Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan's geopolitical triangle
Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Turkey maintain a robust trilateral relationship that is increasingly important to the security, economic, and diplomatic interests of all three countries.
This partnership has only become more apparent since Turkey and Pakistan’s involvement in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War on Azerbaijan’s side. Under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Ilham Aliyev, and Prime Minister Imran Khan, these three countries’ strong triangular relationship continues to deepen.
Deep ties between these three countries are nothing new. Turkey and Pakistan have a rich history of bilateral relations preceding the latter’s independence in 1947. After the collapse of the Soviet Union 30 years ago, Turkey and Pakistan were the first two countries to recognise Azerbaijan as a newly independent nation-state.
In more recent history, Erdogan has visited Azerbaijan more than 20 times during his presidency. Underscoring the extent of relations between Ankara and Baku is the phrase “one nation, two states” that many Turks and Azerbaijanis use to describe their relationship.
"Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Turkey maintain a robust trilateral relationship that is increasingly important to the security, economic, and diplomatic interests of all three countries"
There is a major military dimension to this three-way relationship. Between 2016 and 2019, Turkey became Pakistan’s fourth-largest arms importer (surpassing the United States) while Pakistan became Turkey’s third greatest market for weapons exports. Already, Turkish military technology transfers and sales have included drone parts, naval vessels, and bombs. One major reason that Pakistan views Turkey as a go-to arms dealer is the fact that Islamabad wants to avoid both excessive dependency on China and the West for weapons.
But the relationship isn’t one-sided. Turkey has turned to Pakistan in the hopes of jointly developing missiles and fighter aircraft systems after Washington put a hold on transferring these technologies to Ankara after it acquired the Russian S-400 air defence system. Also, one year ago at the Turkey-Pakistan-High-Level Dialogue Group meeting, officials from both countries discussed Islamabad lending support to a nuclear program in Turkey.
Ankara’s arms sales to Azerbaijan have surged in recent years. In fact, in 2020 such Turkish military exports to Baku increased six-fold. The month before last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war erupted, sales of Turkish drones and other weapons reached $77 million.
Azerbaijan has also played an important humanitarian role in Pakistan since the mid-2000s, mostly through the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, a charitable organisation headed by Azerbaijan's First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva. Such Azerbaijani assistance to Pakistan has mostly been in areas of education, ecology, and health. Some of these projects have included an all-girls school in Musaffarabad and the Heydar Aliyev Water Supply Scheme project in Dera Ismail Khan.
Since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, Ankara, Baku, and Islamabad have taken steps to further boost trilateral relations. In July 2021, Turkish Parliament Speaker Mustafa Şentop along with his Pakistani and Azerbaijani counterparts, Asad Qaiser and Sahiba Gafarova, signed the Baku Declaration following a trilateral meeting in the Azerbaijani capital. This declaration stressed the commitment of these three countries to enhancing cooperation through cultural ties, mutual respect, and growing confidence with an emphasis on the need to promote peace and stability.
In September 2021, the Azerbaijani, Turkish, and Pakistani militaries carried out an eight-day-long joint military drill in Baku dubbed “Three Brothers—2021”. Officially, the aim was to boost existing ties between the three countries and find newer ways for combatting terrorism.
However, “Three Brothers—2021” led to heightened tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran as officials in Tehran perceived the tripartite exercise as threatening to the Islamic Republic. Although Iran’s government has been fully aware of the extent to which Turkey and Azerbaijan are close, it was Pakistan’s involvement that alarmed Iranian officialdom.
It is safe to assume that in the aftermath of the 2020 war, the geopolitical ramifications of Baku’s victory will continue unsettling the Islamic Republic, especially as a historic ally of Armenia, leaving Tehran somewhat nervous about such future trilateral military drills near its territory.
Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan are all situated along ancient trade corridors. Like China with its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), these three Eurasian countries seek to revive such ancient routes for the purpose of creating new jobs and increasing the quality of life for Azerbaijanis, Turks, and Pakistanis.
Throughout this year, officials from Ankara, Baku, and Islamabad have discussed ways to intensify existing collaboration in the domains of trade, investment, transportation, tourism, banking, and so on. In January, the three countries’ chief diplomats signed the “Islamabad Declaration” that aims to deepen such ties.
For now, one opportunity for these countries to boost economic relations pertains to the situation in and near Nagorno-Karabakh. Although Iranian firms hoped to win the reconstruction contracts for rebuilding destroyed infrastructure in this mountains enclave following last year’s war, the contracts have thus far been awarded to the Turks and Pakistanis- itself a source of friction between Baku and Tehran.
Lowering risks of international isolation
In terms of understanding this trilateral relationship, it’s not all about military cooperation, arms sales, trade, and economics. Diplomacy and soft power are also significant in Ankara, Baku, and Islamabad’s three-way relationship.
