India’s and Turkey’s bilateral relations have been marked by cordiality and warmth since the establishment of their diplomatic relationship in 1948. However, the Pakistan factor has overshadowed Indo-Turkey relations during the last several decades.
The bilateral ties between Turkey and Pakistan has been tied and strengthened by their historical and religious legacies. Since the emergence of Pakistan as an independent country, bilateral relations between Turkey and Pakistan have been marked by their strategic support to each other in general and during the most difficult times in particular. To institutionalize and fortify these bilateral ties, the High-Level Cooperation Council was established in 2009 and further upgraded to a High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. Under its purview, 51 agreements have been signed between Pakistan and Turkey.
Apart from maintaining cordial relations at the bilateral level, Turkey has been supporting Pakistan in the international arena as well. Turkey’s strategic support to Pakistan particularly related to issues concerning India has become a bilateral irritant between India and Turkey. Bilateral relations between India and Turkey have also been strained by Turkey’s religious proximity with Pakistan, particularly in recent times.
India and Turkey have deep historical and civilizational connections. To cement these geo-cultural relations and to build a long-lasting partnership, India under the leadership of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-64) signed a friendship treaty with Turkey in 1951. However, during the Cold War, these relations lost their warmth and their crescendo of cordiality as Turkey aligned per se with the Western powers and forged military alliances, whereas India joined the Non-Aligned Movement. Indian PMs like Rajiv Gandhi (1984-89) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998–2004) tried their best to come out of the stalemate in relations with Turkey, but could not make noticeable impacts on bilateral ties.
With the end of the Cold War, some improvements could be seen but could not cover the various divergences. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, recently made a two-day (30 April-1 May) state visit to India, and was accompanied by a large diplomatic delegation of 150, including parliamentarians, five cabinet ministers — Foreign Affairs, Economy, Energy, Culture and Tourism, Transport, Communications and Maritime Affairs — senior officials, and businessmen. The Turkish Chief of General Staff, General Hulusi Aka, was also part of the delegation. The composition of the delegation shows Turkey’s political, economic, and strategic convergence of interests with India. President Erdoğan held one-to-one meetings with Indian dignitaries such as President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vice President Mohammed Hamid Ansari, and Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj.
During the visit, some areas were identified for bilateral cooperation. The heightening of the economic cooperation found prominent place in meetings with the Indian PM along with the business fraternity. Economically, both countries have been on the higher trajectories. Both India and Turkey are among the top 20 economies of the world. Therefore, both countries have a lot of convergences. But the current quantum of trade which stands at USD 6.4 billion — which was USD 2.8 billion in 2008 — does not match the size of both countries. Investment has also been at the lower level.
Turkey is one of those countries that have supported Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir at the bilateral level and at regional and international organizations.
Addressing the India-Turkey Business Summit, attended by the visiting Turkish President, PM Modi emphasized the need for robust economic engagements between the two countries. The Indian PM therefore exhorted Turkish businessmen to invest in various sectors in the Indian economy such as energy, rail, roads, ports, housing, hydrocarbons, renewable energy, and especially in India’s flagship programmes such as “Make in India.” President Erdoğan has also pointed out that the Indian vision of developing Smart Cities matches Turkish construction capacities.
Both India and Turkey have suffered from terrorism. ISIS has been operating not only in and around Turkey but also in and around India as well. Similarly, a Turkish-based terror organization — Fethullah Terör Örgütü (FETÖ) — also poses a serious threat to Turkey’s sovereignty. Cross-border terrorism is also serious concern for both countries. Therefore, counter-terrorism has been identified one major area of cooperation between both countries. Both countries can play a crucial role in establishing peace, stability, and justice at the regional and global levels. President Erdoğan condemned the recent terrorist attack in India on April 24, saying “Turkey, as a country that is engaged in a fight against some of the most dangerous terror groups in the world, understands very well the pain of our Indian friends. Turkey stands in full cooperation with India in its fight against terror.” In turn, Turkey expects India to take steps to root out FETÖ from its territory.
The reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is another area where India and Turkey are on the same page. Both countries support each other’s demand for the UNSC to include more members to reflect the diversity and democratic character of the UN. Several other MoUs between India and Turkey were signed, including: Cultural Exchange Programme (2017-2020); Cooperation between Foreign Service Institute of India and Diplomacy Academy of Turkey; and India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Turkey’s Information and Communication Technologies Authority (ICTA), Turkey.
The Pakistan Factor
Pakistan has become a critical factor between India and Turkey. It has been argued that given the strong personal bonds between their leaders, their deep-rooted ideological homogeneity, and the people-to-people contacts between Turkey and Pakistan, Turkey prefers Pakistan to India. In this backdrop, it is impossible to imagine Turkey’s relationship with India could be independent of its ties with Pakistan. It would be naive to expect that Turkey would not stand by Pakistan over its disputes with India. In particular, it seems that the Kashmir issue used to be very close to the heart of the Turkish leadership. Turkey is one of those countries that have supported Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir at the bilateral level and at regional and international organizations, such as the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC, which comprises 57 Muslim countries, always issues anti-India statements.
During his one-day visit (3 August 2016) to Pakistan, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu took a very hard stance on the Kashmir issue. He reiterated Turkey’s support for Pakistan’s position on Jammu and Kashmir, and stated that Turkey would keep doing so until the dispute is resolved. During the joint news conference, Cavusoglu assured Pakistani Foreign Policy Advisor Sartaj Aziz that he would request the UN Secretary General to make an arrangement for a fact-finding mission to India-held Kashmir to investigate alleged atrocities committed by Indian security forces.
Before his visit to India, President Erdoğan advocated for the Kashmir issue’s resolution through multilateral dialogue, which is diametrically opposite to the Indian position for the settlement of the issue through bilateral dialogue. He said: “Through multilateral dialogue, I think we have to seek out ways to settle this question (Kashmir) once and for all, which will benefit both countries (India and Pakistan).”
India politely declined President Erdoğan’s proposal by saying that it is a bilateral issue and it will be sorted through the two-way dialogue. Sensing Indian sensibilities, President Erdoğan’s senior foreign policy advisor, Ilnur Cevik, issued a corrective statement that India and Pakistan should sort out the issue through peaceful means.
President Erdoğan’s proposal has been taken very favorably by Pakistan. The News International published a statement by the Pakistani government on 2 May 2017 that “Pakistan has always welcomed the statements and endeavors aimed at addressing the human rights issues in IoK (the so-called India-occupied Kashmir) and the resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.”
As far as the issue over India’s application for membership in the Nuclear Supplier Group’s is concerned, President Erdoğan has not opposed Indian membership, but at the same time he has emphasized that the NSG should come out with a clear policy for those countries which are not signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. He clearly said both India and Pakistan have equal rights for NSG membership: “Turkey was fair enough to support Pakistan, it was fair enough to support India.” Some analysts have argued that Pakistan’s membership of the NSG is a bête noire for India given its somewhat suspicious record of nuclear proliferation. Nonetheless, India expects Turkey to support its candidature for the NSG.
A cursory analysis of President Erdoğan’s visit does not give any concrete indication that the existing differences between both countries will be ironed out. Rather, their bilateral issues have become more confused and controversial. President Erdoğan’s controversial stances on Kashmir, his concerns over Indian Muslims, his emotional proximity and warm feelings toward Pakistan, his refusal to join the “containment” strategy over Pakistan, and his equal support for India and Pakistan’s NSG membership, all clearly show that Indo-Turkish relations cannot remain independent of the Pakistan factor. Moreover, President Erdoğan’s exhortation to the Indian leadership not to draw parallels between Turkey’s Kurdish problem and India’s Kashmir problem was a major blow to Indian interests.
Hence it may be concluded that despite both countries sharing a tremendous potential for economic and strategic cooperation, the Pakistan factor has paralyzed Indo-Turkish relations. Still, their bilateral trade and investment size do not correspond to the size of their economies, and there is need to institutionalize Indo-Turkish relations through economic diplomacy. To ensure robust economic and strategic relations at the bilateral level and healthy cooperation in the international organizations to protect their individual and regional interests, both countries need to engage and look beyond the Pakistan factor. There is a need to dissociate Pakistan for the fortification of Indo-Turkish relations, otherwise, there is hardly any hope of improving these relations.