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As Turkish ship heads to Japan, industry eyes Eastern exports

By Cem Devrim Yaylali
Wednesday April 24, 2024

Turkey's Ada-class corvette TCG Kinaliada set sail April 8 for a nearly five-month deployment to Japan and other nearby countries. (Cem Devrim Yaylali/Staff)

ISTANBUL — A Turkish military vessel set sail April 8 for a nearly five-month deployment to Japan and other nearby countries.

The navy deployed its Ada-class corvette TCG Kinaliada to both celebrate the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Japan, as well as commemorate the 134th anniversary of the sinking of the Ottoman frigate Ertuğrul during a typhoon following its visit to Japan.

But there’s a deeper message behind the ship’s eastward trip, experts told Defense News, one that could see Turkey’s defense industry gain a greater foothold in Asia.

The Asia Anew Initiative, which Turkey launched in 2019, essentially drives the country’s relationships with others in the region, according to Diren Doğan, a lecturer at Alanya Alaaddin Keykubat University in Turkey.

“With this initiative, Turkey defines itself not as a ‘foreign country’ that noticed the rise of Asia and started to attach importance to the continent, but as a country with an Asian identity at every stage of history. And in addition to struggling with the challenges that the continent has brought throughout history, in parallel with the changing conjuncture, it also benefits from the advantages it has produced,” Doğan told Defense News.

Some of the nations Kinaliada is scheduled to visit are users of Turkish defense products. On its way to Japan, the ship and its crew have already stopped in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti, with plans to also visit Somalia, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China and South Korea.

As it returns home, the vessel is to stop in the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, India, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Djibouti and Jordan.

Such port visits by military ships are used to improve diplomatic and geopolitical relations. An exhibition of Turkish defense wares, involving company representatives, took place during the crew’s stop in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, according to the Turkish Defense Ministry.

Doğan noted that despite displays of military equipment, the Asia Anew Initiative does not call for Turkey to choose a side “as great power competition escalates.” And that in itself makes Turkey’s weaponry attractive, she added.

“This initiative is considered a comfortable area because it puts mutual benefit above the countries’ personal ambitions, and avoids touching their political sensitivities. This created comfort zone increases preferability, even in a sensitive sector such as the defense industry,” Doğan said.

According to statistics shared by the Defence and Aerospace Industry Exporters’ Association, one of Turkey’s industry umbrella organizations, the nation’s total exports in 2023 were worth $255.8 billion, of which $5.5 billion came from the defense and aerospace sector.

None of the countries that TCG Kinaliada is visiting during its deployment are mentioned in the association’s top 10 list of export customers. But sales to Asian nations — with the exception of those in the Commonwealth of Independent States — made up 16% of Turkey’s defense and aerospace exports, or nearly $1 billion.

“As the Southeast Asian countries move away from their former suppliers, such as Russia and China, and seek to modernize their militaries, they will look for cost-effective suppliers that would not hinder their autonomy. Turkish companies, especially in uncrewed systems, could have significant advantages in the region,” said Çağlar Kurç, an assistant professor at Abdullah Gül University in Turkey, who has written about the local defense industry’s international ambitions.

“Turkish companies have an advantage in price and capacity when selling to Asian countries,” he told Defense News. “Turkish arms are high quality and cheap, compared to U.S. systems. Turkey does not use its arms trade relations as leverage; thus, it is a dependable and credible supplier.”

Turkish defense contractor FNSS has been active in Indonesia and Malaysia since early 2000. For the former, it developed a prototype medium tank that the firm eventually evolved into the Kaplan MT, jointly produced by Indonesian company PT Pindad. In Malaysia, FNSS has provided the ACV-300 Adnan armored infantry fighting vehicle.

Naval engineering specialist STM, also a Turkish defense company, signed a contract in 2013 to build a support tanker for Pakistan’s naval force. Delivery took place in 2018, the same year Turkey’s ASFAT inked a deal to manufacture a modified Milgem-class corvette for the same nation.

In 2021, Turkey sold six T129 Atak combat helicopters to the Philippines for $629 million.

And this year, the Maldives announced it chose the TB2 combat drone from Bayraktar to patrol the island nation’s exclusive economic zone. The unmanned aerial system gained prominence from its use by Ukraine in the war against Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of its neighbor in February 2022.

Indonesia announced in January plans to buy 45 Atmaca anti-ship missiles from Turkey. The TCG Kinaliada is armed with the weapon, which means defense officials in the host countries may have an opportunity to see the missile in person.

And in March, Malaysia unveiled plans to acquire Ada-class corvettes for its Littoral Mission Ship Batch 2 program. For its part, the TCG Kinaliada is the fourth ship of the Ada class — the first type of combat naval platform designed and constructed in Turkey.

But if Turkey wants to gain a greater Eastern foothold, Kurç said, it should consider engaging with South Korea, which has emerged as a leader in regional defense exports.

Still, it’s very much a balancing act for the potential customers, Doğan noted.

“While the countries in the region are economically fed by China, they are trying to fend off the security-oriented challenges brought by Chinese aggression with the security umbrella of the USA,” she said. While implementing all these strategies, they must try not to get too close to the USA and infuriate the dragon [China], while they also have to be careful not to get too carried away by the added value that China brings to their economy and go out of the protective atmosphere of the USA.”

“Turkey stands out as a preferred middle ground for countries to diversify their hands in this harrowing process,” she added.


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