Overcoming Turkey’s policy blunder concerning India

It was a grave mistake for Turkish foreign policy to cave in to Pakistani pressure to not invite India to the İstanbul summit on Afghanistan held in January of this year. The principles and values guiding Turkey’s foreign policy, including a multiple engagement policy in every region of the world with an honest broker approach, as coined by popular Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, were violated by this decision to appease the Pakistanis.

The meeting, attended by the Afghan and Pakistani presidents as well as senior diplomats and ministers from the UK, the US, Iran, Tajikistan, China, Kyrgyzstan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia, was therefore marred by the absence of major regional player India, which is undoubtedly one of the important stakeholders in resolving problems in its neighborhood. We heard many diplomats in the halls of the Foreign Ministry in Ankara at the time question the wisdom of this decision and express their disillusionment in private with Davutoğlu’s decision.

The issue came back to life with a sting after the recent WikiLeaks release of US diplomatic cables detailing the controversy surrounding the Turkish decision to bar India from the İstanbul meeting. During a meeting with the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, William Burns, Rauf Engin Soysal, then-deputy undersecretary for bilateral political affairs responsible for the Middle East, South Asia and Africa, admitted that India was not invited to the summit in deference to Pakistani sensitivities.

Islamabad apparently requested that Turkey bar New Delhi from the meeting in line with the Pakistani policy of keeping India out of any meeting on Afghanistan. As I recall from talks I have had with Pakistani diplomats on the issue, I understand Pakistan has grave concerns and misgivings about Indian involvement in war-torn Afghanistan under development schemes lest New Delhi try to blindside Pakistan by forming another front against the country using Afghan territory to its west.

That may be true, but the problem here is why should Turkish foreign policy risk its principles and values, which it supposedly espouses in all parts of the globe, to being hijacked by becoming too acquiescent to the wishes of the Pakistani government and make Turkey’s interests hostage to bilateral problems? Soysal, a former Turkish ambassador to Pakistan and currently UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy for assistance to Pakistan, claims that Pakistan understands that barring India from the summit would be a mistake.

From the viewpoint of Turkish interests, it makes no difference if Pakistan is able to discern the ramifications of the decision to exclude India. The real point here, we should stress to Mr. Soysal, is how on earth Turkey allowed itself to be cornered into this position at the risk of alienating a major player on the Indian subcontinent. What benefits were we expecting to reap from this shortsighted decision? The “realpolitik” of national interests dictates that we should have a balanced approach in our dealings with both Pakistan and India and avoid being trapped in the bilateral problems of these neighbors.

India is too valuable a player, not only in the region but also in the global theater, to be ignored by an increasingly assertive Turkish foreign policy. In line with the diversification policies adopted by both countries after the Cold War ended, there are huge potentials and opportunities to exploit. Both countries belong to the prestigious G-20 club, the top 20 economies of the world. There have been clear signals from the Turkish side that Ankara wants to re-evaluate relations with India in light of changing global dynamics. The reversal of the Turkish position on Kashmir is a prime example of this paradigm shift under the new security challenges of the 21st century as Turkey moved from a call for a referendum under UN supervision to stressing the importance of Indian-Pakistani bilateral talks to resolve the issue, which is arguably closer to the Indian position.

In the last couple of years we have witnessed increased high-level contacts between the two countries, another sign of renewed interest to further cooperation. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid an official visit to India in November 2008, followed by President Abdullah Gül’s visit in February 2010. Yet the potential was not fully realized, and there is still a considerable confidence gap between India and Turkey. Though it is unfortunate that the diehard habits of Indians who still see Turkey through a Pakistani prism still linger on, the political commitment of the leadership of both countries may help overcome this mistrust in the future. Barring India from the January summit did not help but may even have exacerbated the situation.

Economic cooperation sought by both countries may pave the way to further cooperation in other areas as well. I look forward to seeing how the Joint Study Group, formed during Erdoğan’s visit to India to explore the feasibility of a free trade agreement and other opportunities for cooperation, will formulate its report, which is expected to be published by the end of this year or early next year. This report could be a roadmap to further developing ties with India.

The two countries had a trade volume of $3 billion in 2009 before dropping to $2.3 billion last year due to the global economic crisis. The first 10 months of 2010 show a rebound in both export and import figures in a year-on-year comparison. According to the Turkish Statistics Institute (TurkStat), Turkish exports to India jumped 34 percent in the first 10 months of the year when compared to the same period of last year, from $336 million to $450 million. During the same period, imports from India also rose from $1.5 billion to $2.8 billion, a whopping 45 percent increase.

As the numbers point to increased cooperation between Turkey and India, political engagement will slowly but surely also expand and diversify in the coming years, especially after the introduction of new tools of interaction into the relationship.

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