Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greet each other after an exchange of agreements during a joint press conference in New Delhi on May 1, 2017. Photo: AFP/Prakash Singh

The comments on Kashmir by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his speech on September 24 at the 74th United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) could derail improvements in India‘s relations with Turkey, which have been geared up since Erdogan’s visit to New Delhi in May 2017.

Turkey was among four countries along with China, Pakistan and Malaysia that internationalized the Kashmir issue at the gathering of the world leaders in New York. Reciprocally, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with leaders of Armenia, Cyprus and Greece, which are countries that have had protracted border disputes with Turkey.

Kashmir remains the main obstacle and point of conflict in enhancing friendly ties between these two G20 member countries. An exchange of hostile statements may damage bilateral relations, as Raveesh Kumar, spokesman for the Indian External Affairs Ministry, advised Turkey to get a proper understanding of the situation before making a statement on an internal Indian matter, whereas the Speaker of the Turkish parliament, Mustafa Şentop, termed standing with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue as a duty of Turkey.

A piece of news also surfaced in the media that India is going to put on hold an Indian Navy contract with a Turkish company estimated to be worth US$2.3 billion.

Turkey cozying up to Pakistan should not be taken as a move against India, since Ankara has certain simultaneous bilateral interests with Islamabad, and Turkey has a desire to project itself as the lone voice of all Muslims. Therefore the Kashmir issue must not overshadow India-Turkey commercial relations. Both countries require the support of each other in global forums.

Turkey, a member of the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group), can play a key role in ensuring the entry of India to the elite group and can cooperate with India’s ambitious plan for a Dhaka-Kolkata-Delhi-Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul rail network linking six countries. Turkey can also work on making India a major outbound destination to increase the number of its tourists to that country, and the two nations have many other areas of potential cooperation.

Erdogan’s visit to New Delhi in May 2017 bolstered bilateral trade, investment and tourism. Bilateral trade grew by 31% in 2018 from 2016. Trade volume was $7.4 billion in 2018, comprising export value of $5.39 billion and imports worth $2.03 billion. India’s overall balance of trade with Turkey is favorable ($3.35 billion) due to a large export value to Turkey from India. The two countries have also fixed an ambitious target to take trade volume to $10 billion by 2020.

Bilateral investment reached $60.5 million in 2018, up from $10.03 million in 2016. Turkey has invested heavily in India’s construction sector, while its total investment in India was $42.3 million in 2018, the highest in five years. Indian companies’ investment in Turkey was $18.26 during 2018.

Besides commercial ties, tourism is a largely untapped area, which can further enhance the bilateral relationship through people’s interaction from both sides. Turkey received 147,000 Indian tourists in 2018, about 85% more than the 79,000 arrivals in 2016, while Turkish citizens’ visits to India witnessed around 30% growth over three years, from 26,000 in 2015 to 33,000 in 2017.

The share of bilateral commercial transactions at present is trivial in comparison with the two countries’ overall trade and investment with other countries but these have many scopes to expand in the coming years if they can controls their political differences on the Kashmir issue. Moreover, India in South Asia and Turkey in the Middle East, which have relatively stable economies in their respective regions, can play a bigger global role by enhancing bilateral commercial and diplomatic relations. Aggressive campaigning against each other could stall the growth of business relations, and worsen ties with other countries like Malaysia and the US because of their different stands on Kashmir. India must adhere to a moderate approach.

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