Friends or foes: Are India-Turkey ties improving?

Friends or foes: Are India-Turkey ties improving?
India's economic diplomacy with Turkey could yield positive results, but Kashmir remains a source of friction.
6 min read
10 September, 2020
India-Turkey ties have remained unpredictable over the years. [Getty]
Last year in October, India had threatened to cancel a $2.3 billion project with Turkey to co-manufacture ships for the Indian navy, even as it finalised a $40 million defence deal to supply military radars to Turkey's political opponent Armenia. 

The threat was in reaction to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's criticism of New Delhi's revocation of Article 370 on 5 August 2019, a clause which had recognised the special status of Indian-administered Kashmir as an autonomous region. In his address at the UN General Assembly in September, Erdogan had called for dialogue between India and Pakistan to solve the Kashmir dispute. 

Therefore, even though Turkey had emerged as the lowest bidder for the pending deal, objections were raised by the Indian Ministry of Defence that since Turkish shipyards are a major supplier of warships to the Pakistan Navy, Turkish access to the strategic Hindustan Shipyard Limited (HSL) would result in serious security issues

Nevertheless, New Delhi removed the temporary hold order by the Indian defence ministry in February 2020 and the defence contract was signed just days after President Erdogan's visit to Islamabad.

What Pakistan's pivot to China means for India-Gulf ties

Since India had strongly objected to the joint declaration supporting self-determination for Kashmir during Erdogan's visit, it was quite unusual that it went ahead with the deal.

Ostensibly, New Delhi may have decided to gain economic influence over Ankara instead. With a plunging lira, Turkey could use more defence contracts and until now India has been the bigger partner in bilateral trade. 

In addition, a defence partnership with Turkey could help India reduce Pakistan's influence. Having inked two massive defence deals with Pakistan in 2018, Ankara had become Islamabad's second largest arms supplier after China.

One of the deals for four warships was "the single largest export in the history of the Turkish defence industry", according to the then National Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli.

With this new overture, New Delhi sought to soften Ankara's tone and stance over Kashmir, and if possible, to gradually dislodge it from Islamabad's side. Due to the constant 'Pakistan factor', India has not been able to establish strong, sustainable ties with Turkey. 

But even after the defence deal with Turkey, the only result India achieved was that on 5 August, the first anniversary of the removal of Kashmir's special status, Erdogan did not make any public statement. 

New Delhi has sought to soften Ankara's tone and stance over Kashmir, and if possible, to gradually dislodge it from Islamabad's side

Instead, the Turkish foreign ministry spokesperson declared that the withdrawal of special powers from Jammu and Kashmir has further complicated the situation and that it has not served peace and stability in the region. In response, New Delhi warned Ankara not to get involved in India's 'internal matters'.  

Plagued by such ups and downs, India-Turkey ties have remained unpredictable over the years. Even though there have been some 'high points' in their relations, stability has been lacking. 

Unpredictable relations

Diplomatic ties were established in 1948, but both countries remained at a distance for the next four decades as Turkey was a NATO member while India was in the pro-soviet camp during the Cold War period. Also, while Istanbul was part of the Baghdad Pact, New Delhi preferred to remain non-aligned.

The first breakthrough in relations came in 1968 when Turkish Prime Minister Turgut Ozal visited New Delhi and Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi reciprocated the visit two years later. Bilateral ties improved further, after Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit visited New Delhi in 2000 but opted not to visit Pakistan as it was under military rule at that time. 

Read more: How Facebook stifles local media in India to protect the ruling BJP

Considered the most India-friendly of Turkish leaders, Ecevit revised the traditional pro-Pakistan Turkish stance on the Kashmir issue. Instead of calling for its resolution under United Nations supervision he said the dispute was a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan. 

Another high point in relations was when Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee visited Turkey and various new sectors for bilateral cooperation were worked out. In 2008, Erdogan had also visited India in the capacity of Prime Minister. 

Focused on increasing trade, a 100-member business delegation accompanied him and the Turkey-India Free Trade Agreement (FTA) moved ahead. Consequently, the trade volume increased from $505 million in the year 2000 to $8.7 billion in 2018 but the balance has remained in India's favour.

Unsustainable friction?

There are, however, several chronic sources of tension in India-Turkey relations. First, Kashmir has been a constant point of friction as Turkey has mostly supported close ally Pakistan's stance on the matter. Tensions have arisen periodically on the matter since the 1950s, with Ankara incurring New Delhi's wrath in several significant incidents. 

Kashmir has been a constant point of friction as Turkey has mostly supported close ally Pakistan's stance on the matter

In 1991, during the twentieth Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers (ICFM), part of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) summits, Ankara condemned India's use of force in Kashmir. The dispute has since found resonance at the OIC as a matter of interest for the Islamic world. A contact group on Kashmir was formed by the body in 1994, with Turkey one of four members.  

More recently, Turkey held an international conference on Kashmir in 2019. Just months earlier Erdogan has raised the disputed region at the UN General Assembly, leading Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cancel a scheduled visit and freeze a billion-dollar naval deal. 

Around the same time, Turkey's ties with Pakistan were upgraded to a strategic partnership. 

Complicating matters further, an Indian intelligence report last month accused Ankara of efforts to radicalise Indian Muslims amid claims that Turkey has emerged as a hub for anti-India activities. Additionally, there has been consistent negativity regarding Turkey in the Indian press.

Could Saudi Arabia be parting ways with Pakistan?

New Delhi and Ankara also fell out over the issue of the Gulen movement in 2016. According to Erdal Sabri Ergen, the Turkish consul general in Mumbai, Turkey found "connections" in Mumbai and India with the perpetrators of the attempted coup. 

When Ankara demanded that New Delhi act against such institutions, India demanded evidence suitable to be presented in court and refused to close any of the schools in Delhi and other cities affiliated to the Gulenist philosophy.  

Thirdly, along with several other countries, in 2016 Turkey blocked India's membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a forum where the consensus of all the members is required before a new member is accepted. Ankara also left New Delhi out of the Turkey-sponsored dialogue on Afghanistan in 2010, reportedly at the request of Pakistan.

It remains to be seen whether New Delhi's new stint at 'economic diplomacy' will deliver positive results. Restraining Ankara from highlighting the Kashmir issue would be the first priority for India while trade and economy remain high on the list for Turkey. 

Recently, the Turkey-India Business Council (DEIK) of Istanbul's foreign economic relations board finalised an agreement with the Dubai-based Emirates NBD Bank. Under this arrangement, Turkey will have the special co-operation of five bank branches in four states in India along with greater ease in banking transactions.  

According to the Chairman of the Turkey-India Business Council, Tevfik Donmez, India is among the 17 countries included in the Turkish Trade Ministry export plan and the target is to increase the current volume of trade, which is $8.5 billion, to at least $20 billion. 

However, Ankara has the attractive option of actively becoming part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) further down the road. Therefore, New Delhi may be successful in improving ties with Ankara but the 'triangle situation' with Islamabad is bound to remain in the equation.

Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist, lawyer and geopolitical analyst specialising in modern China, the Belt and Road Initiative, Middle East and South Asia. 

Follow her on Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi