Turkey's Erdogan woos Latin America

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks in Chile on Feb 1, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

SANTIAGO (AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/REUTERS) - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday (Jan 1) he was in Latin America to pursue a "strategy of opening" as he kicked off a three-country regional tour in Chile.

"Chile is a key country for our opening in Latin America and the Caribbean. This strategy of opening of the past 10 years has gotten a very important boost," he said after meeting Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

Trade between Turkey and Latin American countries has expanded 800 per cent over the past decade, to US$10 billion (S$14.2 billion) in 2014, and Ankara has opened new embassies around the region. Mr Erdogan said he planned to continue forging closer ties.

"We've gone from six diplomatic missions in all of Latin America to 13. But that's not enough, and we're going to continue increasing the number of embassies," he said. "We can increase (trade) to improve our economic relations, based on free-trade agreements."

Chile and Turkey signed a free-trade agreement in 2011, and trade has since nearly doubled, to almost US$700 million last year. As part of Mr Erdogan's visit, the two countries signed a deal on closer ties between their government aid agencies.

The Turkish President, who is travelling with some 100 business leaders, heads next to Peru and Ecuador. He visited Cuba, Colombia and Mexico last year.

Turkey aims to boost trade with Latin America more than two-fold by 2023 in a bid to diversity away from its traditional export markets in the troubled economies of Europe and the Middle East, Economy Minister Mustafa Elitas said in Santiago where he is accompanying President Erdogan on his 3-country tour of Latin America.

"Bilateral trade with Latin America currently stands at a little over US$8 billion (S$11.4 billion)...for 2023 which is our Republic's 100-year anniversary, we want to reach US$20 billion," Elitas told Reuters.

Citing the advantages of having a free trade agreement with Chile that aims to yield US$1 billion in bilateral trade this year, Mr Elitas said Turkey will ask Peru and Ecuador to "speed up" the finalisation of bilateral free trade agreements.

Turkey is seeking to diversify its partners beyond its traditional sphere of influence within the bounds of the former Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and the Balkans, analysts say.

With its opening to Latin America, it appears keen to forge alliances in new regions at a time of tricky ties with the United States, the European Union and Russia. Moscow, one of Turkey's major trade partners, has imposed sanctions on Ankara after one of its war jets was shot down last November on the border with Syria.

In a sign of its growing soft power, Turkey's soap operas are taking Latin American countries, including Chile, by storm, prompting TV executives to start importing Turkish series to a region more used to exporting its own "telenovelas". Turkish aid workers also flew in to help Chile after the country's devastating 2010 earthquake.