It is important to consider how important support from allies and partners is when countries go up against their enemies either in military conflicts or in diplomatic feuds. No state wants to be internationally isolated on issues that are near to its core interests. Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan’s three-way relationship has ensured that none of these countries are left diplomatically isolated on the international stage when it comes to their struggles with neighbouring states. Over the years, this has been demonstrated many times.
"This partnership has only become more apparent since Turkey and Pakistan's involvement in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War on Azerbaijan's side"
Both Ankara and Islamabad have stood in defence of Azerbaijan’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh. Pakistan’s defence of Baku on this conflict has resulted in the West Asian country being the only state in the world that does not recognise Armenia’s independence.
In last year’s war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Baku benefitted from military technology that was imported from Pakistan and proved important to Azerbaijan’s retaking of land in and near Nagorno-Karabakh. Of course, Turkey was the foreign power that made the biggest difference in that 44-day war. Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones and other forms of support from Ankara greatly contributed to Azerbaijan coming out on top.
After the Indian government abrogated article 370, Pakistan’s position on Kashmir received fervent support from both Turkey and Azerbaijan. This fact has led to significant friction between New Delhi, on one side, and Ankara and Baku, on the other. President Erdogan addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2020, bringing attention to Kashmir and calling it a “burning issue” one year after India’s government ended Kashmir’s relative autonomy.
“Even if Azerbaijan does not have a major say in global politics, its stance on Kashmir is a matter of concern for New Delhi,” said Khalid Rahman, the head of the Institute of Policy Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.
In October 2019, the Turkish military targeted the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria in Operation Peace Spring. Despite a long list of governments worldwide (with Hungary and Qatar being two exceptions) condemning Ankara’s anti-YPG operations, Azerbaijan and Pakistan lent support to Ankara.
Similarly, for many years Baku and Islamabad have supported Ankara’s position on Cyprus despite international pushback. In August 2021, Pakistani President Arif Alvi gave a speech at a ceremony held in Turkey for the launch of the MILGEM-class corvette ship that the Turks built for Pakistan. Alvi expressed his country’s support for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), stating that Pakistan is “one” with the TRNC. “With our hearts, we stand in unity with the Turkish people,” said Pakistan’s president.
Pakistan's value to Ankara and Baku
Azerbaijan’s close alliance with Turkey is a well-known pillar of Baku’s foreign policy agenda, while the former Soviet Republic that borders Turkey is critical to Ankara’s ability to project geopolitical and economic influence eastward into the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. Yet, there is clearly a desire from both Ankara and Baku to bring Pakistan into their defence nexus.
“Pakistan considers Azerbaijan as another prospective market for its defence equipment mainly the JF17 thunder fighter jets,” Umar Karim, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, told The New Arab.
"What is clear is that Azerbaijan and Pakistan see a rising Turkey as positive for their own foreign policy interests"
“Since Azerbaijan has the necessary resources and would like to diversify its armament in order to dilute its dependence on Russia, Pakistan and Turkey are naturally very favourable alternatives. Thus, Azerbaijan can become a client of Pakistan's military hardware like Nigeria or Argentina.”
Then there are special benefits that come from allying with a country that belongs to the nine-member club of nuclear-armed states, and which has soft-power influence in certain parts of the Islamic world. “Baku is mostly relying on the diplomatic power of Pakistan,” explained TRT World’s Turan Gafarli in an interview with TNA.
“Pakistan’s power and influence among the Muslim nations is a great asset.” Gagarli also explained that “there is a huge advantage to have a nuclear nation [on one’s side], therefore Pakistan will continue to be a great asset to Azerbaijan especially noting being a nation of 250 million strong.”
Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Pakistan may not directly face all the same threats. But they are bonded by culture, history, and a determination to bring trilateral cooperation to new heights in military, economic, and energy fields. Both in terms of hard-power and soft-power, such as addressing Islamophobia and oppression of Muslims in certain parts of the world, there is much common cause and shared thinking that bring these three states together.
One of the biggest challenges facing Pakistan is the threat of chaos as well as more refugee flows spilling over from Afghanistan. The odds are good that Islamabad will turn to Ankara and Baku when it comes to securing Pakistani national interests vis-à-vis the uncertain situation in Afghanistan several months after the Taliban’s return to power.
Ambitiously, the Ankara-Baku-Islamabad partnership seeks to create new realities in greater Eurasia that can advance the national interests of all three countries. Moving forward, it will be important to examine the extent to which other powers (Iran, Tajikistan, Russia, Qatar, etc.) might see the deepening of this trilateral partnership as beneficial and/or threatening to their own interests. It also remains to be seen if any of these countries end up joining this axis of cooperation.
What is clear is that Azerbaijan and Pakistan see a rising Turkey as positive for their own foreign policy interests. Rather than remaining stuck in a geostrategic game of balancing the US with Russia and China, a deeper partnership with Ankara can provide Baku and Islamabad with more options.
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero
Emily Milliken is Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates
Follow her on Twitter: @EmilyMPrzy