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Why Turkey’s growing presence in South Asia should worry India

Turkey under its President is engaging Asian countries under the rubric of the Asia Anew Initiative to expand its influence

In the last few years, Turkey is engaging Asian countries under the rubric of the Asia Anew Initiative to expand its influence. For India, the growing presence of Turkey complicates the South Asian strategic landscape. The recent visit by Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has highlighted the Turkish interest in India’s neighbourhood.       

Çavuşoğlu visited Sri Lanka and Maldives in January. His visit to the strategically important Maldives was the maiden visit by a Turkish foreign minister since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. After the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s visit to the Maldives in the first week of January, he was the second important visitor to the Indian Ocean archipelago.

During Çavuşoğlu’s visit, five agreements were signed covering trade, environment, Foreign Service, agriculture and culture and heritage. Turkey promised to build an Islamic Center in Hulhumalé near the capital Malé. Both countries decided to establish a Joint Economic Commission to promote economic relations as well. In 2019, the trade between Turkey and Maldives stood at $ 46.5 million. Even though the Solih regime in the Maldives is friendly towards India, Turkish interest in the Maldives should ring alarm bells in New Delhi.

Before the Maldives, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had paid a visit to Sri Lanka. Interestingly, as of now, the economies of Turkey and Sri Lanka are struggling. Turkish foreign minister described Sri Lanka as a “pearl of the Indian Ocean” and an “extremely valuable and important ally”. At the behest of Turkey, Sri Lanka has cracked down on the groups associated with Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey holds responsible for the failed coup of July 2016. Turkey plans to emerge as a major defence supplier in Asia and Sri Lanka has demonstrated interest in furthering defence ties with the president visiting a defence industry fair in Turkey.      

Just like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh is interested in deepening cooperation with Turkey in the domain of defence and security. In January, both sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on security cooperation, counter-terrorism and drugs trafficking. Bangladesh is the fourth-largest buyer of weapons from Turkey and Ankara has indicated its willingness for joint production as well as technology transfer. Turkey trains military officers from Bangladesh as well and security cooperation is set to deepen in future. With the rise of Bangladesh as an important South Asian economy, it is likely to emerge as an attractive defence market and Turkish companies would be well-placed to benefit from the opportunities.         

Meanwhile, it was reported that Turkey has emerged as a major centre for anti-India propaganda especially in the context of Kashmir. As per reports, there is a three-pronged effort undertaken by the Turkish government and related institutions; by media (employment to Kashmiri journalists); by educational institutes (well-paying scholarships) and by NGOs (influence Indian Muslims on foreign policy inimical to Indian interests).   

Turkey has been vocal against India’s decision to abrogate Article 370 as well. In the last few years, Turkey has deepened its ties with Pakistan and along with Malaysia tried to build an alternate Islamic grouping. So far, Turkey has not succeeded in these efforts. However, concerted attempts have been made to expand the Turkish influence beyond the Middle East. Ankara brands itself as “Afro-Eurasian” power and is engaging African as well as South Asian countries. 

It is a close ally of a tiny Gulf monarchy of Qatar and is a rival of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East. Qatar hosted the Taliban office since 2011. Turkey has had established its own channels with the Taliban. Therefore, Turkey and Qatar became key conduits for the Taliban to reach out to the outside world. Ankara’s close ties with Islamabad and Doha would mean that even within the Taliban, Turkey will find it easier to navigate the different factions to achieve its strategic objectives.

The Taliban and Turkey under President Erdogan, both, fall in the broader category of Islamist politics. Turkey had even demonstrated willingness to operate the Kabul airport after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. It has ample experience of fishing in the troubled waters as was seen in the case of Somalia and Libya. The possibility of Turkish companies and contractors engaging Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban remains real.    

Turkey’s growing presence in South Asia can be seen in the context of Nepal as well. Last year, Turkey has decided to open its embassy in the Himalayan nation and is interested in deepening its economic footprint, especially in the construction sector. Turkey’s ambassador to Nepal has said that “Turkey is already one of the top five countries for Nepal’s trade exports”.

A Turkish NGO, IHH, which apparently has close links with Al-Qaeda and is under scanner by the Indian intelligence, is working with the Islamic Sangh Nepal (ISN) and is expanding its presence. The IHH is considered as a tool of Turkish intelligence and along with the ISN is active along the Indian border, especially in the Terai region. The attempt is to increase the support base among Nepalese Muslims and support global jihadist networks.

From India’s perspective, Turkey’s growing presence in South Asia is a cause of concern. The expanding presence of external players like China and Turkey in the Subcontinent points towards India’s rising challenges in the region.

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 (Sankalp Gurjar is a strategic analyst based in Delhi. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative)