The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A New Alternative for Turkish Foreign Policy?

By Emre Erşen | Lecturer - Marmara University - Istanbul Turkey | Oct 18, 2013
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization: A New Alternative for Turkish Foreign Policy?

In June 2012, Turkey was accepted as a “dialogue partner” at the Beijing Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Although this decision did not completely satisfy the Turkish government, which apparently preferred the status of an observer, it still had a profound meaning, as Turkey is the first NATO member state to enjoy such a privileged institutional relationship with the SCO. This new relationship has become even more significant in light of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration in a televised interview in January 2013 that membership in the SCO could become an alternative to Turkey’s stalled EU accession process. More recently, the brutal suppression of the Taksim Gezi Park demonstrations by Turkish security forces heightened concerns about the future of democracy in Turkey, giving rise to more frequent comparisons between the Turkish regime and the authoritarian political systems of the SCO member states.

The EU Dimension

The “SCO versus EU” debate that has recently become popular in the Turkish media may be quite misleading, as the SCO should be compared with NATO rather than the EU in terms of its main objectives and institutional structure. Most importantly, whereas the EU aims to foster greater political and economic integration between its member states, the SCO is a regional security mechanism coordinating action in regard to issues like terrorism, separatism, and fundamentalism. The EU’s supranational attributes are also much more salient compared with the intergovernmental nature of the SCO mechanisms.

Despite these clear differences, some leftist and neonationalist groups in Turkey have tended to regard the SCO as an alternative to the EU in Turkish foreign policy. The growing stagnation in Turkey’s EU membership process has particularly constituted a solid argument for these groups in their defense of a strategic relationship between Turkey and the SCO. Although the accession talks between Turkey and the EU have been underway since October 2005, most of the chapters that should be negotiated in order to complete the full membership process have been blocked by a number of EU member states, including France. More importantly, the lack of a lasting solution for the Cyprus issue has become a major obstacle for Turkey’s accession, as Ankara has refused to deal with the Greek Cypriot government, which has been representing the Republic of Cyprus as a full member in the EU.

The frustration with the EU membership process has frequently prompted high-level Turkish officials such as Erdoğan to criticize Brussels harshly for its double standard and “disrespectful manner” toward Turkey.[1] This can also be regarded as the main reason behind his much publicized statement that the Turkish government could consider parting ways with the EU if the SCO were to include Turkey as a full member. Erdoğan said:

The EU wants to forget about us, but hesitates, and cannot really forget. But if it said what it truly feels, we would be only relieved. Instead of wasting our time, it should be open and explain, so that we can go about our business. You sit and talk with them, but they can’t really speak convincingly. When things go so poorly, you inevitably, as the prime minister of 75 million people, seek other paths. That’s why I recently said to Mr. [Vladimir] Putin: “Take us into the Shanghai Five; do it, and we will say farewell to the EU, leave it altogether. Why all this stalling?”[2]

Although there are different views as to whether this is a bluff or a real warning to the EU, it should be recalled that the Turkish public has also recently shown strong signs of disappointment with the country’s struggle to gain EU membership. An opinion poll conducted in January 2013, for example, suggests that only 33 percent of the Turkish people believe Turkey should continue pursuing EU membership in the next five years.[3] Although the general opinion on Turkey’s relations with Russia or China is not more favorable than the view of the EU, it is still important to note that there is an increasing public interest in Turkey in alternative regional cooperation schemes.

Turkey’s New Foreign Policy   

The renewed Turkish interest in the SCO is also in line with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s so-called “multi-dimensional and multi-track foreign policy” that was put into effect by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as early as 2002. Most importantly, this policy has allowed Turkey to develop its strategic relations with NATO and SCO at the same time. It has also been used to cancel out the claims of a “shift of axis” in Turkish foreign policy, as Ankara has improved its relations with many regional organizations, including not only the SCO, but also ASEAN, the Arab League, the African Union, and MERCOSUR. These newly-founded institutional relationships also seem to have reinforced the AKP government’s main foreign policy objective, which is to portray Turkey as a “central country,” meaning one with increasing political and economic influence around the world.[4] The AKP’s active diplomacy and eventual success in winning a non-permanent seat for Turkey in the UN Security Council in the 2009-2010 period can be regarded as a typical manifestation of this bold objective. Turkey was also ranked as the fourth largest donor government in terms of humanitarian aid in 2012.[5]

An integral element of Turkey’s multidimensional foreign policy vision is to improve the country’s relations with countries other than its traditional Western allies. The SCO and its member states in particular seem to be an important focus for Ankara. Political, economic, and cultural relations with Central Asian countries have already been developed due to Turkey’s active engagement in the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union. With Russia and China, however, the momentum seems to have been built after the launch of the multidimensional foreign policy. During the past decade, Turkish-Russian relations in particular have developed remarkably within the so-called “multidimensional strengthened partnership” framework. Apart from closer political dialogue on major regional and global issues, the two countries have also developed cordial relations in energy and trade. It is important to note in this regard that Russia is currently Turkey’s greatest energy supplier and its second most important trade partner following Germany. In addition, every year millions of Russian citizens visit Turkey and many Turkish companies build new businesses in Russia.  As a clear acknowledgment of their enhanced political and economic relations, in 2010 Ankara and Moscow decided to remove the visa restrictions between the two countries for stays of up to thirty days—an important development that was difficult to imagine only a few years before, as also stated by Russia’s ambassador in Turkey.[6]

