Turkish naval visit to Hong Kong sends message of its global ambitions
The Turkish navy is paying a rare visit to Hong Kong and mainland waters this week, in a four-day trip that analysts describe as a shrewd move by the European nation to show its traditional allegiance to the West, but also its desire to build ties in Asia, particularly with China.
Last night, Turkey's top diplomat in Hong Kong, Haldun Tekneci, hosted a reception aboard the frigate TCG Gediz, which docked on Friday in the country's first naval visit for four years.
"We are super happy and we are so proud to see this warship because it has travelled so far," he said, adding that the visit was a sign of growing relations with China and the East Asia region.
There was also a meeting at the People's Liberation Army's Hong Kong garrison - a courtesy call, Tekneci said - before they head to Qingdao , Shandong , tomorrow.
The TCG Gediz is making Asia the focus of a 122-day tour that started on April 1, taking in 14 nations with 18 stops in the region.
The China stops come at a sensitive time as Turkey's planned purchase of a long-range missile defence system is still in limbo. It angered fellow Nato members over a 2013 deal to buy from a Chinese firm and has since agreed to look at versions offered by other countries while putting the Chinese deal on hold.
Nevertheless, Ankara's relations with Beijing have grown significantly in recent years. In 2012, then vice-president Xi Jinping travelled to Turkey, resulting in deals worth US$4.3 billion across industries including finance, renewable energy and mining.
The frigate's voyage through the South China Sea was intended "to open up the Asia-Pacific region" to Turkey, said Professor Altay Alti, a lecturer in Asian studies at Bogazici University in Istanbul and research fellow at Shanghai University.
"Its approach is mainly based on economic interests … An economically prosperous and, at the same time, politically stable and peaceful region is very important for Turkey," Alti said.
"The voyage shows Asia is increasingly more important for Turkey's foreign policy. [It] gives the message that Turkey remains a loyal ally to the West, but at the same time it will do its best to build stronger relations with the Asian countries."
He added: "It is also important to see that the frigate stops in almost every country on its route … Turkey is not choosing partners; it is trying to show it wants to engage with the region as a whole."
Selcuk Colakoglu, vice-president of the Ankara-based think tank International Strategic Research Organisation, agreed.
"As a Nato member, Turkey is sending everyone the message … that it can collaborate with everyone in the military field, not only with the allies of Western countries," Colakoglu said.
Hong Kong was a significant stop, said Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of government and international studies at Baptist University, as it served as "a kind of barometer of the warmth of the relations between the visiting ship's country and China".
Li Jie, a naval expert at the Chinese Naval Research Institute, said: "Building a good military relationship with Turkey will help Xi implement his 'One Belt, One Road' programme because Ankara straddles Asia and Europe, and is also the strategic connection point of the Silk Road on both land and sea."
However, the contract to buy a missile defence system remained a political hot potato for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said Cabestan.
"Erdogan is very tempted to buy the Chinese missile system as it is cheaper, and as an act of independence," Cabestan said.
"But he has been under very strong pressure by the US and Nato to buy systems that are compatible with Nato and that would prevent China being able to peep into a Nato member's security apparatus."
The frigate tour commemorates the 125th anniversary of Ottoman frigate Ertugrul, which ran aground after a typhoon while making its way to Japan in 1890. More than 530 Turkish sailors died, while 69 survived.
An estimated 600 Turkish nationals live in Hong Kong and Macau.