Turkish-Indian relations in changing global context

Published 28.04.2017 21:16
Updated 28.04.2017 21:21

Turkey is expanding its relations beyond its traditional West and EU-focused foreign policy. In order to diversify its relations, Turkey has increased all its interaction with South Asia, West Asia, Central Asia and Africa. In the Gulf countries, it is looking for close defense cooperation by joining the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism (IMAFT) in which 34 Muslim countries are now members. Turkey's growing and deepening interaction with Asian countries is likely to increase after Turkey-EU relations declined. India has deep historical and cultural links that span centuries, long before its independence in 1947. Turkish-Indian relations are based on centuries of historical, cultural, political interactions and mutual understanding.

In Middle Eastern politics, both countries recognize the state of Israel and firmly support the two-state solution. Except during the post-Mavi Marmara period, Turkey has maintained better relations with Israel. Both countries have been successful so far in balancing their relations with Israel and other regional powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia. If India has an impressive maritime security chain spread over the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, Turkey is an important member of NATO securing the longest physical border between NATO and the Middle East. India's post-cold war leadership has been redefining its global engagement by keeping India's development priorities as a major determinant of its global engagement, and to do that India needs a beneficial global economic and security environment where it works with every major power. India's "Act East," "Look West," BIMSTECi and its increasing interaction with the East Asian community show that India's global role is going through greater regional cooperation and connectivity. Turkey's disenchantment with NATO and the West and its dying EU accession talks are playing an important role in redefining Turkey's relations with the Asian powers. India and Turkey, in Fareed Zakaria's conception of the "rise of the rest," have strong economic and political aspirations and have increased resources to be part of the global leadership. Both countries have successfully diversified their bilateral and multilateral relations beyond the Non-Aligned Movement and NATO. Turkish politicians are talking about the betrayal they have met from their Western allies in their fight against Kurdish militants in Syria and Iraq. The deepening differences between Turkey and its Western allies have also made Turkey's waiting time for EU membership frustratingly long. All this has not come suddenly and the country's diversification of its strategic and international relations started in kind. Turkey is no longer West-centric, however, it is not completely a Middle Eastern country yet either. Turkish ambitions, both official and political, are for a "multidimensional, constructive, proactive, realistic and responsible foreign policy" to minimize its dependence on its Western allies, to access diverse and larger markets and to achieve the goal of what it calls "expansion of the sphere of peace and prosperity in its region."

Where does Turkey stand in its relations with India? The Pakistani media is often tempted to overwhelmingly report on Turkey's "pro-Pakistan" and "pro-Kashmir" policy in which the Turkish media shows only marginal interest and more precisely it does not subscribe to the Pakistani description of "Turkey favoring Pakistan over India." In a regional perspective, Turkey had not evolved an active South Asian policy for as long as it remained a West-centric country until a centrist prime minister from the Motherland Party (ANAP), Turgut Özal, in Turkey undertook an active foreign policy initiative. As he professed his conviction that Turkey "should leave its former passive and hesitant policies and engage in an active foreign policy," he became the first prime minister to visit India in 1986. As Özal himself was a centrist and had run as a candidate from a conservative party, his policies were widely respected by a large constituency of the Turkish society including the seculars, Islamists and nationalists. In exploring an active foreign policy and looking toward Asia, Turkey faced a major dilemma of choosing between India and Pakistan; both had fought two wars on their dispute over Kashmir. A Muslim NATO country and an ally of Pakistan since the Cold War had maintained its support for Pakistan. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and Prime Minister Turgut Özal decided to maintain a pause on Cyprus and Kashmir in order to de-hyphenate their bilateral relations from these two issues. After the conservative parties came to power, first in 1997 and again in 2002 with a complete majority, Turkey's active foreign policy was branded as a new multidimensional foreign policy.

From 2002 onward, bilateral relations have seen quantitative and multi-sectorial progress. However, the change, a remarkable trade relationship, has yet to see a major breakthrough in their political relations particularly on India's overdue membership at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the United Nations Security Council. In recent years, Pakistan seems to have influenced Turkey in bringing back the Kashmir reference in Turkey's South Asia political discourse. The Turkish leadership has made at least four public statements on Kashmir since 2002, mostly during President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Pakistan. Turkey is also an active participant of the "One Belt One Road" project in which India has sought certain clarifications as the project involves part of the Indian Territory under Pakistan occupation. The question should be asked what kind of South Asia vision Turkey is developing which should enable India and Turkey to achieve fullest potential of their bilateral and multilateral cooperation.

In today's West Asian security architecture, Turkey has emerged as a key player, perhaps outpacing Iran by entering in multiple bilateral and multilateral security arrangements, including the formation of the IMAFT. Turkey has also entered a defense pact with the state of Qatar and a high-level strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia. Turkey's role in the Persian Gulf as well as in North Africa has increased politically and economically. Turkey and India both maintain close relations with Israel but they also have good relations with other West Asian countries. Both powers have the ability to help the peace process to resolve the longest conflict in the region. A lasting resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict will help change the security discourse. Both India and Turkey have seen growth in their economy mostly in the service sector and both are committed to becoming self-dependent in the critical areas of technology, defense and science. Their expenses on research and development are a clear indicator that both countries have a goal of not just becoming a consumer but (of having complete access to the technology they are using. In doing so, both countries have an opportunity in common research programs in science and technology.

Turkey today is in need of an active and compulsive "Look East" policy and its partnership with India particularly in the fields of trade, research and development, higher education and tourism. The new Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been actively working on what he calls the "Look West" policy, which has re-energized India's overall West Asia engagement.

**Excerpts from Policy Brief published by Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi

*Research fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter