A crucial diplomatic engagement will take place this weekend when Salman Khurshid becomes the first Indian External Affairs Minister to visit Turkey in a decade. The three-day trip will be followed by the first visit by an Indian President in 15 years, when Pranab Mukherjee sets foot in Turkey this October.
Bilateral ties between the two countries remained tense over much of this period due to Turkey’s close support for Pakistan’s stand on Kashmir at international forums. However, the emergence of both countries as regional powers has resulted in a shared interest in their respective capitals to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East and South Asia.
Indeed, the visit by Khurshid comes at a critical juncture at which convergence between the two countries has greatly increased. Both are members of the G20 group of major economies, where the two countries have closely cooperated on the management of the world economy. Bilateral trade in July 2012 stood at $7.5 billion, a figure that is expected to double to $15 billion by 2015.
Strategically too, there are growing areas of consensus. On Afghanistan, Turkey had taken the lead in 2011 to begin the Istanbul Process to find meaningful and sustainable solutions to Afghanistan’s problems. The Istanbul Process culminated in the annual “Heart of Asia” regional conference on Afghanistan held this year in Kazakhstan’s capital, Almaty, with both India and Turkey playing important roles. In the context of the planned 2014 withdrawal of NATO and U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the need for Delhi and Ankara to intensify dialogue over Afghanistan has acquired a particular importance.
Turkey has also emerged as a vital interlocutor in resolving important issues relevant to peace and security in the Middle East. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil negotiated a deal to enrich Iranian nuclear stockpiles abroad in a bid to stave off UN sanctions. While the U.S. and other Western countries rejected the nuclear-swap deal, the issue highlighted Ankara’s growing influence in regional affairs. Moreover, in recent months Ankara has been closely involved in discussions with Western governments on forging an alternative government in neighboring Syria, which has been mired in a bloody civil war since 2011 leaving thousands dead.
For India, the Middle East is the most important source of crude oil as well as a crucial source of foreign remittances from Indian expatriates living in the Persian Gulf. The upheaval in the Arab world has been a key concern of Indian foreign policy, which in recent years has focused on creating an environment in its periphery that is conducive to its national development as well as to ensure access to raw materials and energy needed to power its economy. Indeed, New Delhi will have to increasingly confer with Ankara on regional issues to achieve objectives such as forging stability in Afghanistan, ensuring a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and making sense of the Arab Spring and its aftermath.
However, Turkey’s long-standing partnership with Pakistan could hold back ties. Ankara reportedly put up hurdles to India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG), a 46-member international cartel that regulates global nuclear trade over “non-proliferation” concerns. Following an agreement with the U.S. in 2008, the NSG granted India – a non-signatory of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty – a unique exemption to engage in civilian nuclear trading without having to give up its nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan too has demanded a similar exemption – a demand undermined by its dubious record on non-proliferation. For its part, Turkey has been pushing for a criteria-based membership in the nuclear body, which India believes is aimed at securing a similar exemption for Pakistan. To express its displeasure, India has in recent months scaled-down its bilateral engagement with Ankara, including scrapping a planned visit to Turkey earlier this year by India’s National Security Adviser.
Despite the discordant note struck by Turkey’s stand on India’s NSG membership, ties seem poised to deepen amid growing convergence over key strategic regional issues. The Indian External Affairs Minister’s visit will increase this convergence and add much-needed political gravitas to the relationship.