The first visit to New Delhi–from 30 April to 1 May 2017–of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after winning formidable executive powers by scraping through in a referendum, was marred, predictably enough, by his unacceptable comment on Kashmir. Nonetheless, it was remarkable that the visit went through, with both sides committed to a stronger economic relationship and bolstering of people-to-people relations.
Erdogan last visited India in 2008 as Prime Minister. This trip, India was the first stop on his visit, followed by Russia, China and the United States. Apart from ironing out crinkles in Turkey’s relations with the major powers, Erdogan also seeks validation of his win which many in his country dispute—more so, because it enthrones him as an undisputed leader, at least for the next five years.
On the face of it, Erdogan and Modi share many commonalities. Both are religious nationalists, governing vast multicultural democracies and emerging economies. They espouse majoritarian politics in large multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries. Yet, in a nod to the secularists in both countries, it was no surprise that their joint statement speaks of “the richly diverse and secular democracies of both nations”.
While the visit was not substantive on the spread of the bilateral agreements it was nevertheless high on optics for a variety of reasons. Erdogan was given an honorary degree by the Jamia Milia Islamia where, speaking in Turkish, he said that India and Turkey shared a common perspective on international developments, particularly on the restructuring the United Nations Security Council, to better reflect today’s reality.
India is Turkey’s second largest trading partner in the Asia-Pacific, although bilateral trade was down 28% to $4.91 billion in 2015-16. The two sides agreed to boost trade to at least $10 billion by 2020, with emphasis on information technology, infrastructure, pharmaceuticals, health and tourism. To encourage people-to-people relations, a new cultural exchange programme for 2017-20 was signed, together with agreements on cooperation between news agencies and training institutions. They also agreed to improve cooperation in the field of hydrocarbons and renewable energy, particularly solar and wind energy.
A 150-member trade delegation accompanying Erdogan attended the India-Turkey Business Forum, which is expected to take these ideas forward. Turkish industry was invited to participate in infrastructure projects in India and in the ‘Make in India’ programme.
On both the Nuclear Suppliers Group and on Kashmir, there was a reversion under the Islamic government to Turkey’s earlier position. Until 2002, when Erdogan took office, Turkey had come round to a bilateral resolution of Kashmir, realising that the Indian position was akin to their own on the Cyprus issue with Greece, which, like Pakistan, has always called for international resolution.
Therefore, by calling for a ‘multilateral dialogue’ on Kashmir, a day before his arrival, and offering to mediate, he raised India’s hackles with its known position on the exclusivity of a bilateral dialogue under the Shimla Agreement. He received an accordingly firm response from Prime Minister Modi. The Indian side explained the matter in bilateral discussions besides expressing displeasure at Turkey’s participation in infrastructure projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Erdogan’s activism, evident from his statement, calling for mediation through his good offices, resembled a position he had taken on Syria, one that alienated the Assad regime. The Kashmir offer was, however, not made formally, but through a news channel. In the joint press statement, both sides “urged all countries and entities to work sincerely to disrupt terrorists’” networks and their financing and stop cross-border movement of terrorists. Yet, on terrorism too, while Erdogan pledged his full support for India’s fight, it was its left-wing terrorism that he had in mind.
India was looking at the visit not only for its economic potential but also for support for its membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) of which Turkey is a member and had earlier supported India’s membership in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR). In the end it was not to be. Turkey said that it would like to see both India and Pakistan in the NSG, thereby aligning Turkey’s position with China’s. There being no support for Pakistan, it was a negative in different words.
In recognition of the unpredictability of the outcome, India had triangulated the Erdogan visit by inviting the Cyprus President to New Delhi a few days prior. Cyprus has been a steadfast supporter of India on Kashmir and is also an NSG member. Furthermore, Vice President Hamid Ansari made a state visit to Armenia earlier, visiting the Armenian genocide museum, an accusation that Turkey has not lived down.
With international relations in a state of flux, accepted relations between countries are being reviewed and new bilateral relations, not earlier considered possible, are being established, for example, one between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In a scenario of uncertainty and change, perhaps this is the way to go.
Foreign policy under Modi is certainly exhibiting this dynamism with the goal being to pull out mutually beneficial synergies with our partners even though we do not agree across the board. Turkey is one example while relations with China have also moved along this groove.
Rajendra Abhyankar, former diplomat, was Ambassador to Turkey from 1996 to 1998 and High Commissioner to Cyprus from 1987 to 1990. He teaches at Indiana University, Bloomington.
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 As Toby Dalton, an expert on non-proliferation and nuclear energy at the Washington-based think tank, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says: “Although it makes sense for India to be a member of the group, it could take another one or two years for the group to discuss all of the issues and implications of bringing India in. It isn’t a simple political matter, but has many legal, technical and policy implications that the group has not yet discussed.”