Turkey’s growing presence in South Asia a matter of concern for India


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, writes Sankalp Gurjar

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.

Turkish drones in African wars

Ethiopia has been in the grip of a civil war since November 2020. The Ethiopian Army was struggling against the rebel forces of the Tigrayan People’s liberation Force (TPlF). With its battlefield victories, TPlF was even poised to attack the capital Addis Ababa and many observers had expressed grave doubts about the survival of the regime of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

However, the effective use of unmanned aerial vehicles also known as drones, including Turkey-supplied Bayraktar-TB-2, by the Ethiopian Army has dramatically changed the course of the war in its favour. The TPlF is in retreat now and has moved back to the northern Tigray region. It is making efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict.

last year, in libya, the embattled Government of National Accord (GNA) has used Turkish-supplied Bayraktar drones against the libyan National Army (lNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. Turkish drones were effective in attacking ground troops, providing necessary air cover and disrupting lNA supplies.

The timely Turkish military support proved critical in bolstering the capabilities of GNA. As a result, GNA forces succeeded in breaking the momentum of lNA and thwarting the threat to Tripoli. The war entered the phase of a stalemate and since then has paved the way for a political solution to the decade-long conflict.

It was clear that, just like Ethiopia, Turkish drones changed the course of the libyan civil war. Both these instances point towards the decisive role of Turkish drones in shaping the outcomes of these wars.

In development since 2007, Turkish-made Bayraktar-TB2 is a medium altitude long-range UAV system that can carry a payload of 150 kg and operate during the day and night. Each system consists of “six aerial vehicles, two ground control stations (GCS), three ground data terminals (GDTs), two remote video terminals (RVTs) and ground support equipment”.

Owing to the impressive performance and reliability of TB2 drones, in the last few years, Turkey has emerged as a major supplier of drones globally. Turkish drones are supposedly cheaper than drones manufactured by companies from Israel, China and the US.

Apart from Ethiopia and libya, countries such as Ukraine, Morocco, Poland, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Qatar and Turkmenistan are interested in acquiring Turkish drones. Some of these countries have either placed orders or are interested in purchasing these drones. Qatar and Azerbaijan are already operating a fleet of Turkish drones.

last year’s Azerbaijan-Armenia war was seen as the most effective global advertisement for Turkish drones. Azeri forces utilised drones to devastating effect and inflicted a humiliating defeat on Armenia. Since then, the demand for Turkish drones has gone up significantly.

During the latest visit of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Africa in October, he said that “everywhere I go in Africa, everyone asks about UAVs”. Evidently, Turkey’s weapons trade with Ethiopia and Morocco has gone up significantly in 2021. Overall, Turkey has gradually been emerging as a major defence supplier of Africa. The exports of battle-tested drones are likely to carve out an important place for Turkey in African weapons markets.

The supply of Bayraktar-TB2 drones is geared to advance Turkey’s commercial and geopolitical interests. The drones are manufactured by a company run by President Erdogan’s son-in-law Haluk Bayraktar. It ensures continued state support in deals to export drones.

Interestingly, Turkey’s rise as a major drone power and the fast-increasing exports has the potential to complicate its diplomatic engagements. Turkish weapons deals with Ethiopia and Ukraine have not gone down well in Egypt and Russia respectively.

Turkey enjoys close diplomatic and defence ties with Pakistan. Recently, the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) signed a contract with the National Engineering and Science Commission (NESCOM) of Pakistan to co-produce Anka military drones. Turkish Air Force, Navy, and intelligence agencies use Anka drones.

Turkey has offered to sell drones to India as well. Zyron dynamics, a Turkish drone manufacturer, has sold 30 per cent of its stakes to DCM Shriram Industries for $3.5 million in August 2021. The company is preparing to deliver mini-multirotor UAVs to India in 2022. Through India, it hopes to expand its market in the wider Asia-Pacific region.

For Turkey, despite teething domestic economic troubles drone exports are paving the way for greater geopolitical influence. The conflicts in Africa and Asia have underlined this reality.

(Sankalp Gurjar is a strategic analyst based in Delhi. Views expressed are personal and exclusive to India Narrative) (The content is being carried under an arrangement with indianarrative.com)