By Matija Šerić
On September 20, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again criticized India for failing to resolve the dispute with Pakistan and establish “just, lasting peace and prosperity in Kashmir”. Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar “hit back at the Turks” by meeting his Cypriot and Greek counterparts Ioannis Kasoulides and Nikos Dendias on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. At the same time, the leading Indian diplomat supported the unification of Cyprus, which he also did during a meeting with the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
The messages from those meetings were apparently a provocation intended for Turkey, which is criticized by most of the international community, including India, for decades of illegal occupation of Northern Cyprus. The latest armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is also a point of contention between New Delhi and Ankara. India has encouraged the cessation of hostilities, while Azerbaijan enjoys the support of Turkey. Before the flare-up of new conflicts, India expanded its defense ties with Armenia.
The aforementioned sharp diplomatic moves are the complete opposite of the pleasant talks between Erdogan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that took place on September 16 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. That unofficial meeting was an opportunity for both leaders to thaw the cold Turkish-Indian relations. The meeting discussed key issues between the two countries, including historical and economic ties. It seemed that reconciliation and rapprochement between the two great nations might follow.
However, only for a short time, because just a few days later the described diplomatic provocations took place. At first glance, it does not seem that the Turkish-Indian alliance will materialize anytime soon. Both governments, primarily because of the desire to score political points at home, are comfortable with conflict with the other side. However, despite the differences, it is inevitable that there will be a warming of relations. It’s only a matter of time. Bilateral rapprochement would greatly benefit both India and Turkey in many areas dominated by economy, integration into relevant multilateral organizations and suppression of terrorist activities.
A look at history awakens optimism. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were established in 1948. The Republic of Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the independent Republic of India. The relationship between India and Turkey was based on the Treaty of Friendship signed by Presidents Jawaharlal Nehru and Celal Bayar in 1951. The treaty highlighted India’s hopes of building a lasting partnership with Turkey in the post-colonial era. During the early years of independent and secular India, Nehru witnessed the development of a secular Turkish state. The foreign policy of Kemalist Turkey was centered on the principle of “Yurtta sulh, cihanda sulh” (“Peace at home, peace in the world”), which closely resembled India’s policy of non-alignment. India has an embassy in Ankara and a consulate general in Istanbul. Turkey has an embassy in New Delhi and a consulate general in Mumbai.
More recently, the rise to power of Erdogan’s Justice and Progress Party (AKP) and Modi’s BJP has widened the political gap between the two countries. This is not strange since both parties play the religion card in politics, i.e. they believe that politics should be carried out in the spirit of religion. AKP relies on Islamic and BJP on Hindu nationalism. The growing Islamization of Turkish society fueled by Erdogan’s foreign policy strategies (pan-Islamism and neo-Ottomanism) has worsened relations with India. On the other hand, the Hinduization of India led to a conflict with Turkey. Internal ethno-nationalist policies led to the collapse of interstate relations.
Relations were severely strained in August 2019 when the Indian parliament abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution, which guaranteed special status to the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir, which Pakistan consider its own. It was an event that led to a kind of diplomatic war. Ankara responded by raising its relationship with Islamabad to the level of a strategic partnership, and Erdogan criticized India at every possible opportunity. Criticisms in his speeches in the UN General Assembly resonate the most. Indians are strongly affected by these criticisms, which was evident in 2020 when India’s permanent representative to the UN, T.S. Tirumurti, stated that Turkey should first respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other nations. It turned out that Turkey considers Pakistan as a friend and India as an enemy in the South Asian region.
The Indians responded. Modi held meetings with the heads of the Armenia, Greece and Cyprus. Moreover, in October 2019, he was supposed to visit Turkey and Saudi Arabia, but he only visited the latter, which was a harsh message to Erdogan. Also, the Indians terminated a lucrative $2.3 billion naval contract with a Turkish military company. India also cut its military exports to Turkey, which included dual-use weapons such as explosives and detonators. Since then, India has significantly reduced its imports from Turkey. Moreover, it concluded a defense agreement worth 40 million dollars with Armenia, which Turkey considers as enemy.
Ankara has close relations with Islamabad not only because of Kashmir, but also because the relationship with Pakistan is a matter of rivalry between Turkey and the Arab countries of the Middle East (mainly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). It should be pointed out that in exchange for support on the Kashmir issue, Pakistan supports Turkey in issues such as gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and at the same time follows Turkey’s attitude towards the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey’s highlighting of the Kashmir issue and giving support to Pakistan in various multilateral forums is very annoying to Indian politicians. New Delhi considers Kashmir an integral part of India and has historically condemned foreign interference. Furthermore, Turkey’s implicit support for radical political organizations of Indian Muslims, such as the Popular Front of India (PFI), hastened the deterioration of ties between India and Turkey. More or less discrimination against Muslims in India strongly angers Erdogan, who considers himself the protector of Muslims on a global level. He has consistently criticized the Indian government for the plight of Indian Muslims, leading to several Indian protest notes. In addition to all this, Turkey provides scholarships to Indian Muslims, employs Muslim journalists from Kashmir and funds Indian NGOs that promote views not particularly dear to the Indian government.
