren, 2022: 144).

Case Study: Malaysia

As Turkish decision-makers have pointed out, Malaysia is one of the key actors in the Asia Anew Initiative (Daily Sabah, 03.08.2022). There are three essential reasons why Malaysia is in a vital position in the initiative:

First, Turkey wants to develop its relations with Malaysia to increase its effectiveness in Southeast Asia. Turkey is a sectoral dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and its goal is ASEAN’s dialogue partnership status. Turkey is aware that the support of Malaysia, one of the founding members of ASEAN, is vital to achieving the dialogue partnership status. In addition, Turkey, which has made special efforts to address the challenges faced by the Muslim world, has sought to enhance the effectiveness of its initiatives by garnering support from other Muslim countries. Through the relations to be developed with Malaysia, Turkey has assumed that the mutual support of both countries for each other would strengthen the content and implementation dimension of the initiatives related to the Muslim world (Öztop, 2020: 763-765).

Second, Malaysia is the first country with which Turkey signed a free trade agreement in Southeast Asia and is one of the target countries determined by the Turkish Ministry of Commerce for developing bilateral trade relations (Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Trade, 2022b). The existence of a positive conjuncture for the development of commercial relations with Malaysia has led Malaysia to come to the fore in the initiative. Turkey aims to diversify and strengthen its economic ties with Malaysia, engage in mutual investments, and realize production and technology transfer.

Third, the White Paper published by the Malaysian Ministry of Defense considers Turkey one of the main actors in developing Malaysia’s defense capabilities. The White Paper states that “Malaysia and Turkey will provide a conducive environment to encourage collaboration between both countries’ defense industry players” (Ministry of Defence Malaysia, 2020: 68). Malaysia’s strong will to develop bilateral defense relations has been a positive development for Turkey, which has just begun to focus on exports of defense industry products. Turkey has aimed to both gain economic benefits and increase the recognition of its defense products through the defense relations to be developed with Malaysia.

Political Relations

Turkey and Malaysia define Islamophobia as one of the most serious problems facing the Muslim world. Therefore, the two countries agreed to establish an English-language television channel aimed at creating videos, documentaries, and news to combat Islamophobia and misinformation about Islam (The Republic of Turkey Directorate of Communications, 04.10.2019). The TV channel project is important as it is a concrete attempt to solve the Muslim world’s problems. However, the television channel project has not yet been implemented as of the date of writing these lines. In addition, the subject of the Kuala Lumpur summit, which was held on 18-21 December 2019 with the participation of Turkey, Iran, Qatar, and Malaysia, was to address the current situation and problems of the Muslim world (Aktay, 25.11.2019). Even though the Kuala Lumpur Summit emphasized the importance of combating Islamophobia and facilitated the development of bilateral cooperation between participants such as Turkey and Malaysia, there was no concrete action decision to solve the problems of the Muslim world.

Turkey, which wanted to contribute to the establishment of regional peace and stability in the Asian continent within the framework of the initiative, supports Malaysia’s humanitarian aid efforts to improve the living conditions of the Rohingya community. Efforts, such as the support provided to the Rohingyas through the collaboration developed with Malaysia, indirectly enhance Turkey’s influence in Southeast Asia (Öztop, 2020: 764). However, since the suspension of ASEAN’s dialogue partnership status and the requirement of a decision from Malaysia and all ASEAN members to restore this status, Turkey has not been able to achieve concrete success in strengthening its presence in Southeast Asia through the ASEAN dialogue partnership goal.

Defense Cooperation

After the announcement of the Asia Anew Initiative, significant agreements were signed between Turkey and Malaysia in the defense field, such as military communication between Sapura Secured Technologies and ASELSAN, coastal radar surveillance between Havelsan and AMP Corporation, and collaboration on unmanned aerial vehicles and services between Tijan Galaxy Aerospace and Baykar (Seren, 2022: 145-146). The most important reason for the relations between Turkey and Malaysia to evolve into cooperation is Malaysia’s desire to develop its defense industry in autonomous systems and drone technologies and Turkey’s remarkable progress in these areas.

In addition, Turkey participated in defense industry fairs such as DSA and NATSEC held in Malaysia during this period and exhibited its defense industry products. These exhibitions enabled Malaysia to learn the Turkish defense industry products and formed an important basis for the defense industry exchange between Malaysia and Turkey (The Star, 02.06.2022). For example, at the DSA fair, FNSS and Malaysian Deftech signed a letter of intent on the joint production of 4-wheel and 6-wheel armored vehicles (Nikkei Asia, 03.05.2022). In addition, Turkey wants to sell products such as unmanned aerial vehicles to Malaysia to gain economic benefits through defense exports and to strengthen cooperation in the defense field. Turkey has achieved a certain level of success in generating economic gains through the defense industry, and in the first quarter of 2021, the share of Turkish defense industry in Turkey’s exports to Malaysia was $1,945,000. In the same quarter of 2022, this share grew by 34.7% to reach $2,256,000 (Doğan, 2022: 12). Additionally, TAI has opened an office at the Cyberview Futurise Campus in Selangor, Malaysia, aiming to facilitate collaborative work between Turkish and Malay engineers in various areas of the defense industry (Defence Turkey, December 2021). Considering that TAI’s first Southeast Asian office was opened in Malaysia, this office demonstrates the remarkable progress in defense cooperation between Turkey and Malaysia.

