India’s Turkish opportunity

India’s Turkish opportunity

Kanchi Gupta
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Turkey for the G-20 summit in November could have injected a degree of momentum to otherwise largely stagnant relations. Even though India has emerged as Turkey’s second largest trading partner, bilateral relations seems to be marked by sporadic political engagement. Indo-Turkish relations have been largely informed by Ankara’s long-standing partnership with Islamabad, often translated into support to Pakistan over the Kashmir dispute. A definitive test of Modi’s diplomatic outreach to Turkey would be his ability to leverage the geo-economic partnership to moderate Islamabad’s influence in Ankara. 

The last Indian prime ministerial to visit Turkey was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s trip in September 2003. During the tenure of the previous Congress-led UPA government, Salman Khurshid became the first Indian foreign minister to visit Ankara in 2013 and his visit was closely followed by that of Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. While President Mukherjee announced that defense cooperation and cooperation on regional issues including Syria and Afghanistan would top the agenda, no substantial agreement emerged during his visit. The most recent high-level engagement was the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Turkey in January 2015 and her counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s brief stopover in Delhi on March 19, 2015. The meetings, however, did not receive much media attention in India and were pithily described as focused on bilateral ties and regional developments of common interest. 

Even though Indo-Turkish economic relations constitute an important dimension of bilateral ties, their development has remained well below potential. Negotiations over a Free Trade Agreement have been ongoing since September 2009 but remain inconclusive due to a trade deficit unfavorable to Turkey. The bulk of bilateral trade and economic cooperation agreements signed between India and Turkey date back to Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit and demand a new momentum to bolster relations. 

The Turkish construction sector is one of the most coveted globally and can play a pivotal role in the development of Indian infrastructure. Turkish Ambassador to India Burak Akçapar has conveyed Ankara’s keenness to participate in Modi’s “Make in India” initiative, particularly in the civil aviation sector. Turkey’s strategic location offers India a platform to boost its economic presence in Central Asia and the two countries inked a Memorandum of understanding in 2005 for oil and gas exploration cooperation in the Caspian basin, among other regions. Projects to build Indian oil refineries in Turkey have also been in the pipeline since 2006 but have not come to fruition yet. 

India and Turkey have much to offer to each other as emerging economies, but whether or not political differences will hamper the expanding economic space between the two countries remains to be seen. India’s exclusion from the Turkey-led dialogue on Afghanistan in 2010 and Ankara’s attempts to block India’s membership to the Nuclear Supplier’s Group, both allegedly due to Pakistan’s pressure, strained relations significantly. While the two countries have mended fences on these issues, India is likely to closely monitor Turkey’s military ties with Pakistan and infrastructure projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. 

Over time, Turkey has adopted a more even-handed approach to India’s disputes with Pakistan, in lieu of stronger trade and energy ties with the former. As Ankara seeks greater engagement with rising Asian powers as part of a revamped foreign policy, the time is ripe to impart a strategic dimension to Indo-Turkish relations. Greater momentum to nascent counter-terrorism cooperation, intelligence sharing and maritime security cooperation will elevate security ties between both counties. India can also emerge as a reliable partner in regional energy infrastructure projects. An elevated Indo-Turkish profile will give India the opportunity to restructure relations between the subcontinent and the west Asian region, just as India has managed to do with the Gulf. 

Pakistan has always cast a shadow over India’s relations with the West Asian region. However, New Delhi’s economic and strategic commonalities with the Gulf have led regional powers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE to de-hyphenate their ties with India and Pakistan. In an acknowledgment of India’s security concerns vis-à-vis Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has extradited, to India, three terrorists linked to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the ISI. 

As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) looks to boost bilateral ties with India, there is also greater disenchantment with Pakistan’s policies and concerns over the security establishment’s ability to control radical groups. Stung by Islamabad’s refusal to join the Yemen war, the UAE too endorsed India’s concerns about cross-border terrorism during Modi’s visit in August 2015. While Modi was able to seize the moment in the Gulf, the hope is that he can carry forward the momentum to other regional powers and secure more than just a diplomatic victory against Pakistan. 

* Kanchi Gupta is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.