Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Few Shared Values and No Common Destiny

By Cagdas Ungor | Lecturer - Political Science and International Relations Department - Marmara University - Turkey | Oct 15, 2013
Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Few Shared Values and No Common Destiny

Almost every written piece on Turkey’s relations with Asia begins with a reference to the ancient Silk Road. When Turkish statesmen address Chinese audiences, they often use this metaphor to point out the “millennia-old cultural exchanges and neighborly relations” between the two countries. Inside Turkey, however, few can make sense of this anachronistic notion of shared identity. Asked about ancient Sino-Turkish ties, many will only recall how the Chinese built the “Great Wall” against the nomadic tribes of Central Asia—considered to be the forefathers of modern Turks. A similar line of historical animosity is also evident in regard to Russia, although this story is closer to home, both in distance and time. The Ottoman Empire fought several wars against Russia, with territorial losses resulting in huge waves of migration and trauma in the final decades of the dynasty. Although the young Turkish republic had its friendly moments with Soviet Russia, Turkey’s “Asiatic” bonds did not survive the Cold War era. Except for the Korean War, Turkish politicians showed no interest in the Asia-Pacific, and the Caucasus and Eurasia remained under Moscow rule, certainly off limits to a NATO member.

Things only began to change in the 1980s, when Turkey moved toward an export-oriented growth model and the economic motive began to reshape the country’s Asia policy. After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was rising optimism in Turkey vis-à-vis the possibility of guiding the newly-established Central Asian republics. In the meantime, post-reform China opened up new avenues for bilateral trade and investment. By the early twenty-first century, whereas Turkey’s self-assumed leadership over Central Asia had produced few results, China and Russia became its major trade partners. Yet, despite the growing economic ties and travel opportunities the image of Russia and China did not rise in the eyes of the Turkish public.[1] Therefore, there is reason to believe that when Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu declared Turkey’s “shared destiny” with Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) members, he did not receive a standing ovation in Turkey. Regardless, these comments marked the signing ceremony of Turkey’s accession to the SCO as a dialogue partner in April 2013. [2]

Renewing Turkey’s “Asiatic” Bonds?

Founded as a regional security organization in 2001, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has maintained its original membership structure, which is composed of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. As the organization has been a forum for anti-American views in the past decade, the prospect of Turkey’s membership raised questions regarding the country’s future identity as a NATO member and an EU candidate. In January 2013 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan refueled the controversy of Turkey’s “axis shift” when he said that Turkey might consider dropping its bid for EU membership if the SCO were to accept it as a full member.[3] Though this took many by surprise, it was not a completely new proposition. Ten years earlier, SCO advocacy was popular among the “Eurasianist” circles in Turkey, which stood at the opposite ideological pole from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).[4] Kemalist Eurasianists were a small but influential group composed of high-ranking generals, left-wing intellectuals, and members of the Labor Party who envisioned a secularist, nationalist path for Turkey with no ties to NATO. Their foreign policy vision couldn’t have been more at odds with the AKP, which, when it came to power in 2002, advocated Turkey’s full integration into the global economy, EU membership, and close ties with the United States. And unlike the Kemalists, the AKP saw the country’s Islamic values and Ottoman heritage as an asset rather than a liability.[5]

Although the overall record of AKP-era foreign policy is still subject to debate, it is clear that the current government has striven to bring Turkey’s diplomacy beyond the zero-sum mentality of the Cold War.[6] This has meant diversifying Turkey’s options beyond the West, with a renewed focus on the country’s regional neighbors, particularly in the Middle East. Turkey’s “multi-dimensional” foreign policy line has so far drawn criticism from various circles for a wide range of—and sometimes contradictory—reasons. Whereas liberals have criticized AKP foreign policy for its shift toward the East, nationalist and left-wing circles in Turkey have taken issue with the government’s continued alliance with the West.[7]

An important driving force behind Turkey’s shift in foreign policy has been the country’s economic growth in the first decade of the twenty-first century. In seeking new markets and investment opportunities abroad, business lobbies and associations have drawn Turkey’s gaze toward Asia and Africa. Had the SCO been an economic organization that promised direct access to Eurasian markets, the Turkish business elite would have been a strong advocate of Turkey’s full membership. Alas, SCO is a loose security framework whose members share little in common with Turkey in terms of foreign policy values and geopolitical vision.

Turkey and the SCO: Shared Values?

