India - Turkey: Dealing with Turkey’s Regional Ambitions


India - Turkey: Dealing with Turkey’s Regional Ambitions

Turkey’s ambitions in Afghanistan and the region could become a matter of concern for India.  Turkey, writes C Raja Mohan (director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express) “is not a new regional actor in India’s northwest. Ankara and Kabul have recently celebrated the centennial of the establishment of diplomatic relations. Through this century, Turkey has engaged purposefully with Afghanistan over a wide domain.

“While it joined the NATO military mission in Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban at the end of 2001, Turkey avoided any combat role and differentiated itself from the Western powers. Ankara has contributed to the training of the Afghan military and police forces. It has also undertaken much independent humanitarian and developmental work.

“Turkey’s good relations with both Afghanistan and Pakistan have also given space for Ankara to present itself as a mediator between the warring South Asian neighbours……Widespread goodwill for Turkey in Afghanistan has now come in handy for the US in managing some elements of the post-withdrawal phase. Turkey, in return, will of course demand its pound of flesh from the West.”

For example, “Ankara is in negotiations with the US on taking charge of the Kabul airport which is critical for international presence in Afghanistan that is coming under the Taliban’s control. Turkey has been running Kabul airport security for a while, but doing so after the US pullout will be quite demanding.”

Turkey’s growing role in Afghanistan, emphasises Mohan “opens a more difficult phase in relations between Delhi and Ankara…….And Turkey’s deepening bilateral military-security cooperation with Pakistan made it even harder for Delhi to take a positive view of Ankara.” The two have  remained close partners in a number of regional organisations and international forums like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.


Turkey’s appeal to Indian Muslims

“The Pakistani prism through which Delhi has long seen Ankara, however, has prevented it from fully appreciating the growing strategic salience of Turkey. Erdogan’s active claim for leadership of the Islamic world has seen a more intensive Turkish political, religious, and cultural outreach to the Subcontinent’s 600 million Muslims……

“Turkey, which hosted the Caliphate in the Ottoman era, had natural spiritual resonance among the South Asian Muslims. The abolition of the Caliphate in 1924, Turkey’s Westernisation under Ataturk reduced its religious significance. Erdogan’s Islamist politics are about regaining that salience.”


India’s options

India, which has been at the receiving end of Erdogan’s internationalism, has multiple options in pushing back, argues Mohan.  “The recent naval exercise between India and Greece in the Mediterranean offers a small hint of India’s possibilities in Turkey’s neighbourhood.

“Many Arab leaders reject Erdogan’s policies that remind them of Ottoman imperialism. They resent Erdogan’s support of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood that seek to overthrow moderate governments in the Middle East. There is much that India can do to up its game in the Arab world…..”

For Delhi, analyses Mohan “there are larger lessons from Erdogan’s regional ambitions. One is the new fluidity in geopolitics in India’s extended neighbourhood to the west. Two, agency for regional powers is growing as the influence of great power weakens. Three, religious ideology, like the more secular ones, is a cover for the pursuit of power.

“Finally, Erdogan has carefully modulated his confrontation with major powers by avoiding a breakdown in relations. For Erdogan, the choices are not between black and white. That should be a good guide for India’s own relations with Turkey. Delhi needs to vigorously challenge Turkey’s positions where it must, seize the opportunities opened by regional resentments against Erdogan’s adventurism, and at the same time prepare for a more intensive bilateral engagement with Ankara.”

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