The Turkish Exception to India's Forays in West Asia
Md. Muddassir Quamar

The West Asia region is considered an “extended neighbourhood” in Indian foreign policy discourse. Since recalibrating its foreign policy in the 1990s, this important region has found a coveted place in India’s external outreach. Consequently, India’s relations with regional countries, including Oman, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and others improved over time. Trade, business, investments, energy and expatriates form the core of these relations, with maritime security, counterterrorism, fighting radicalism, and prevention of organised crime adding the strategic component. The ability of New Delhi and the regional capitals to de-hyphenate Pakistan and Israel in bilateral engagements helped in strengthening relations over the past three decades.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi since coming to power in May 2014 brought a new energy in reaching out to the West Asian countries. He prioritised relations with UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel while also engaging extensively with Iran, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan. During the COVID-19 pandemic, India and the West Asian countries exchanged expertise, vaccines and other necessary medical supplies to help and assist each other. The regional countries also assisted in repatriation of Indian citizens stranded in the region due to lockdowns and/or loss of work. Further, India has intensified regional outreach by engaging in initiatives such as the India-Israel-UAE-US (I2U2) quadrilateral and India-France-UAE trilateral.

In the meantime, the region faced challenges in the form of popular unrest, conflicts, civil wars, geopolitical contestations, radicalism and terrorism, and the Indian responses to these have been prudent and proactive underlining the maturity of the Indian approach towards West Asia. Several factors have contributed to this over time, but in recent years it is Prime Minister Modi's diplomatic acumen that stands out.

Notwithstanding the flourishing of ties with other regional countries, India’s relations with Türkiye have remained mired in challenges and problems. Despite moderate growth in economic and trade relations since 2001, the political ties have often been affected by the Pakistan and Kashmir factors. The propensity of the Turkish leadership to raise matters about Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in international organisations and at multilateral forums, including the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), has irked New Delhi hampering any possibility of blossoming of bilateral ties.

Among the factors that have contributed to the Turkish behaviour is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's desire to champion the so-called “Islamic” causes in the international arena. Türkiye’s domestic political circumstances and the close Türkiye-Pakistan relations too have contributed to this situation adding to the problems.

The domestic political situation in Türkiye since the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdoğan in 2002 and 2003 respectively too has affected the Turkish approach towards India. AKP’s recourse to identity politics rooted in Islamism has been a contributing factor in Ankara’s foreign policy. Erdoğan after having spent over two decades in power has at times showed a degree of pragmatism in reaching out to different countries if it suits Turkish interest.

Ultimately, the India-Türkiye ties seem to have frozen in the Cold War era dynamics when most Islamic and West Asian countries, with the exceptions of Ba'athist and socialist regimes, extended support to Pakistan over J&K. In other cases, the dynamics changed during the 1990s and early 2000s, but in the Turkish case, it has lingered on.

After 2019, India has incrementally been taking diplomatic and geopolitical steps to underline the futility of the Turkish approach, especially by enhancing its outreach in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Besides, New Delhi has been critical of Ankara's military adventures in its neighbourhood, and due to Turkish activism, PM Modi cancelled his proposed visit to Ankara in 2019. New Delhi also threatened to review and cancel the US$ 2.3 billion contract between Hindustan Shipyard Limited and Anadolu Shipyard for construction of five fleet support ships in 2020. In 2022, a public outroar in India over the appointment of Ilker Ayci as CEO of Air India led him to pull out of the race.

The Indo-Turkish relations have got entangled in the Pakistan factor, and Türkiye remains the only country in the world, along with China, to support Pakistan on J&K. This requires concentrated political, diplomatic and economic measures on the part of New Delhi to reverse the situation. India's economic leverage can be instrumental in this regard. Türkiye's economic troubles have forced Erdoğan to seek reconciliations, or efforts towards it, with regional countries including UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Iran, and even Greece, Armenia and Syria.

Although Ankara’s foreign policy reconsiderations since 2021 can be viewed as part of the broader trend of reconciliations among regional countries, there indeed is a Turkish geoeconomic component to it. Further, after his re-election in May 2023, Erdoğan is looking for external partners to bring Türkiye out of its regional isolation and economic downturn.

For India, this presents an opportunity given the economic heft in India’s favour, and the immense possibilities for trade, business, and investment ties. The economic outreach backed by diplomatic, political and geopolitical moves, and cultural diplomacy, can help in modifying Turkish behaviour, and might even lead to de-hyphenating Pakistan in bilateral relations.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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