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What the rise of pan-Turkism means for India

C Raja Mohan writes: Turkey's influence in Eurasian region is expanding. Delhi's current political divergence with Ankara only reinforces the case for a sustained dialogue between the two governments and the strategic communities.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: November 17, 2021 7:19:51 am
Internationalism based on religion, region or secular ideologies has always run headlong into resistance from sectarianism and nationalism.

India is quite familiar with the transnational politics of Asianism, Islamism, and Communist internationalism. Independent India has been at the forefront of building a large movement of developing countries — or the “global south” — against the rich “global north”. The ambitious reach of these movements always exceeded their grasp.

Internationalism based on religion, region or secular ideologies has always run headlong into resistance from sectarianism and nationalism. Yet, these ideas have a profound impact on global politics. Even more importantly, calls for regionalism and internationalism as well as religious and ethnic solidarity often end up as instruments for the pursuit of national interest.

At the moment, no one plays this internationalist card for national benefit better than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Delhi, which has been worried about Erdogan’s Islamist politics, must now begin to pay attention to another political idea from the Turkish president — promoting pan-Turkism.

The international symbol of solidarity among peoples of Turkic ethnicity has been the Council of Turkic States, formed in 2009 by Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. At a summit of the Council’s leaders last week in Istanbul, it was announced that the forum has been elevated to an “Organisation of Turkic States”.

Some hope that the OTS could become an economic and political community like the European Union. Others visualise the emergence of an “Army of Turan”. In Persian, “Turan” refers to Central Asian regions to the north of Iran. Although an EU-like federation or NATO-like military alliance might be far-fetched today, there is no escaping the fact that Turkey is determined to rewrite the geopolitics of Eurasia.

The rise of pan-Turkism is bound to have important consequences for Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Central Asia and, more broadly, India’s Eurasian neighbourhood.

The ideology of pan-Turkism is not new. Its origins date back to the mid-19th century when campaigns for uniting Turkic people in Russia gained traction. Its geographic scope would eventually become much wider, covering the huge spread of Turkic people from the “Balkans to the Great Wall of China”. A defining slogan of pan-Turkism is this: “Where there are Turks, there is Turkey.”

But the decline of Turkey and the integration of Turkic people into other states steadily diminished the salience of the idea in the 20th century. As the Cold War came to an end and the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Ankara saw new opportunities to engage with the newly independent republics of Turkish ethnicity in post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus.

President Turgut Ozal convened the first Turkish summit with some central Asian states in 1992. The arrival of Erdogan as the leader of Turkey in 2002 speeded up the process. He converted the annual summit with the inner Asian states into a Council of Turkic States in 2009. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan joined Turkey as founding members. In Ankara, it was hailed as the “first voluntary alliance of the Turkic states in history”. Uzbekistan joined the council last and raised its profile at the Istanbul summit last week.

Hungary, which has a long history of association with Turkic people, and Turkmenistan have observer status. At least a dozen other countries have apparently shown interest in getting observer status. The OTS also adopted a vision document called “Turkish World 2040” that will guide the organisation’s efforts to develop intensive cooperation among its members and contribute vigorously to regional and international security.

Over the last three decades, a number of soft power initiatives — in education, culture, and religion — have raised Turkey’s profile in Central Asia and generated new bonds with the region’s elites. But it is in the domains of hard power — commercial and military — that Turkey’s progress has been impressive.

Nearly 5,000 Turkish companies work in Central Asia. Turkish annual trade with the region is around $10 billion. This could change as Turkey strengthens connectivity with Central Asia through the Caucasus. Turkey has also made impressive progress in building transportation corridors to Central Asia and beyond, to China, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The so-called Lapis Lazuli Corridor now connects Turkey to Afghanistan via Turkmenistan.

Turkey has stunned much of the world with its military power projection into the region. In the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan earlier this year, Turkish military intervention decisively tilted the war in favour of the latter. Many in the region are beginning to purchase Turkish drones that played a key role in Azerbaijan’s victory. Last year, Kazakhstan signed an agreement for wide-ranging defence and security cooperation with Turkey.

That Kazakhstan, a member of the Russia-led regional security bloc, is moving towards strategic cooperation with Turkey, a member of US-led NATO, points to the thickening pan-Turkic bonds in a rapidly changing regional order. For the Central Asian states, living under the shadow of Chinese economic power and Russian military power, Turkey offers a chance for economic diversification and greater strategic autonomy.

Pan-Turkism certainly adds another layer of complexity to Eurasian geopolitics. That is a good reason for India to explore a more purposeful engagement with Turkey. But there is no denying that the current differences between Delhi and Ankara over Kashmir, Pakistan and Afghanistan are real and serious.

The current political divergence only reinforces the case for a sustained dialogue between the two governments and the strategic communities of the two countries. Dealing with Turkey must now be an important part of India’s foreign and security policy. Turkey’s own geopolitics offers valuable lessons on how to deal with Ankara.

That Turkey is a NATO member has not stopped Erdogan from a strategic liaison with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That he purchases advanced weapons like S-400 missiles from Moscow does not stop Erdogan from meddling in Russia’s Central Asian backyard. Ankara’s criticism of China’s repression of Turkic Uighurs in Xinjiang — that was once called “Eastern Turkestan” — goes hand-in-hand with deep economic collaboration with Beijing. Erdogan’s ambitious pursuit of the Islamic world’s leadership does not mean he will break diplomatic ties with Israel.

What does this policy tell India? One, Erdogan’s enduring enthusiasm for Pakistan does not preclude Turkey from doing business — economic and strategic — with India. Erdogan, who plays hardball with everyone, will be surprised if Prime Minister Narendra Modi does not respond to Turkey’s Pakistan’s embrace with political activism in Ankara’s neighbourhood.

Erdogan’s ambitions have offended many countries in Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Caucasus. Many of them are eager to expand strategic cooperation with India in limiting Turkish hegemony. This opens a range of new opportunities for Indian foreign and security policy in Eurasia.

Meanwhile, sceptics will point to the fact that Erdogan’s time is running out. After nearly two decades at the Turkish helm, Erdogan’s grip over power looks shaky and he is having trouble getting Turkey’s economy back on a high growth track. That does not, however, alter the Indian imperative to engage with Turkey.

As a great civilisational state, Turkey will endure as a pivotal state in Eurasia long after Erdogan is gone. Independent India has struggled to develop good relations with Turkey over the decades. A hard-headed approach in Delhi today, however, might open new possibilities with Ankara and in Turkey’s Eurasian periphery.

This column first appeared in the print edition on November 16, 2021 under the title ‘Doing business with Turkey’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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