Turkey, which prioritizes developing domestic projects in the defense industry, has invited Malaysia to its TF-X/National Combat Aircraft (MMU) project. TAI has offered Malaysia the production of parts for the T625 Gökbey general-purpose helicopter, and Malaysia has been invited to the Hurkuş project, which involves training and light attack aircraft (Nikkei Asia, 03.05.2022). By inviting Malaysia to defense industry projects, Turkey aims to accelerate the implementation of the projects and achieve strategic diversification by interacting with multiple actors in procuring defense industry components.

Trade Relations

Turkey and Malaysia demonstrated a willingness to revise the free trade agreement, which came into effect in August 2015, and they signed the expanded free trade agreement on September 29, 2022 (Anadolu Agency, 29.09.2022). The reason for the parties to expand the free trade agreement is to enhance the importance of areas such as investments, services, and e-commerce in bilateral trade relations and to create mutual investment opportunities instead of unilateral investments.

In recent times, Turkey has prioritized the defense sector in its commercial relations with Malaysia (Sidhu, 18.01.2021). Also, Turkey encourages foreign direct investment from Malaysia to Turkey. Both through the sale of defense industry products and direct foreign investment, Turkey has aimed to achieve greater profitability in bilateral trade relations and reduce negative indicators in the trade balance.

The status of Turkey-Malaysia trade relations following the announcement of the Asia Anew Initiative is shown in Table 1. Table 1 also includes the pre-initiative years, thus attempting to compare the pre-initiative and post-initiative periods.

Table 1: Turkey’s exports and imports to Malaysia

Year export $ / Thousand Export Change % Import $ / Thousand Import Change % Volume $ / Thousand Volume Change % Balance $ / Thousand
2016 321.564 -9.9 1.996.955 49,1 2.318.519 36,7 -1.675.392
2017 286.255 -11,0 3.138.558 57,2 3.424.814 47,7 -2.852.303
2018 365.403 27,6 2.132.975 -32,0 2.498.378 -27,1 -1.767.573
2019 354.238 -3,1 1.847.831 -13,4 2.202.069 -11,9 -1.493.502
2020 381.913 7,8 1.989.963 7,7 2.371.876 7,7 -1.608.051
2021 445.166 16,6 3.098.059 55,7 3.543.225 49,4 -2.652.894

(Source: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Trade, 2022c)

Even though Malaysia is one of the countries with which Turkey signed the first free trade agreement, as can be seen when the table is examined, Turkey’s exports to Malaysia remained low. Turkey could not be successful in eliminating the negative trade balance with Malaysia. Turkey’s exports stay below $500,000 million because the Malaysian economic market is remote for Turkish businesspeople. In addition, Turkish businesspeople are sometimes reluctant to operate in the Malaysian market due to the long duration of doing business in Malaysia. Another issue is that the private sector in Malaysia is under the control of ethnic Chinese, and they give priority to relations with China (Kuala Lumpur Commercial Counsellor, 2021: 29).


The fundamental guiding motivations of the Asia Anew Initiative have been Turkey’s desire to diversify its foreign policy and to have influence in the increasingly significant Asian region in international politics. The Asia Anew Initiative is a foreign policy initiative that envisions Turkey’s relations with Asian countries gaining a multidimensional nature and Turkey benefiting from Asia’s increasing economic potential. The initiative aims to bring Turkey and Asian countries together on a common ground in the face of regional and global problems, strengthen defense cooperation, and develop economic relations to benefit Turkey.

Following the initiative’s announcement, Turkey and Malaysia took concrete steps to combat Islamophobia, such as establishing a television channel. Turkey increased its visibility through Malaysia in regional issues such as the Rohingya crisis. Before the initiative, Turkey-Malaysia relations’ defense aspect, such as arms sales, was unidimensional. Nevertheless, the initiative has developed multidimensional cooperation in the defense sector, including institutional collaboration and technology transfer. Following the announcement of the Asia Anew Initiative, like pre-initiative economic relations, Turkey has sold fewer products to Malaysia and imported more commercial goods. This trade trend led to an increase in Turkey’s trade deficit. For Turkey to achieve more concrete outcomes within the framework of the initiative, it is crucial for the Asian orientation to gain continuity and for setting country-specific goals towards Asian countries such as Malaysia.


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*Ferhat Durmaz is a lecturer at Ankara University’s Department of International Relations, Faculty of Political Sciences in Türkiye. He was also a visiting researcher at KUASIA – Center for Asian Studies at Koç University from 15 December 2022 to 1 September 2023. He was at Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania in May 2023 within the framework of Erasmus teaching mobility. He teaches ‘Regional-Politics: Asia-Pacific’ and ‘Contemporary Global Issues’ at Ankara University. On 23 April 2021, Durmaz received his PhD from the Department of Political Sciences at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. He stayed at Ankara University between February 2015 and March 2016, and at the University of Delaware between June and December 2016 as part of the Republic of Türkiye Ministry of National Education Scholarship Program. His areas of interest include Malaysia’s domestic and foreign policies, Indonesia studies, ASEAN, Chinese foreign policies, Asia-Pacific developments and Turkey foreign policy.


[1] This work is produced from the author’s book chapter previously published here: Ferhat Durmaz, “Türkiye’s Asia Anew Initiative and Relations with Regional Powers: The Case of Malaysia”, Asyraf Isyraqi Bin Jamil and Ömer Altun, Deepen the Ties: A Multi-Dimensional Perspectives of Malaysia-Türkiye Relations, Kuala Lumpur: Universiti Malaya Press, 2023, pp. 227-247. For more information, please see the relevant book chapter. I want to thank Kuala Lumpur Yunus Emre Institute Director Dr Ömer Altun, who allowed some of the information in the book chapter to be published in the blog post and who contributed to the publication of the book chapter.