Arrogance and extreme shortsightedness. Two terms that aptly describe Turkish President Erdogan’s anti-India rant at the UNGA recently. It was a strangely unimaginative discourse considering how Turkey stands to benefit economically by maintaining cordial terms with India. However, what Erdogan explicitly chose over India was a debt-ridden terror-infested Pakistan. A deeply foolish diplomatic strategy to say the least.
Since then India has almost uncharacteristically gone by the nature of its subdued foreign policy, taken strong offence to Turkey’s biased views on Kashmir and not shied away from expressing the same through both action and rhetoric.
No Tolerating Verbal ‘Ingress’
The first sign that India had taken immediate and strict cognisance of Ankara’s open support to Pakistan on Kashmir came when Prime Minister Modi met leaders of three nations – Cyprus, Greece and Armenia.
In support of Cyprus India came out with a blunt statement where it reiterated its support for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Cyprus. This statement was meant for Turkey as in 1974 Turkey had invaded Cyprus and occupied its northern part that it, later on, termed the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). This region is a staggering 36% of Cyprus’s total area.
Ever since relations between Cyprus and Turkey have been bitter and volatile. Turkey’s imperious nature is evident in the fact that it continues to keep over 30,000 troops in TRNC despite the region having absolutely no international recognition.
Prime Minister Modi then met Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Greece and Turkey also have unpleasant relations with the situation have deteriorated to such a degree that in 1996 they came perilously close to a conflict over the Greek islets of Imia in Greece; it was American intervention that prevented a war. Again, what reflects here is Turkey’s unconcealed disregard for the sanctity of neighbouring territory.
Then comes Armenia. The Turks of the Ottoman Empire had carried out a genocide of millions of Armenians in 1915 which is till date the reason for distasteful relations between the two nations.
The three bilateral meetings assumed immense significance owing to the relations these countries have with Turkey. They were essentially India’s way of saying to Turkey that if you push your nose into our internal business then we have ample ways to open the door to your closet of crimes.
A few days later came Turkey’s military offensive in Syria against the Kurds. In a swift reaction, the MEA said and I quote: “We are deeply concerned at the unilateral military offensive by Turkey in north-east Syria.” New Delhi asked Ankara to employ restraint and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria after which the Syrian ambassador gave a categorical statement saying that what India does in Kashmir is its own business. Criticism of the Turkish airstrikes signalled yet again that India wasn’t going to dilly-dally in its approach in countering those who made it a point to wrongly denounce India’s actions on its own territory.
In June, Turkey’s TAIS had given the lowest bid for a contract to manufacture five 45,000-tonne fleet support vessels for the Indian Navy. Despite winning the contract, there began floating news after Erdogan’s statements that India had put the $2.3 billion deal on halt. It now seems that the deal is as good as dead credit not just to Turkey’s latest anti-India stand but also because of security concerns as Turkish shipyards manufacture ships for Pakistan as well.
India’s holistic response was visible when the government issued a travel warning to Indians visiting Turkey. Tourism is a significant source of income for any country. In the first eight months of 2019, 1.5 lakh Indians visited Turkey, a rise of 55% from 2018 for the same period, and almost 30 destination weddings took place in Turkey which again rises from 2018. A reduction in tourists will negatively affect Ankara.
Tourism also has a huge cultural impact. Visiting a foreign nation denotes a tacit acknowledgement – or a curiosity at the least – towards the culture, people and lifestyle of that nation. This creates a silent soft spot and admiration for that nation and its people in the minds of tourists. This cultural influence is one of the pillars to being a true superpower. For example, America’s drastic and consistent ascent to superpower status is heavily dependent on its cultural allure which is absent in the case of China or Russia. (India is the only other large country that possesses a cultural aura that it is now exploiting for greater global clout). When tourism falls or negativity is created around a country then, as a result, its soft power takes a hit.
India’s firmness of purpose exemplified with its decision to reduce defence exports to Turkey. Even though India doesn’t export much, it does send dual-use items like detonating cord, safety fuses and explosives. India’s actions on such a seemingly trivial aspect speak a lot of its disappointment and anger over Turkey’s statements.
What made bigger news than any of the above-mentioned points was Prime Minister Modi cancelling his trip to Turkey. It would’ve been his first visit to the transcontinental country since assuming the mantle of prime ministership. To talk and express discontent about a matter is one thing; to signal that you don’t want to talk at all delivers an altogether different message. The cancellation of the visit was a pristinely clear message to Erdogan that India isn’t going to obsequiously carry-on relations if Turkey cannot respect India’s sensitivities.
What Made Erdogan Alight the Pakistani Boat?
One would naturally be curious about why would Turkey completely shift its allegiance towards Pakistan. The answer could lie in three words – nukes, arms, and Gulen.
Erdogan recently made his desire for acquiring nuclear weapons distinctly clear. It is known that Ankara had asked for India’s diplomatic support in its quest to becoming a nuclear power and also for technical help, and on both fronts, New Delhi had denied assistance. This leaves Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that itself got its nuclear technology through smuggling, as an idyllic option for obtaining relevant know-how. Pakistan, aided by the likes of China, could well help Turkey. China will see its interest in this chain of events…a sure-shot chance to break away a NATO member creating fissures in Western alliances (not to forget Russia who has sold the S-400 missile systems to Turkey thus souring relations between Turkey and America). However, what will be interesting to see is what America does of its 50 nuclear weapons stored at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.
Next is the issue of arms. Turkey has a burgeoning defence industry and Pakistan has been and continues to grow as a purchaser of arms. Turkey is building 4 MILGEM medium-sized warships for Pakistan as per a $1 billion deal. It is repairing two of Pakistan’s five submarines. The biggest deal between the two was to sell 30 T129 ATAK helicopter gunships to Pakistan for $1.5 billion. However, this deal was blocked by the US due to licence issues. Turkey is now holding a Pakistan-Turkey defence equipment exhibition with Pakistan as its host for the first time. Turkey sees the potential for defence collaboration with Pakistan, but its surprisingly parochial way of looking at things is evident; Pakistan can never match India’s purchasing power when it comes to arms yet Turkey chose to risk all ties with India.
The last aspect is personal. Fethullah Gulen is Erdogan’s political adversary, and Erdogan blames him for attempting a coup against him in 2016. Where does India come in all this? The Turkish dispensation believes that Gulen-controlled schools and institutes operate in many places in India and the Indian government has refused to close them down.
Even though India and Turkey have maintained rather cordial relations over time, Turkey has repeatedly acted against Indian interests. From supplying American-origin weapons to Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars to opposing India’s entry into the NSG, from supporting Pakistan’s line on Kashmir to preventing it from being blacklisted by the FATF, the India-Turkey relationship is probably more of a feel-good facade than anything else.
What is strikingly similar between Pakistan and Turkey is that both occupy neighbouring land (TRNC and PoK), both have bad relations with neighbours (Turkey with Greece, Armenia and Cyprus, and Pakistan with India, Afghanistan and Iran), both have conducted genocides (Turkey of Armenians and Pakistan of Bengali Muslims), and both support terrorists (Turkey backs ISIS and Pakistan a plethora of outfits). Both seem to be made for each other!
It was about time that ties with Turkey were reduced for nothing comes above national interest to a proud nation, and fortunately, India is now portraying itself to be one.