During an interview with the popular Istanbul-based news channel 24 TV on Thursday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan inter alia disclosed that Turkey is seeking membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. It was only at the recent SCO summit at Beijing in June that Turkey became a ‘Dialogue Partner’. The induction as ‘Dialogue Partner’ was apparently at China’s initiative. In his interview, Erdogan said during his visit to Moscow earlier this month, he solicited support from President Vladimir Putin for the Turkish move.
There was a touch of bitterness in the way he put it, alongside the schadenfreude that the Europeans themselves are in a mess nowadays. China and Russia would estimate that Erdogan follows an independent foreign policy and Turkish economy is doing well, and, in principle, Turkey makes a good partner for SCO. But, a full member?
Here, complications arise. Turkey is a NATO power and both SCO and the Western alliance would need to ponder how Turkey could belong to two security organizations at the same time, which compete for influence in the Eurasian space. The United States has so far failed in its SCO bid. Again, Turkey is an ambitious regional power.
It regards itself to be the leader of the community of ‘Turkic’ nations. Thus, its Central Asia policy challenged Moscow’s strategy of integration of Central Asian countries under its leadership. In the event, of course, both Turkey and Russia suffered erosion in their regional influence over the years and the Central Asian countries, on the other hand, have become quite adept at seeking what they want from whom they want and when they want.
One thing is for sure. China would like the idea that Turkey subscribes to the SCO’s established norms as regards the ‘three evils’ — Uighur problem. China has had great success in using the SCO forum to get the Central Asian states to crack down on the Uighur separatist elements in the region. Turkey too has a sizable, vocal Uighur population.
The Central Asian states ignore Turkey’s fanciful pretensions of being the leader of the ‘Turkic’ world, but they maintain friendly equations with Ankara. Even Uzbekistan, which kept ties with Turkey in deep freeze put out signals recently for a patch-up. The point is, Turkey has been a steady benefactor, offering technical and economic cooperation to the Central Asian countries.
In the final analysis, Moscow would have an ambivalent stance. Erdogan may need to clarify where exactly Turkey stands with regard to the United States’ regional strategies. Turkey, after all, allowed the deployment of the US missile defence system on its soil, which has strategic implications for Russia.
Turkey and Russia do not see eye to eye on Syria and the Middle Eastern upheaval in general. Of course, the Middle Eastern situation is evolving and it is not inconceivable that the Turkish and Russian interests may get reconciled eventually. Ankara and Moscow are in consultation regarding various approaches to a ‘transition’ of power in Damascus and the jury is still out.
The Turkish and Russian interests are also diverging in the Caucasus and the Caspian regions. Azerbaijan is marking distance from Moscow, but has instinctively drawn closer to Ankara. Turkey has excellent ties with Georgia, which is in a state of ‘cold peace’ with Russia. Russia has a military base in Armenia, which carries a lot of historical baggage vis-a-vis Turkey.
On the other hand, Erdogan has done a lot to put the Turkish-Russian relations on an upward curve in the recent years. Trade is touching $30 billion and rapidly growing. Russian tourists flock to the ‘Turkish Riviera’ in huge numbers. Russia just won a tender for building Turkey’s first nuclear power station. The deal is worth $20-25 billion. The two countries also cooperate deeply in the field of energy. Turkey made a big gesture to Russia by granting permission for its South Stream gas pipeline to pass through Turkish territorial waters in the Black Sea.
In geopolitical terms, all things said, what stands out is Turkey’s grand conception of its future role in world politics. The SCO membership would bring Turkey into a partnership with Russia and China, while at the same time it continues as a strong ally of the US and a NATO power and enjoys a customs union with the EU — and, of course, is returning to the Middle East and north Africa to reclaim its Ottoman legacy.
The big question is how Turkey’s search for SCO membership would impact on India’s claim. Suffice to say, China would probably relish it has an added reason to plead that SCO should go slow on admitting new members, since profound long-term implications are arising, which indeed deserve calm, careful, unhurried study.