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization revolves around the fundamental principle of “mutual respect of sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity,” which looks good on paper but proves irrelevant at times of grave humanitarian crises. After the end of the Cold War, China and Russia remained skeptical—if not openly defiant—of Western military interventions, which they saw as resulting in territorial disintegration or regime change. Turkey, on the other hand, has lent support to NATO in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Libya. As of today, Syria is the thorniest issue between Turkey and the leading members of the SCO. Turkey explicitly supports the Syrian opposition, whereas China and Russia remain fiercely opposed to any foreign intervention against the Assad regime. Domestic and international critics note that Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition has more to do with Islamic solidarity than with human rights. It is certainly true that the current Turkish government has been highly selective in picking issues for its human rights agenda, which remains largely focused on Sunni Muslim grievances. It is also important to remember, however, that Erdoğan’s is not the first Turkish government to have prioritized humanitarian intervention over the Westphalian principle of territorial sovereignty. Bosnia Herzegovina is a major case in point.

Regardless of their particular ideology, Turkish governments need to respond to domestic public opinion, which is often concerned with crises involving Muslims outside the country’s borders. Back in the 1990s, this troubled Russia and China, although Turkey officially denied support for Chechen and Uighur separatism. And the “Arab Spring,” for better or for worse, has brought Turkey to a point of no return in terms of prioritizing people’s demands over authoritarian governments. Based on this record, it is easier to assume that Turkey would support a future “Central Asian Spring,” which is a nightmare scenario for the SCO. This, of course, is not to say that Turkey has either the capacity or the willingness to instigate regime change in Central Asia. To the contrary, the AKP government’s vision of turning Turkey into a regional energy hub depends on securing ties with a politically stable Central Asia. In the long term, though, the fact that Turkey remains an advocate of democratization in Eurasia[8] is likely to cause friction with China and Russia.

A Central Asian Spring might be a distant and unlikely scenario, but there are more urgent dilemmas for Turkey if and when it becomes a full member of the SCO. Take the issue of counterterrorism. Although the SCO has not agreed on a common list of terrorist organizations,[9] its counterterrorism mechanism requires member countries to extradite suspected members of terrorist/extremist organizations to their countries of origin. Semih İdiz points out some of the potential difficulties that this may cause to the Turkish government:

…Ankara, Moscow and Beijing do not always see eye to eye on who is a “terrorist,” and who is a “separatist.” The deeply differing views Turkey has with Russia and China on Syria provides a current case in point. The same applies to the Russian and Chinese understanding of “extremism,” an understanding that is also largely shared by other SCO members who are committed to resist this. “Extremism” generally means “Islamism” for them. Turkey’s Islamist Gulen movement—which has many followers among Erdogan’s supporters, and whose schools in Uzbekistan and Russia have been hounded and closed, while its followers in Central Asia remain under close scrutiny—knows this well. It is therefore not possible for the Islamist Erdogan government to see eye to eye with SCO members about who is an “extremist.”[10]

There is indeed a contradiction between the AKP’s rising emphasis on Islamic solidarity and its future obligations under the SCO framework. More importantly, though, this situation may also contradict Turkey’s own legislation and its commitments under international law. The country’s new Law on Foreigners and International Protection, for instance, limits extradition if the person will face the death penalty or ill treatment in his/her country of origin.[11] When Turkey failed to observe similar extradition obligations in the past, it was penalized by the European Court of Human Rights.[12] In addition, international and domestic human rights organizations in Turkey have protested the extradition of terrorist suspects to Central Asian countries in recent years.[13]


Turkey’s full SCO membership is a distant scenario, depending on the evolution of the organization’s geopolitical vision and identity as well as on the course of Turkey’s own democratization process. In this sense, 2013 has proven to be a critical juncture for Turkey. High on the country’s agenda is the fragile “resolution process” in regard to Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish problem and the drafting of a new constitution amidst fierce political polarization. During the Gezi Park protests of the summer of 2013, opposition against the government peaked, pushing the latter into a highly defensive position. Turkish officials’ accusations against foreign powers and their domestic offshoots for instigating the protests, including harsh criticisms of the EU parliament and international media, showcased the limits of Turkey’s readiness to strive in a globalized world. In the short term, the Gezi Park incident seems to have increased Turkish officials’ skepticism toward the West. Although it is still too early to predict whether this new attitude will have a long-term impact on the country’s geopolitical vision and foreign policy values, it is clear that Turkey’s distancing itself from the West would not automatically draw it closer to the SCO—that is, if the Turkish government remains an advocate of democratization and human rights both at home and abroad.

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

[1] According to a survey conducted by Pew Global, only 22 percent of Turkish people have a favorable view of China; see http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/24/. For Russia, the favorability rate is around 16 percent; see http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/27/survey/all/.

[2] Foreign Minister Davutoğlu’s remark on “shared values and destiny” was criticized by a number of observers. See, for example, Semih İdiz, “Are Turks Being Shanghaied?,” Al-Monitor, 30 April 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/04/turkey-shanghai-cooperation-nato-eu.html; “Turkey Signs on to a Joint Destiny with Shanghai,” Sabah, 27 April 2013, http://english.sabah.com.tr/National/2013/04/27/turkey-signs-on-to-a-joint-destiny-with-shanghai; and Doğa Ulaş Eralp, “Turkey—Can the Shanghai Cooperation Organization be an Alternative to the EU?,” Trans Conflict, 6 February 2013, http://www.transconflict.com/2013/02/can-shanghai-cooperation-organization-be-an-alternative-to-european-union-for-turkey-062

[3] Raffaello Pantucci and Alexandros Petersen, “Turkey Abandoning the EU for the SCO,” The Diplomat, February 2013, http://thediplomat.com/2013/02/17/turkey-abandoning-the-eu-for-the-sco/, Ariel Cohen, “Mr. Erdogan Goes to Shanghai,” National Interest, February 2013, http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/mr-erdogan-goes-shanghai-8113. Proponents of the government, on the other hand, view Turkey’s SCO advocacy as a natural outcome of Turkey’s growing autonomy and its “multi-dimensional” foreign policy line. Such observers argue that Turkey pursues a “multi-axis” foreign policy, which aims to balance Turkey’s relations with the East and West. According to this vision, Turkey’s SCO membership would not compromise the country’s ties with the West. Erman Akıllı, “Turkey's Illusions of Neo-Eurasianism and Interest in Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” Zaman, 26 February 2013, http://www.todayszaman.com/news-308231-turkeys-illusions-of-neo-eurasianism-and-interest-in-shanghai-cooperation-organizationby-erman-akilli-.html. Others focus on the pragmatic considerations underlying Erdoğan’s words, such as increasing Turkey’s bargaining power vis-à-vis the EU or the recognition of the shift of the global political economy toward the Asia-Pacific.

[4] For a lengthy summary of visions for and against Turkey’s SCO membership, see Emre Ersen, “Eurasian Orientation in Turkish Foreign Policy and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” ORSAM Ortadoğu Analiz 5, 52 (April 2013).

[5] This ideational change was introduced by Ahmet Davutoğlu in his widely read Strategic Depth, which emphasized the country’s Ottoman/Islamic heritage. See Murat Yeşiltaş and Ali Bağcı, “A Dictionary of Turkish Foreign Policy in the AK Party Era: A Conceptual Map,” SAM (Center for Strategic Research) Papers No. 7, May 2013, http://sam.gov.tr/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/SAM_Papers-7.pdf.

[6] For a summary, see Heinz Kramer, “AKP’s ‘New’ Foreign Policy between Vision and Pragmatism,” German Institute for International and Security Studies Working Paper FG2 2010-11, June 2010.

[7] Proponents of the “axis shift” debate use a number of examples to showcase Turkey’s departure from its Western orientation: the Turkish parliament’s refusal to provide logistical support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003; the stalled EU membership process; and worsening Turkish-Israeli relations following the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010.

[8] As the Turkish Foreign Minister puts it, “Countries should trust in their own people and be ready to reshape their governing structures in a way that will reflect the people’s will… There should be a decisive move towards further democratisation and state-society harmony in Central Asia to join hands and work together for a better future.” See Ahmet Davutoğlu, “Turkic Republics since Independence: Towards a Common Future,” Center for Strategic Research Vision Papers No. 5, January 2013, 8, http://sam.gov.tr/tr/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/vision_paper_ing_05-final.pdf.

[9] Richard Weitz, “Uzbekistan: A Peek Inside an SCO Anti-Terrorism Center,” Eurasianet, 25 September 2012, http://www.eurasianet.org/node/65960.

[10] Semih İdiz, “Are Turks Being Shanghaied?,” Al-Monitor, 30 April, 2013. http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/04/turkey-shanghai-cooperation-nato-eu.html.

[11] See Article 55 of the “Law on Foreigners and International Protection,” 4 April 2013, http://www.refworld.org/docid/5167fbb20.html.

[12] The Mamatkulov and Abdurasulovich vs. Turkey case is a major example. See Levent Korkut, “Avrupa İnsan Hakları Mahkemesi Kararlarının Devletlerin Sığınmacıları Sınırdışı etmesi Egemen Yetkisine Etkisi: Türkiye Örneği” (The Impact of Decisions of the European Court of Human Rights on the State’s Sovereign Power to Expel Asylum Seekers: The Case of Turkey), Ankara Barosu Dergisi 66, 4 (Autumn 2008),  http://www.ankarabarosu.org.tr/siteler/ankarabarosu/tekmakale/2008-4/4.pdf.

[13] For a recent example relating to the extradition of a Kazakh national, see “Mültecilerin iade edilmesi Fatih’te protesto edildi” (Extradition of Refugees was Protested in Fatih), Mazlum-der, 23 March 2012, http://istanbul.mazlumder.org/faaliyetler/detay/basin-aciklamalari/1/multecilerin-iade-edilmesi-fatihte-protesto-edildi-/8764.