By P. K. Balachandran Bangla
Turkey, which has emerged as a challenger of the United States and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, is expanding its footprint in South Asia using its economic, military and Islamic clout.
Admittedly, Ankara is still on the margins in South Asia, but it may not remain so in the foreseeable future. Factors likely to propel it further in South Asia are: it’s growing economic and military power; its friendship with China; its soured ties with India; and India’s less than happy relations with its neighbors.
Pakistan has been the stepping stone for Turkey in South Asia. Turkey’s relations with Pakistan are the strongest in the region. Given Islamabad’s disenchantment with Riyadh over the latter’s reluctance to take up the Kashmir issue strongly and meaningfully in its own fiefdom, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and Turkey’s strong and consistent support for Pakistan on that issue, Ankara-Islamabad ties are on a growth trajectory.
This was evident in Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s regretting that under Saudi economic pressure, he did not attend the December 2019 Kuala Lumpur summit of Islamic countries to force the OIC to take a stand on Kashmir and other Muslim issues. The conference was organized by Malaysia and attended by Turkey, Iran, Qatar and Indonesia. In February 2020, Imran visited Kuala Lumpur and mended ties with Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad.
The latest event indicating growing Turkey-Pakistan ties is the visit of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Islamabad earlier this week. Addressing the Pakistani parliament on Friday, Erdogan said: “Turkey believes that the Kashmir issue cannot be resolved through oppressive means, but on the basis of principles of justice and peace.” Turkey had openly defended the “just struggle of Kashmiris” at the 74th session of UN General Assembly and during all meetings of the OIC, he added.
Referring to the lockdown in the Kashmir Valley since August last Erdogan said: “Curbing the freedom rights of Kashmiris and putting them under siege, will be in no one’s interest.” It is a “religious duty” of all Islamic countries to stand for the oppressed Muslims anywhere in the world, may it be in Palestine, Cyprus or Kashmir, he added.
Like Pakistan, Turkey has to battle internal militant groups, Erdogan said and named Daesh, Kurdish PKK and Fetullah Gulen’s FETO. He thanked Pakistan for allowing the takeover of FETO-linked schools in Pakistan by Turkey’s Maarif Foundation. Erdogan assured Pakistan of continued support on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) placement. He further said that he had come with a high-powered delegation to participate in the sixth meeting of Pak-Turk High Level Strategic Cooperation Council.
Pakistanis remember that when Azad Kashmir experienced an earthquake in 2005, Turkey gave financial assistance of US $100 million and relief goods worth US$ 50 million, including a million blankets, 50,000 tons of flour and 25,000 tons of sugar.
Pak-Turkey military ties
Turkey-Pakistan military ties have been growing speedily with Turkey emerging as Pakistan’s second largest defense equipment supplier after China. In October 2018, the Pakistan Navy commissioned a 17,000-ton fleet tanker built in collaboration with a Turkish defense company STM. It was the largest warship ever constructed at the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works, reports said.
In July 2018, Turkey won a multibillion-dollar tender to supply four corvettes to the Pakistan Navy, in what was dubbed as the largest-ever export deal in the Turkish defense industry.
Ankara is buying MFI-17 Super Mushshak aircraft from Pakistan, upgrading three Pakistani submarines and jointly building another fleet tanker. Two countries finalized a deal for the sale of 30 ATAK helicopters in July 2018.
Pak-Turkey upgrading of defense relations became essential when due to US sanctions, Pakistan faced constraints about maintaining the F-16s provided by the US. Turkey came to the rescue and helped upgrade 41 F16 fighter jets, manufacturing engines as well as spare parts for the aircraft.
Exercises between Turkish, Pakistani and Uzbek armies were held in April 2019 in eastern Uzbekistan. Named the Partnership Shield 2019, these drills simulated terrorist infiltrations in a country. The next exercise will take place in Turkey.
Experts opine that Ankara has been the most reliable ally of Islamabad. Turkey was the only country which supported Pakistan when it was put on the ‘grey list’ by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). Like China, Turkey has backed Pakistan’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group “based on non-discriminatory criteria.” However, the newest and politically the most noteworthy part of Erdogan’s visit to Pakistan will be the talks on giving dual citizenship, which indicates immense mutual trust.
Bangladesh-Turkey Ties Grow After Bumpy Start
Historically, ties between Turkey and Bangladesh had a bad start as Turkey fully backed Pakistan during the Bangladeshi freedom struggle. Ties improved somewhat during the Presidency of H.M.Ershad but soured again when Turkey openly opposed Sheikh Hasina’s sending Jamaat-e-Islami activists to the gallows for their activities during the liberation struggle.
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) had adopted Islamism in 2011. As a result, Turkey supported the Jamaat-e-Islami Party in Bangladesh. On the trial issue, Turkey recalled its ambassador to Bangladesh for three months, precipitating a diplomatic crisis.
A second source of conflict was the Turkish opposition Gülen Movement’s activities in Bangladesh. After declaring the Gülen Movement a terrorist organization in May 2016, Turkey put pressure on the Bangladeshi government to ban its businesses and educational institutions and deport its activists.
Role of Rohingya influx
However, the influx of lakhs of Muslim Rohingyas into Bangladesh from Buddhist Myanmar, brought Turkey back into the Bangladesh scene. Ankara generously aided beleaguered Bangladesh when India and China manifestly sided with Myanmar.
Turkey mounted an active diplomatic campaign on the Rohingya issue and in support of Bangladesh in the UN, the G20, MIKTA (a middle power grouping consisted by Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and Australia, the OIC, and other multilateral forums). In September 2017, Emine Erdoğan, the president’s spouse, along with Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoğlu and Family and Social Policy Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya visited the Cox’s Bazaar refugee camps. The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), the Turkish Red Crescent, the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), and Turkish NGOs constructed camps, hospitals, schools, orphanages, and facilities for refugees and also poor people throughout Bangladesh.
Bangladesh-Turkey military ties
While economic ties are still weak with bilateral trade being only about US$ 800 million, military ties between Bangladesh and Turkey have grown. In 2013, Turkey supplied Otokar Cobra light armored vehicles to the Bangladesh army. In 2015, Turkey offered Bangladesh guided missile frigates in a major government-to-government deal. In 2018, the Turkish firm, Delta Defense, was awarded a US$ 1 billion contract for 680 light armored vehicles. In March 2019, Turkish ROKETSAN secured a contract to supply a regiment of medium range guided multiple rocket launchers. Bangladesh’s navy has developed close ties with the Turkish navy, which trains the SWADS, Bangladesh’s most sophisticated naval unit. More than 3,000 Bangladeshi military officers have received training in Turkey.
Turkey-Sri lank ties
Turkey is reaching out to Sri Lanka too as the latter is strategically located in the Indian Ocean where rivals China, India, US and Japan are jostling for advantage. Turkey would like to make use of Colombo’s alienation from Washington over human rights and other political and strategic issues and its growing ties with China and Pakistan.
The recent visit to Colombo of the New Delhi-based Turkish Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Demet Sekercioglu, was significant. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa requested Turkey to also consider assisting Sri Lanka in the tourism sector as the Turkish Airlines flies daily to Sri Lanka. The two delegations also discussed the defense sector and agreed that intelligence sharing is of mutual importance in fighting terrorism.
Significantly, Sekercioglu told Rajapaksa that President Erdoğan is keen on visiting Sri Lanka again. Erdoğan was last in Sri Lanka in 2005 during his tour of countries affected by the 2004 Asian tsunami. At that time, Turkey built a village consisting of 450 houses in tsunami-hit South Sri Lanka.
(South Asian Monitor)