Sunday, January 16, 2011

Turkey-Pakistan Ties: India's Loss is China's Gain

In pursuit of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's concept of strategic depth, Turkey has been reaching out to rising powers in Asia while at the same time offering itself as a mediator in disputes in its near abroad. As part of this approach, Turkey is leveraging its longstanding ties with Pakistan and its stature as one of the few industrialized countries in the Muslim world to create a diplomatic role for itself in Afghanistan. But in a sign that Ankara's geopolitical outreach cannot transcend regional fault lines, Turkey kept India out of the January 2010 tripartite summit on Afghanistan at Pakistan's behest. In the face of India's diplomatic protest, Turkey subsequently sought to downplay the move, but it may nevertheless be indicative of a larger realignment in the region, with the Pakistan-Turkey relationship serving as an incubator.

Turkey was one of Pakistan's most-consistent allies throughout the Cold War, both ideologically and militarily. Military-to-military contacts remain as strong as ever, with the two countries now seriously exploring the coproduction of weapons ranging from armored vehicles to new-generation corvettes. Importantly, both sides also wish to boost defense exports to Islamic countries as an alternative to "expensive" Western weapons. However, given that Gulf Cooperation Council countries have recently placed substantial orders for American weapons, more likely candidates would be Egypt and Iran -- with the latter increasingly wooed by Ankara even at the cost of Turkey's long-standing ties with Israel.

A strong defense relationship with Pakistan gives Ankara the confidence to continue its troop presence in Afghanistan. While Turkey likes to describe its military contingent in Afghanistan as the only foreign force acceptable to the Afghan populace, it nevertheless understands that the well-being of its security presence may hinge on Pakistani support, given the latter's influence with the Taliban.

Pakistan is also attractively positioned as a facilitator for greater Sino-Turkish cooperation. Turkey's rising profile in Afghanistan comes at a time when China is beginning to seriously enter Afghanistan's resource-mining sector. China is also likely to seek Turkish help in dealing with the insurgency in Xinjiang on the basis of ethnic ties between Turks and Uighurs. China has added Turkey to the list of regional countries with which it is engaged in strategic missile cooperation -- the other chief recipients being Pakistan and Iran. In a move that shows that Turkey may be adopting an unconventional deterrence posture, the Turkish army obtained the technology for the short-range J-600T Yildrim ballistic missile from China. Moreover, the Chinese air force was a surprise participant in last year's annual Anatolian Eagle air exercise, in lieu of the Israelis or the Americans. This could well be a prelude to closer aerospace cooperation among China, Turkey and Pakistan, especially given China's development of various fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

Pakistan may serve as a bridge between Turkey and China in a more-literal manner. In 2009, the 4,000-mile Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul freight line opened for service, and 11 train loads of aid for Pakistan's flood-affected areas have already made their way from Turkey, with more to follow. During Turkish President Abdullah Gul's visit to Islamabad last December, the two sides agreed to work on a $20-billion plan to upgrade this rail link into a high-speed freight corridor. It is not inconceivable that China will at some point link up with this project by building a rail line through the Karakoram Pass connecting Kashgar in Xinjiang to Islamabad.

Turkey has also been involved in Pakistani rebuilding efforts following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. As for the Kashmir dispute itself, Turkey has in the last decade tempered its firm support of the Pakistani position to adopt a more-balanced approach that frames the conflict as a bilateral dispute to be solved via dialogue, rather than on the basis of 60-year-old U.N. resolutions. But given the conservative lurch in Turkish society and the ruling AKP party's political orientation, Ankara is likely to increasingly take into account Islamic sensibilities in its approach to Kashmir, similar to its shift on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

That, coupled with the fact that India has now been kept out of a fifth successive round of the trilateral dialogue that took place in late-December, makes it unlikely that Turkey's plan to present itself as a mediator in Afghanistan will inspire confidence in New Delhi. For its part, Turkey has sought to delink its concessions to Pakistan from its engagement with India, which it instead wants focused on trade and energy. Turkey is currently pushing for a free-trade agreement with India and has previously invited India to join the Baku-Ceyhan-Tbilisi pipeline.

But as with all of the other transnational gas pipelines to India's west that it has been invited to join, transit through Pakistan remains problematic. By contrast, the Chinese are in a better position to benefit as potential partners in regional energy infrastructure projects, given their all-weather friendship with Pakistan and the latter's control over the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Northern Kashmir bordering Xinjiang.

This possibility that Turkey might serve as the final node in China's ambition to gain overland access to the Mediterranean and the Middle East via Eurasian corridors should be far more worrisome to India than being kept out of the tripartite dialogue on Afghanistan. The very same constituencies that propelled the AKP to power in Turkey are also those that drive Turkey's turn to the east, and linking up with China seems like the biggest economic prize on offer. Better relations with Iran may also be understood in this context.

Running through all of these shifts is Pakistan's ability to exploit its geostrategic location to frustrate India's own ambitions to build bridges to Central and West Asia, while simultaneously proving an alluring partner for a Turkey looking to emerge as a genuine global middle power.

WPR Article | Turkey-Pakistan Ties: India's Loss is China's Gain


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