Is an India-Turkey rapprochement in sight?


In a less publicized event during Turkey’s latest diplomatic reset, Indian and Turkish diplomats met after a four-year hiatus for political consultations in Ankara on June 10. According to informed sources, the two sides reached an agreement to increase the exchange of views and perspectives. strengthen their bilateral cooperation in the months to come. After a prolonged time, the new initiatives did not come without reason.

For a long time, the two countries considered their relations only in terms of their bilateral merits; nevertheless, they have been active beyond their traditional geographies and have built their spheres of economic, security and political cooperation. In recent years, India has become more active in the entire Indian Ocean region, including the Persian Gulf and the Indo-Pacific. With two summits, the cooperation quartet between the United States, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), India and Israel has now taken a form that has brought India closer to its natural maritime neighbors and made it their partner in peace and stability. Through its membership in NATO, Turkey has also deepened its ties with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. In Central Asia and Eurasia, Turkey has long worked to reconnect with Turkish people and cultures and has formed the Organization of Turkish States (OTS). The liberation of Karabakh also brought new opportunities for normalization with Armenia as well as cooperation in the 3+3 format between the South Caucasian nations of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, and their powerful neighbors, namely Russia, Turkey and Iran. As India-Turkey trade reaches a threshold of nearly $10 billion and India-Turkey trade and tourism relations increase, they cannot avoid wider political consultation.

However, the India-Turkey relationship is not an easy combination. This poses a complex puzzle for Indian and Turkish observers, as the relationship is assessed against a highly volatile regional political environment in South Asia and the Middle East. Turkey is a country that has long belonged to the Western security architecture as NATO’s largest army, with a neoliberal economy, deeply tied to European politics and economics, emerging as a Eurasian power. The country’s economy performed very well from 2005 to 2013, enough to join the club of G-20 economies. India had maintained a strict non-alignment approach to international issues. With the waning influence of the Non-Aligned bloc in global politics, India faces two different realities, one, China has not only established itself as an economic and military power, but has also developed a different worldview as opposed to the philosophy of previously agreed upon principles of peace and cooperation, known as the “Principles of Panchsheel”. Moreover, India has gradually reduced its dependence on defense supplies from Russia and diversified its relationship beyond defence. Turkey, too, has extended its relations beyond the West and tried to reduce its dependence on Western defence.

Although belonging to two different security environments, India and Turkey have nevertheless found a comprehensive economic agenda to cooperate and advance their trade relations. Companies from both countries have started to explore their markets and found promising opportunities in all sectors. Turkish companies are active in metro, road and tunnel construction and civil aviation projects in India. Despite the fruitful economic relations, their political relations do not correspond to the level of economic convergence. This is where such extensive political consultation was needed to iron out their outstanding differences and fill gaps in trust. In short, there are three issues where India and Turkey’s political relations have failed to build trust.

First, Turkey’s very special relationship with Pakistan, India’s great rival, is generally seen as a “preferential choice”, at least in their public sentiments and bilateral narratives. Having good relations with any country is, after all, the most important goal of diplomacy. Relations with India and Pakistan have their respective merits in Turkish diplomacy. Still, the merits of the two different relationships sometimes fade. While Pakistan-Turkey exchanges at all levels are frequent, India-Turkey exchanges have remained limited. Although Turkey’s Asia Anew initiative has indeed promised a fresh start and a new perspective, Turkey’s Asia Anew initiative has yet to offer anything promising to the world’s sixth-largest economy. So far, the Asia New Initiative has focused on new geographies and new markets, while old markets like India require a much more holistic approach.

In terms of understanding South Asia in general and India in particular, Turkey’s political outlook remains occupied by the hottest geographies of the Middle East, Europe and Eurasia. Rarely does a think tank in Turkey publish and discuss South Asia and India beyond marginal commentary. The region requires more academic and intellectual investment to understand the region as a permanent need. Turkey has a very limited number of South Asian-related discussions in its universities, think tanks, and policy forums. As Turkey’s strategic profile and ambitions grow, Turkey’s regional outlook is being carefully watched by all regions and stakeholders.

Second, the two countries have often been at odds over the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars. On several occasions, Turkish leaders have raised the issue in international forums, only to be strongly denied by Indian authorities. The row between Turkey and India over an issue mainly fought bilaterally by India and Pakistan has done little to help resolve the issue or improve trust between India and Turkey. Previously, the Gulf countries also used similar approaches and decided to engage with India and Pakistan on their individuality and merits.

Third, the most important, rather the most important issue is to find mutually beneficial business relationships. The least discussed topic between Indian and Turkish observers is the scope of economic cooperation far beyond their bilateral relations. Companies from both countries compete for international projects ranging from energy to construction to transport. India has gradually established its footprints in Africa and the Middle East, where Turkey has recently expanded its diplomatic and commercial presence. In Central Asia and Europe, Indian and Turkish companies have many common interests in supporting local governments to keep their investment choices diversified and less dependent on any power. While Turkey has managed to diversify its relations beyond Europe, especially with its trade and investment relations, Turkish and Indian companies meet everywhere. However, they have yet to explore how to use the cooperation opportunities available in other regions for joint trade and development projects. Discussions on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) once proposed and discussed during President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to India, may be a starting point. Joint efforts in research and development, cooperation in renewable energy, cybersecurity and the environment are the areas of immediate mutual interest.

Not to mention that India was among the first countries to condemn the military coup attempt in Turkey in 2016 and responded positively to Turkey’s security concerns over the activities of the Gülenist Terrorist Group (FETÖ).

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