India and Pakistan’s New Shadow Rivalry

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

India and Pakistan’s New Shadow Rivalry

When Pakistan is more active in building relations with a certain Muslim-majority country, India engages more with that country’s rival. 

India and Pakistan’s New Shadow Rivalry
Credit: Depositphotos

Over the past few years, Pakistan has attempted to strengthen its ties with other non-Arabic Muslim-majority nations, such as Azerbaijan and Turkey. This element of Islamabad’s foreign policy is interestingly being met with a response from New Delhi: When Pakistan is more active in building relations with a certain Muslim-majority country, India engages more with that country’s rival. The cases in question here are two pairs of nations: Turkey-Greece and Azerbaijan-Armenia. 

Turkey-Pakistan cooperation has significantly deepened in recent years. In 2016, the countries signed a deal according to which the Turks would modernize Pakistani submarines, and in 2018 they settled another deal, under which Turkey would manufacture four corvettes for Pakistan. The latter program commenced in 2019 and the first vessel was delivered to in September 2023. It is hard to imagine Pakistan using its ships against the navy of any other nation but India, and thus Ankara’s moves must have been read negatively in New Delhi.

Islamabad, for its part, provided Ankara with trainer aircraft. Some sources suggest Islamabad and Ankara are also cooperating on drone production. Defense collaboration went hand in hand with political statements: Turkey voiced its support for Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir issue.

In tandem with this, Islamabad extended a hand toward Baku. Pakistan not only expressed its support to Azerbaijan in its conflict with Armenia but, much more importantly, it has been reportedly decided that the JF-17 aircraft – which Pakistan jointly developed with China – will be sold to Azerbaijani forces.

India may have noticed these engagements, and reacted by reaching out to Greece and Armenia. While Pakistan has been holding military drills with Turkey, India began to hold exercises with Greece in 2021. In 2024, the prime minister of Greece was invited to give the opening address at the Raisina Dialogue, the most important conference on international relations held annually in India. As a side note, an Indian company, GMR Group, is co-developing an airport in Greece, but this is arguably a private undertaking. 

India’s countermove to Pakistan’s support for Azerbaijan has been much stronger. New Delhi and Yerevan signed deals in recent years under which India would provide the Armenian forces with Pinaka rocket launchers, Swathi radar systems, and certain types of artillery ammunition. Not all of these military products apparently reached Armenia before the recent iteration of the Karabakh conflict – and in hindsight, even the delivery of all of them would have likely not changed the general outcome – but at any rate, with these exports New Delhi took a political stance.

However, these rival policies have their limits and are unlikely to lead to the creation of two blocs. First, both New Delhi and Islamabad (even more so) are simply not powerful enough to form blocs of states around them. 

Second, both India and Pakistan attempt to follow a more multilateral approach in international relations. Or, to put it more simply, they hedge their bets and keep various partnerships despite divides between those partners. For instance, both New Delhi and Islamabad attempt to retain a partnership with both the West and Russia, though both governments do so in their own way.

Third, while Islamabad will remain New Delhi’s rival, India’s economic relations with many other Muslim states remain deep. As such, India may not want to counter Pakistan’s every engagement. This conclusion applies especially to New Delhi’s relations with richer, Arabic states of the Persian Gulf, but to a degree, the same will be true for Turkey, given the sheer size of the latter country’s economy. For instance, in 2022, Indian exports to Turkey were ten times larger than to Greece (2.25 percent vs 0.27 percent of India’s total exports).

However, one aspect that will be affected is Turkey-India defense cooperation. New Delhi is trying, as much as possible, not to deal in military equipment with a country that sells the same kit to Pakistan. In 2023, a deal according to which India was to acquire fleet support ships from Turkey was canceled and it’s hard not to see this as connected to Ankara-Islamabad collaboration. 

As a counterpoint to this, it may be observed that India did (grudgingly) tolerate U.S. exports of military products to Pakistan (and minor Russian exports to the same country) – all while New Delhi remained a major buyer of both American and Russian arms. The explanation is very simple: U.S. and Russia are simply too strong as states, and too important as partners for India, and thus New Delhi is forced to accept their dealings with Pakistan. But the same may not apply to a country which is not as powerful, or not as important to India.

Thus, while the scale of economic relations between Turkey and India will likely be retained, they very well may lose their defense aspect. This will be one of the tangible outcomes of the current “shadow rivalry” between New Delhi and Islamabad.