Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani met in Pakistan two weeks ago under the auspices of the bilateral High-Level Cooperation Council. In an email interview, Ishtiaq Ahmad, Quaid-i-Azam Fellow at St. Antony’s College and senior research associate at the Center for International Studies at Oxford University, discussed relations between Turkey and Pakistan.
WPR: How would you characterize modern Turkish-Pakistani relations, and how have they evolved over the past decade?
Ishtiaq Ahmad: The Turkish-Pakistani relationship is rooted in history and defined by the existence of deep ethno-religious affinity between the people of both countries. Despite being geographically separated and ideologically distinct, the two countries have always aspired to expand mutual cooperation in the political, economic, security and cultural spheres.
In the post-Cold War period, Turkish-Pakistani relations have made significant progress toward realizing tangible outcomes in these diversified areas of cooperation, especially in trade and investment. In the 1990s, three Turkish construction companies entered the Pakistani market with pledges of almost $1.5 billion.
The past decade has seen increasing cooperation between the two countries in the security sphere, especially due to the war in Afghanistan, where Turkey is an important member of the International Security Assistance Force. They have also stood by each other in times of natural disaster.
WPR: What are the main areas of cooperation and conflict between Turkey and Pakistan?
Ahmad: At present, the focus of Turkish-Pakistani bilateral cooperation is on enhancing the level of bilateral trade, which is currently around $1 billion. Efforts are underway to double the level of trade this year by expediting the implementation of a currency swap agreement concluded in November 2001. Over the years, the two countries have created an array of institutional setups to foster bilateral trade, business, investment and defense production, including a Joint Ministerial Commission, a Defense Consultative Group and a High-Level Cooperation Council. The council, established in 2010, had its second meeting in Islamabad on May 22, during which the Turkish and Pakistani prime ministers signed nine agreements regarding Turkish investment in several developmental sectors in Pakistan, including transportation, communication and renewable energy.
The two countries’ political ties have deepened to the extent that the Turkish leadership now even mediates between the Pakistani government and opposition leadership. And in regional diplomacy over Afghanistan, the Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral Forum has emerged as an important platform.
There is no major area of conflict, except the ongoing row over a Turkish rental power plant company whose assets were frozen after the Pakistani Supreme Court put a hold on the government’s rental power bid. Afghanistan could re-emerge as an area of divergence, but only if Pakistan actively seeks to support the Taliban’s political revival in Afghanistan.
WPR: What role do the two countries play in their respective broader foreign policy objectives (Turkey in South Asia and Pakistan in the Mideast)?
Ahmad: With an eastern impulse in foreign affairs under the present government, Turkey is engaged more proactively in South Asia. The trilateral mechanism with Afghanistan and Pakistan is an expression of this policy shift. As a NATO member and a longstanding friend of Pakistan, Turkey is trying to ensure that Pakistan is not regionally or internationally isolated as a result of the recent breakdown of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
As for Pakistan’s role in the Middle East, the principal motivation behind Islamabad’s greater engagement with the Persian Gulf countries in the past few decades is the economic benefits it brings in the form of oil imports, investments and remittances. Pakistan looks favorably at the significant growth in Turkey’s Middle Eastern diplomatic profile in recent years -- a factor that may open up additional economic opportunities in the region through Turkish support.