A joint military exercise involving Turkish and Pakistani Special Forces commenced this week in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which borders Afghanistan. The exercise, dubbed "Ataturk XI-2021," is to focus on counter-terrorist operations. It is the latest manifestation of an emergent strategic alliance of these two countries, with significant implications – both for the Middle East, and for south Asia.
Turkey and Pakistan's growing closeness has deep foundations. These are two countries following a similar trajectory. Both were allies and assets of the US and the West during the Cold War. Both have moved far from this position in the last two decades, and are increasingly estranged from Washington. Both are medium-sized powers, governed today by a type of Islamic nationalist outlook. Both, importantly, are seeking an alternative alignment to their former ties with the West, which in a time of growing global polarization is leading both Islamabad and Ankara toward greater closeness with China.
Turkey and Pakistan have grown increasingly estranged from Washington, and closer to China.
So what form are the increased ties taking? Arms purchasing is a significant indicator. Turkey is now Pakistan's fourth largest source of arms, as Islamabad seeks alternatives to the West for its source of weaponry (the main exporter of arms to Pakistan is now China).
Pakistan is in the process of purchasing four Turkish-built MILGEM corvette ships from the Turkish state-owned defense contractor ASFAT. It has also placed an order for 30 T-129 ATAK helicopters. The total cost of orders placed by Pakistan for the purchase of Turkish weapons systems is now in excess of $3 billion. However, the importance of this relationship goes beyond economic and commercial factors. Both Pakistan and Turkey have justified concerns regarding the possibility of Western sanctions as a result of the policy directions they wish to pursue. Reducing dependence on Western weapons systems is a way of broadening options.
The growing closeness is also reflected in the diplomatic sphere. Pakistani senior officials have expressed support for Turkey in its disputes over gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean. A series of joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean, involving the navies of both countries and including violations of Cypriot and Greek territorial waters and airspace, took place over the last year. Similar joint exercises have also been held in the Indian Ocean.
Turkey, in turn, in a development causing concern in New Delhi, has begun to support Pakistani claims in Kashmir. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in February 2020 that the issue was as important to Turkey as it is to Pakistan. Referencing the events of the Turkish War of Independence, Erdogan said, "And now, we feel the same about Kashmir today. It was Çanakkale yesterday and Kashmir today; there is no difference between the two." Turkey raised the issue of Kashmir at the UN General Assembly in September 2019, shifting from a policy of non-interference on an issue that India regards as an internal matter.
In this regard, recent reports in regional media (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Hawar News) suggesting that Turkey is in the process of deploying its Syrian Islamist client militias in Kashmir have raised concerns, though no concrete evidence for these allegations has yet emerged.
The strategic partnership between Ankara and Islamabad is also raising concerns in the nuclear realm. Pakistan is a nuclear power, with 160 deployed warheads. Erdogan, in a September 2019 speech quoted by Reuters, said, "Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But [they tell us] we can't have them. This, I cannot accept."
He continued, "We have Israel nearby, as almost neighbors. They scare [other nations] by possessing these. No one can touch them."
Turkey currently possesses two nuclear reactors, Tr-1 and Tr-2, maintained by the Turkish Atomic Energy Authority. The country has rich uranium deposits. It thus possesses both the will and the raw materials to develop a nuclear capacity. It currently lacks only the required knowledge to do so. Pakistan, which is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, possesses this knowledge. While no concrete evidence of active cooperation in this regard has yet emerged, it is worth recalling that Turkey was a covert hub for the activities of the rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan 20 years ago.
The alliance between Pakistan and Turkey is coming into being in a rapidly shifting strategic landscape. The old post-Cold War US-led security architecture, and the assumptions that surrounded it can no longer be relied upon. In the major events of the region over the last decade – the Syrian civil war, the revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt, the competition over gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean – the US has been notably absent as it recalibrates its priorities and modes of engagement.
Turkey and Pakistan both seek major revisions of the current power balance in their respective neighborhoods.
As a result of this absence, new connections and new power nexuses are emerging. From this point of view, the coming together of two mid-sized states inclined toward versions of Sunni political Islam and seeking major revisions of the current power balance in their respective neighborhoods, in their favor, makes logical sense.
Both Turkey and Pakistan are also eager to connect their ambitions to the strategic advance of China. Turkey is of importance to Beijing as a transportation hub on the way to the Mediterranean and to Europe, and as a priority country for investment in infrastructure. Turkey is an observer country at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It is noteworthy that Erdogan's efforts to present himself as a leader of the world's Muslims and of all peoples ethnically associated with the Turks does not extend to solidarity with the Turkic Muslim Uighurs, on whose fate he has been notably silent.
Pakistan's relations with China are deep and of long standing, related to the joint geopolitical rivalry with India. Pakistan has been the recipient of investments worth $11 billion, in the framework of China's Belt and Road Initiative. These have centered mainly on modernizing the country's rail system. A project to build a direct rail link from China via Pakistan and Iran to Turkey is in the process of being revived. The ITI (Istanbul, Tehran, Islamabad) line would be the first regular rail link between China and Turkey. It is expected to begin operating in 2026, according to a recent report in Nikkei Asia.
A joint declaration by the foreign ministers of Turkey, Pakistan and Azerbaijan signed in Islamabad on January 13 referenced the joint stances on Kashmir, the Aegean dispute, Cyprus and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The document is a useful summing up of the current reality of Turkish and Pakistani synergy. The Ankara-Islamabad axis looks set to form a significant and powerful presence on the complicated geopolitical chessboard of West and South Asia.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.