Turkey could be an additional player in South Asian affairs

Turkey could be an additional player in South Asian affairs

With improvement of ties with Bangladesh after the standoff over the 1971 war crimes trials, and with the strengthening of relations with Pakistan, an economically resurgent and politically ambitious Turkey may become a factor in South Asian affairs in course of time, writes P.K.Balachandran in DailyFT.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Mohammad Asif’s recent visit to Turkey was remarkable in that the President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan had broken protocol and met the Foreign Minister. And the Turkish government even publicized a picture of the meeting. The picture represented a new approach to regional affairs on the part of Turkey.  Turkey now considers Pakistan as a key factor in its new schemes in Afghanistan and also the South and Central Asian region.

Angered by US President Donald Trump’s attack on it regarding its activities in Afghanistan, Pakistan is looking for new allies to pursue its interests in Afghanistan. And Turkey tops the list of countries which Islamabad would like to have on board.

Turkey and Pakistan have always been close allies. Prior to independence in 1947, the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent had supported the Sultan of Turkey in his fight with the European countries on post World War I settlement. The Sultan was the only Islamic potentate who had dared to take on the European powers in modern times. He therefore enjoyed great prestige among Muslims all over the world. Later, the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, wanted Pakistan to be a modern and liberal Muslim country like Kamal Ataturk’s post-war Turkey.

During the Turkish-Greek war over Cyprus, Pakistan offered financial and diplomatic support to Turkey. In return, Turkey has consistently supported Pakistan against India on the Kashmir issue, even at the risk of alienating New Delhi irretrievably.

Other factors which bind Turkey and Pakistan are their uneasy involvement in America’s war against terror and their search for alternaive alliances. While both believe that they are doing their best to crush terrorism, America says they ought to do more to prove their trustworthiness. Both countries host millions of refugees – Turkey from troubled Syria and Pakistan from troubled Afghanistan. An both countries are battling homegrown battling terrorists. There is therefore much to share and consult about.

It is the context of the troubled relations with their erstwhile allies, the US and Europe, that Turkey and Pakistan are now looking to cultivate their “historical and cultural allies” in Central and South Asia.

Last year, Turkey asked Pakistan to send its F-16 pilots to train its pilots. But the US stopped Pakistan from obliging its friend. Turkey ,Pakistan, Afghanistan have an intelligence sharing mechanism. Under the aegis of Turkey, Pakistan and  Afghanistan have met several time to discuss security .

Turkey is a participant in the NATO military mission in Afghanistan and as such is training the Afghan police force.  However it is using its presence in Afghanistan and its good relations with the regime in Kabul to play a peace making role in the troubled country. It is also trying to be a bridge between Afghanistan and Pakistan.The Afghan government’s call for talks with the Pakistan-backed Taliban enables peace efforts to begin, and Turkey could be a catalyst in this process.

Turkey can bring the Uzbeks and influential Turkmen groups to the negotiating table in Afghanistan while Pakistan can bring the Taliban and other Pashtun groups hostile to the government in Kabul. Fortunately for Turkey and Pakistan, the Americans are praising Turkey’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Turkey has previously mediated between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There have been almost a dozen trilateral summits held in Ankara to talk about border management, the Durand Line, refugees, and the Indian factor in Afghanistan.

Turkey and Pakistan are looking into forming a regional partnership with Russia and Iran to solve the Taliban question, overcoming long standing differences with Moscow and Teheran. Both Turkey and Pakistan now feel that Russia is a more reliable partner than the US. The Russian-Turkish-Iranian-negotiated de-escalation zone in Syria serves as a model for cooperation in Afghanistan.

The other reason to make up with Russia and Iran is Turkey’s economic development. Economically developing  Turkey is dependent on Russia for 58% of its natural gas needs. 41%  of its oil comes from Iran.

Bangladesh

When tragedy struck Bangladesh in August-September in the form of the influx of 410,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, Turkey was the only country to immediately offer assistance. Turkish President and strongman Erdogan sent his wife to Bangladesh to see the refugees and distribute aid. The Turkish First Lady  promised that Turkey would take up the issue  at the next UN General Assembly session later in the month.

Both countries have now put behind the disruption in relations brought about Erdogan’s severe criticism of the hanging of two Bangladeshi war criminals – both leaders of the Jamaat e Islami – in the past year.  While Turkish TV called Bangladesh a “rogue state” on account of the hanging of the Islamic leaders, Turkey  withdrew its Ambassador in Bangladesh.

But later, Ankara relented as it wanted to play a role in Bangladesh to restore as peace and development in the troubled country. With an ambition to play a role in South Asia ,Turkey could not carry on the spat with Bangladesh, and the Rohingya issue helped Ankara re-build bridges with Dhaka. Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh are now working to solve the Rohingya issue, or at least, to help Bangladesh to tide over the humanitarian crisis.

Economic Imperatives

The main reason for Turkey’s new foreign policy initiatives is its growing economic strength under the stable and dynamic rule of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) since 2002.

Gone is the era of unstable coalition governments and military coups.  JDP’s policy of mixing populist development programs with Islamic values has delivered the goods in terms of popular support despite the persecution of dissidents.

Turkish foreign aid and investment have increased in the Muslim countries of North and Sub-Saharan Africa and  the Turkic countries of Central Asia. The budget of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) is active in 30 countries, most of them having significant Muslim populations.

Turkish religious leader Fethullah Gülen’s schools are mushrooming in South Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Balkans. Turkey has infrastructure projects in Pakistan. Turkish construction companies are rebuilding some parts of Georgia. Additionally, Turkish big business is opening factories in Bulgaria. Turkish banks dominate the finance sector in Bosnia.

Turkish brands are flooding markets in Egypt and Iraq. Throughout the Balkans, South Caucasus, Middle East and Pakistan, people watch Turkish movies and soap operas. They spread the Turkish way of life which is modern and yet Islamic.

Given its  role as the “natural Islamic leader” of the Middle East prior to World War I,  Turkey has the confidence to pursue an independent foreign policy unlike other Middle and Central Asian countries.It sees itself as a “rising power”.  “Neo-Ottomanism” is Erdogan’s motto.

(The featured picture at the top shows the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan greeting the Pakistan Foreign Minister Mohammad Asif)