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A Long Stride in Pakistan’s Relations with Turkey: An Iranian Viewpoint

Hesamoddin Hojjatzadeh
Jan 2019

Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan consistently maintained good relations with Turkey, which was partially due to both countries’ alliance with the West, especially being allies to the United States.
Nonetheless, some problems existed, at least up to recent years, as sticking points between Ankara and Islamabad. They included Turkey’s negative position on the establishment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan during the 1990s, which took place through all-out support of Pakistan. Islamabad continued its support for the Taliban even after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001. Along with Russia, Indian, Iran and China, Ankara supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban and provided that alliance with financial, military, training and political backing. It was also among economic and political supporters of former Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. In addition, as differences increased between Pakistan and the United States over Islamabad’s support for terrorism over a period of more than a decade, Turkey largely remained impartial and was not very willing to support arguments of Pakistani officials.
However, later domestic developments in Turkey and Pakistan, and the relative imbalance in their relations with the United States during the past two years, led to more closeness between Islamabad and Ankara. On the one hand, the adventurist policies adopted by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in West Asia during past years have led to increasing conflict of interests between this country and the United States, causing tension in Ankara’s relations with Washington and NATO. At the same time, Erdogan showed more willingness toward expansion of political and military relations with Russia and Iran, while further developing economic ties with China.
On the other hand, the government and army of Pakistan have been trying, especially after election of Donald Trump as the US president, to establish closer political and military relations with Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, Beijing has been investing 50 billion dollars in the strategic project known as the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is supposed to serve as a supplement to China’s huge Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In doing this, China has practically taken control of Pakistan’s economy and trade and is planning to use the Pakistan card in order to create balance in its trade and political rivalries with the United States.
The process of closeness between Pakistan and Turkey in 2017 was sped up as tensions increased between the administration of Trump and the government and army of Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan decided to accelerate its plan to get tactically close to Russia, Iran and Turkey. General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the current Chief of Army Staff of the Pakistan Army, and the country’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif, paid separate visits to Turkey in summer and fall of 2017 and were warmly welcomed by the government and army of Turkey. Only a few months following reelection of Erdogan as Turkey’s president in 2018 and after Imran Khan was elected as Pakistan’s prime minister, the process of closeness between the two countries took on more momentum. It seems that consecutive trips by the two countries’ senior officials to each other’s capital cities are prelude to a major stride in relations between Islamabad and Ankara during the current year. All told, relations between Islamabad and Ankara can be viewed from a number of standpoints:
1.Military
In late 2017, Turkey reached an agreement with Pakistan to build and overhaul the French Agosta 90B submarines. As put by Turkey’s military officials, the Pakistani side has signed an agreement with Ankara to buy T129 attack helicopters. In return, Ankara seeks to buy the new and armed generation of Pakistan’s Mushshak aircraft, which is known as Super Mushshak. The project to upgrade Pakistan’s F-16 warplanes by Turkey’s aerospace industries is another case in which the two sides have been negotiating.
The military and defense cooperation between the two countries is not limited to the above cases. In order to develop military relations between Pakistan and Turkey, a Turkish warship arrived in Pakistan’s waters in April 2018 and berthed at Karachi port. Later on, Turkey’s navy officers paid tribute to founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, by attending his mausoleum. The goal of that visit was to expand defense and training cooperation between the two countries armies. Finally, in December 2018, General Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, paid a two-day visit to Pakistan where he met and conferred with that country’s military and political officials. The main topics of his visit were announced as developing bilateral cooperation in the field of defense industries and discussing the fight against terrorism.
There are many reasons behind the willingness of Turkey and Pakistan to expand military cooperation. One of them is an effort by Pakistan to diversify its military partners in the region and an increasing tendency to develop its defense and military industries without reliance on the United States. Other reasons include Islamabad’s willingness to take advantage of Western military technologies, which are not given to it by Washington for certain reasons; Pakistan’s effort to show its power to regional rivals by getting closer to Turkey, especially in the military field; Turkey’s effort to expand its influence in South Asia in rivalry with the United States, Russia, China and Iran; Turkey’s effort to get Pakistan away from Iran in view of the expanding relations between Tehran and Islamabad in defense and military fields; and Ankara’s willingness to take advantage of Pakistan’s experiences in the field of nuclear technology.
2.Political and security
Since 2017, Pakistan and Turkey have been rapidly expanding their political relations and have many motives to do so. First of all, relations of both countries with the United States have been marked with rising tensions during recent years. In addition, since both countries have been target of sanctions by Washington, they are expected to take coordinated measures to get tactically closer to Russia and China, and to some extent, Iran. Moreover, as various Pakistani officials, including its new President Arif Alvi, have noted, Ankara has always supported Pakistan’s position in its dispute with India over Kashmir region. This issue has been always a very important consideration for Islamabad when regulating its relations with other countries.
The issue of fighting against terrorism is another issue, which has been affecting Pakistan’s relations with Turkey in recent years. In a visit to Islamabad by Turkey’s Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, both of them underlined the need to cooperate with Pakistan in this area as a matter of security. The Pakistani prime minister welcomed this offer, noting that his country was ready to provide Turkey with its experiences in fighting against terrorism. However, the government and army of Pakistan are themselves accused of supporting and abetting terrorist and extremist groups in Afghanistan. Therefore, they are more willing to work with the government of Erdogan to prevent illegal immigration through strengthening border controls and fighting money laundering.
There is no doubt that a major topic of talks between Pakistani and Turkish officials during recent months has been Turkey’s willingness to play a more active role in the Afghan peace process. Major issues proving this include close cooperation of Pakistan with the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad; Ankara’s influence on Turkish minorities in northern Afghanistan; Turkey’s rivalry with the United States, Iran, Russia, India, China and other regional and transregional actors in Afghanistan; and Pakistan’s effort to use the Turkey card and get it in line with its policy on Afghanistan peace talks.
3.Economy and trade
Without exaggeration, economy and trade constitute one of the most important areas of cooperation between Turkey and Pakistan. At the present time, both countries are under pressures resulting from US sanctions and devaluation of their national currencies. They are as such faced with severe budget deficit, high inflation, rising unemployment and so forth. Although the volume of trade between Islamabad and Ankara greatly increased in 2010 and 2011 to hit about 750 million dollars, it subsequently took a nosedive from 2012 onward. Even now, despite relative improvement in the two countries’ economic cooperation, Turkey and Pakistan have not reached an agreement yet on their free trade agreement despite seven rounds of talks during past years. Before traveling to Turkey in November 2018, the president of Pakistan mentioned certain concerns on the part of Ankara as a major reason for postponement of the agreement signing.
Despite the above facts, Turkey and Pakistan reached an agreement in December 2018 on the contents of the two countries’ transit agreement. If implemented, this agreement will especially save Pakistan from a large part of its economic problems. However, Iran route is still the shortest and the least expensive transit route from Pakistan to Turkey and vice versa.
In view of the positive promise given by Iranian officials, including the president, to help and support Islamabad and Ankara in the face of economic sanctions and political pressures of Washington, the time is now ripe to create a transit corridor among Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. The promise to build this trilateral corridor was given when Iran’s former minister of road and urban development, Abbas Akhoundi, visited Pakistan in April 2018. As put by Akhoundi, the quality of railroad links connecting Pakistan, Iran and Turkey is to be improved and better trains are to be used in order to facilitate transit of goods among the three countries. Therefore, 2019 can be expected to be a year when an effort would be made to make a great change to trade between South and West Asia. This is, however, possible on condition that ill-wishers let this happen and there would be necessary determination for the expansion of cooperation among the three countries’ officials.