Economic Concerns       

In comparison with the Turkish-Russian rapprochement of the 2000s, the improvement in Turkey’s relations with China has been quite modest. Turkish-Chinese relations still have a long way to go despite new momentum in the spheres of military cooperation and cultural exchange. At the same time, one should also take notice of the rapidly improving trade relations between the two countries. Despite the remarkable trade balance deficit that is working against Turkey, China has recently become its third most important trade partner, with an overall trade volume of $24 billion in 2012. This picture clearly reveals the significance of economic concerns in Ankara’s renewed interest in strengthening its relations with the SCO.

The dramatic shift taking place in the world economy since 2007 is probably the single most important factor shaping Turkey’s new outlook toward the SCO. Considering that three members of BRIC, which is regarded as the most significant grouping of the world’s rising economic powers, are either full members of (China, Russia) or observers in (India) the SCO, it can be claimed that the SCO has become much more economically important for Ankara in the last few years. Especially following the Eurozone debt crisis, Turkey’s foreign trade with the SCO members has risen from $49 billion in 2010 to $63 billion in 2012. The EU countries’ share in Turkey’s foreign trade, on the other hand, has declined during the same period.

Although the SCO countries’ share in Turkey’s total trade volume is still relatively low and relations with the EU continue to play an important role in key sectors such as exports and investments, Turkish business circles have acknowledged Asian powers’ increasing influence in the world economy. Influential business organizations like the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) and leading Turkish companies such as Zorlu Holding have expressed their support for the government’s policy to improve Turkey’s relations with Russia, China, and India.[7] They have particularly emphasized the necessity to come up with new economic partnerships at a time when the economic axis of the world is shifting from the West to the East.

Conclusion

It is difficult to imagine the SCO as a strong alternative to the EU or NATO in Turkish foreign policy. Although there are still serious problems in Turkey’s EU membership process, both Ankara and Brussels have carefully refrained from ending the accession talks. While it is true that Turkey almost suspended its relations with the EU during Cyprus’ six-month term presidency of the union between June and December 2012, immediately after Ireland took over the presidency Turkish officials worked on the diplomatic front to persuade the EU to open a new chapter. After three years, Brussels opened the “Chapter on Regional Policy and Coordination of Structural Instruments” with Turkey in June 2013. The negotiations on this chapter, however, will not start until after the publication of the EU Commission’s annual progress report due to the Turkish government’s harsh treatment of Gezi Park protesters. Erdoğan and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have even engaged in a war of words in regard to this issue. Despite these problems, Turkey remains an official EU candidate and will likely continue to prioritize its political and economic relations with Brussels, at least in the short term.

In contrast to the EU, Turkey’s relations with NATO have recently gotten back on track. In addition to last year’s deployment of early warning radar in Eastern Turkey within the framework of the NATO missile defense system, Ankara’s position vis-à-vis the Arab uprisings has also been closer to NATO than to Russia and China. Turkey both participated actively in NATO’s campaign in Libya and condemned the Bashar al-Assad government’s oppression of opposition groups in Syria. Currently, there is an even closer diplomatic and military dialogue between Turkey and NATO regarding Middle Eastern affairs. Most recently, for instance, NATO agreed to send Patriot missiles to Turkey as a security measure in response to the threat emanating from the ongoing Syrian civil war. These developments have once again highlighted the significance of NATO membership for Turkey’s immediate security concerns.

Finally, it is difficult to deny that Turkey’s relations with the SCO member states have been rapidly developing over the past decade. This process will most likely continue with a growing momentum for two main reasons. Firstly, the center of gravity in the world economy continues to move from America and Europe toward Asia. China, for example, has already become the world’s second largest economy. The AKP government is also fully aware that it needs to improve its relations with the rising Asian powers, most notably China and India, in order to continue its claim of making Turkey a central country in world politics. The SCO, in this sense, is perceived by Turkish policy makers as a means rather than an end of realizing this ambitious goal. Secondly, although the financial crisis in Europe has slowed, it is far from being completely under control. This is another factor that complicates Turkey’s already difficult accession process. If the Turkish government and public continue to lose their faith in the EU, the Asian/Eurasian alternative symbolized by the SCO may seem more promising for Turkish foreign policy makers.

This contribution is part of the Middle East-Asia Project at the Middle East Institute.


[1] See Sabah, 27 February 2013.

[2] Yavuz Baydar, “Turkey, Weary of the EU, Tiptoes Towards the Shanghai Five,” Huffington Post, 29 January 2013, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yavuz-baydar/turkey-shanghai-five_b_256609....

[4] Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Türkiye Merkez Ülke Olmalı” (Turkey Should Become A Central Country), Radikal, 26 February 2004.

[5] Hürriyet Daily News, 19 July 2012.

[7] Sabah, 9 October 2012 and Yeni Şafak, 4 February 2013.