The first step in improving India-Turkey relations is mutual cessation of direct criticism. Official Ankara will have to criticize India less and more quietly on the issue of Kashmir and the status of Indian Muslims. The Turks will need to apply an attitude towards India similar to the one they have with China, which they don’t call out publicly because of the position of the Uyghur Muslims. Turkey will have to treat India and Pakistan as two separate and independent entities. Likewise, India will need to criticize Turkey less often for its relations with Cyprus and its support for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Another step in improving relations is cooperation on transnational issues. The Indians could convince the Turks to reduce military cooperation with Pakistan and contribute to preventing Pakistani soil from being a terrorist base directed against India. At the same time, the Indians can help the Turks with advice on what strategies to use against money laundering, how to combat the widespread black market, and how to eliminate Kurdish and other terrorism.
Economic cooperation should be the third and most important step in improving relations between the two countries. Rich trade exchange with many countries around the world helps India to pursue a sovereign policy and be an independent pole in the international arena. India’s good economic relations with the Muslim countries of Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the direction that Indian politicians should take towards Turkey as well.
Current trends show that slowly but surely there is a “reset” of relations and a rapprochement between Ankara and New Delhi. This was symbolically seen in Erdogan’s speech at the UN last month. Criticism directed at India was of a “chamomile” character compared to past occasions. Actions are more important than words, and they go in the direction of normalizing relations. Three trends favoring the revitalization of Turkish-Indian relations are currently active: India’s growing economic power, Turkey’s failure to assert itself as the leader of the Muslim world, and deteriorating Turkish-Pakistani relations.
The Turkish government sees India as an important economic power on a global scale and must therefore be pragmatic. As Turkey looks for ways to boost its faltering economy, improved ties with India would ease at least somewhat the difficult inflation (80%) and financial debt situation it has suffered in recent years. In addition, Ankara wants to revitalize relations with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, and New Delhi can help it in this.
Namely, in September India took over the one-year presidency of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and in December it will take over the one-year presidency of the G-20. This will make India an extremely important economic factor. Turkey wants to become a member of the SCO (for now it is only a partner), and it will try to become a member next year in India. Obviously, an anti-India stance will not help Turkey in these circumstances, but a pragmatic pro-India stance will. Indians can lobby for Turkey’s inclusion in the exclusive I2U2 group. It is a multilateral economic forum consisting of India, Israel, the UAE and the USA. The goal of the organization is “joint investments and new initiatives in water, energy, transport, space, health and food security.”
Despite all the problems, the Turkish-Indian trade exchange is not at all insignificant. Between 2018 and 2021, trade growth was recorded from 8 to 10 billion USD. The best solution would be a free trade agreement, which would open up new perspectives for development. Turkey may include India in its “New Asia Initiative”, which is aimed at strengthening economic ties with Asian partners, including ASEAN. Strengthening economic relations with Turkey would enable India to have a stronger influence in the Middle East independent of Pakistan’s influence in the region.
Recently agreed economic projects are promising. India has awarded a $2.3 billion shipbuilding contract to a consortium of Turkey’s five largest shipyards, TAIS. The Turkish company Savronik completed the project of the Indian Ministry of Defense and built the Atal Tunnel on the Indian Leh-Manali highway. Furthermore, Indians are currently the third most numerous Asian tourists in Turkey after the Chinese and Indonesians. Indian companies, from food to technology, are gradually expanding their presence in Turkey.
Despite the great efforts of its president, Turkey hasn’t been able to establish itself as the leader of the Muslim world. It has attempted this in partnership with Pakistan, Qatar, Malaysia and Iran with the intention of curbing the influence of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The departure of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Pakistan’s financial dependence on Saudi Arabia eliminated the reality of such a plan. More than a desire for symbolic leadership in the Muslim world, Turkey needs good relations with Israel and the Gulf countries to improve its poor economic situation.
The deteriorating Turkish-Pakistani relations are mostly the result of the huge number of Pakistani migrants arriving in Turkey. According to Turkish reports, there are between 3,000 and 6,000 Pakistani illegal migrants in Turkish detention centers at any given time, while many others remain in Turkey until they find a way to go to Europe. The Turkish authorities are particularly disturbed by the fact that immigrants do not respect Turkish culture, especially women. Turkish intelligence sources claim that Pakistani illegals participate in gang wars and other illegal activities, including human and narcotics trafficking, and organize kidnappings of foreign tourists and demand ransom in return. This is a big problem because tourism is a very important source of income for the Turkish economy. Turkey cannot allow itself to become recognizable as a country where tourists are insecure. Taking these trends into account, it seems that Modi and Erdogan could create a powerful partnership.
A powerful Indian-Turkish alliance would bring peace, stability and prosperity to the regions of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and potentially beyond. A strong joint diplomatic effort of Modi and Erdogan could contribute to the ending of the Ukrainian crisis by proposing constructive peace plans. Due to their more or less correct relations with both Russia and the US, Modi and Erdogan could contribute more than anyone else to stopping the bloodshed in Ukraine and beyond. In addition to diplomatic, security and economic cooperation, it is important that domestic policymakers in Turkey and India adhere to the Kemalist and Gandhian visions of secular states. Too big departure from those visions has often brought more problems than benefits to both countries.
*Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.