A lot is expected of Imran Khan as he arrives in Ankara on January 3, on his official trip as prime minister of Pakistan. It has been a fast paced first five months as far as foreign policy goes for Khan. Although he promised that he would not visit overseas in his first three months, Turkey shall be the fifth country that Imran Khan is visiting after multiple trips to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, China and Malaysia. As ever, the geopolitical events regionally coupled with Pakistan’s domestic financial woes have made Khan look to traditional allies to shore up Pakistan’s debt.
So whilst analysts are talking about ‘enhancing existing ties,’ what can Pakistan and Turkey do to take advantage of a historically unique relationship? So far relations between Turkey and Pakistan have been more about rhetoric than substance, but a series of recent events and the countries’ fights against terror have pushed them into a more meaningful strategic direction.
Khan is not Sharif
One of the core objectives of an Imran Khan-led Pakistan is to take persona politics away from regional and international relations. Indeed in his New Year’s message Khan spoke of a crusade against four ills namely: poverty, injustice, corruption and illiteracy. One of the key messages Imran has delivered in his four months is that previous rulers such Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari used their personal connections for foreign benefits, including neglecting actual strategic ties between important allies such as Saudi Arabia, China and Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ties with the Sharif family, in his own words, were brotherly and very close. The jailed former prime minister Nawaz Sharif had even been a witness at the Turkish president’s daughter’s wedding. Umar Karim, a leading writer on Pakistan’s relationship with the Middle East tweeted that the Turkish leadership was not quite sure how to deal with Imran’s Pakistan, given their relationship with the Sharif family. The Turkish president, though after a few weeks of Imran taking power, put rumours aside and announced that a ‘new era’ had arrived in the two countries ties. Indeed Khan is not Sharif, and he has strengthened the once wobbly relationship with the UAE and also reassured Saudi Arabia as the kingdom suffers from international condemnation after the fall out of the war in Yemen and the Jamal Khashoggi killing.
Balancing the overtly military relationship
Khan has repeatedly said that President Erdogan along with the Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad are his two contemporary political heroes. Imran Khan in his admiration for the Turkish president said that people took to the streets to protect Turkish democracy because the government of Erdogan had delivered for over a decade. According to Khan, the Turkish army could no longer feature in politics because leaders had a strong connection with the people. It is this example he wants to bring to Pakistan to lessen the burden of the military and their involvement in politics. He wants to follow the Turkish model of economic growth and equality of classes that the AKP has brought since coming to power in the early 2000s. Khan and his team are aware of the success that a strong economy brings. Like Turkey, Imran Khan also does not want to go to the IMF unless absolutely necessary. The Turkish president announced earlier this year that despite hardships in the economy, Turkey had closed the “IMF chapter for good.” All these are aspects of the Turkish leader’s governance that Imran wants to replicate in Pakistan: He wants a strong economy that does not beg the IMF or other international powers for aid. He also does not want the army to keep interfering as they had in Turkish history to stall the democratic process. Finally he wants Pakistan to stand tall as a regional heavyweight. Khan’s constant use of the national carrier, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is also an attempt to mirror how the AK Party developed Turkish Airlines from an obscure carrier into the leading airlines of the world.
At the moment Pakistan-Turkey ties are too military dominant, although this is a positive sign given the record defence deals signed between Islamabad and Ankara on military helicopters and naval frigates. However Khan is well aware of the fact that defence deals don’t make a country self-reliant and powerful. Only a strong and independent economy can achieve that. Khan has in the past praised India on their economic success and how the current leader Narendra Modi, in particular, went after the economy. So it is this message that Khan will bring to Ankara: that military ties are great and keep them going, but we must build strongly on all aspects of a truly bilateral relationship.
The Turkey Pakistan Free Trade Agreement is yet to be signed despite a decade of negotiations, and there is some speculation on whether there will be an announcement soon. Furthermore, economic ties are weak and Pakistan is seen as a corrupt country to operate in. A Turkish energy company is owed almost a $1 billion due to incompetence on the Pakistani side. An international arbitration firm ruled against Islamabad and this has left a bad taste for many leading Turkish businesses.
The recent ruling by the Pakistan Supreme Court against the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation (FETO) who have caused a lot of damage to Turkey has gone down very well in Ankara. However a delay of almost three years meant there was apprehension in Ankara. Now fresh with a ruling that favours the international stance of Turkey with regards to FETO, Pakistan has taken a broad step in improving ties with Turkey. In Erdogan and the ruling party of Turkey, Imran Khan sees what he would like to emulate in Pakistan – this could take the two countries’ relationship to the next level.
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