The European Union is in a rut. Its once-vaunted economy and “ever closer” integration is facing the tough challenges of a dogged recession and anti-EU sentiment in some of its most powerful member states. It is therefore perhaps not surprising that some EU aspirants appear lukewarm about their prospects and continued desire to join the club. For Turkey, probably the most unfairly spurned EU aspirant, it makes a lot of sense to at least explore alternatives.
After all, Turkey’s economy is booming – leaping from $614.6 billion in 2009 to $775 billion in 2011 (in current U.S. dollars) according to World Bank figures. Reflecting the country’s position at the global cross-roads, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport international traffic more than doubled between the years 2006 and 2011. Last year alone its passenger volume increased by 20%, making it Europe’s 6th busiest airport. The country’s regional and global profile has grown since it first evinced a desire to join the EU. European leaders should only be surprised that Turkey has maintained its interest in the EU for so long.
However, even as it makes sense to decision-makers in Ankara to reconsider their relationship with the EU, it is not a strategically sound choice for Turkey to consider membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an alternative. Already a ”dialogue partner” with the SCO, late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he had made an overture to Russian President Vladimir Putin about joining the SCO, stating “If we get into the SCO, we will say good-bye to the European Union. The Shanghai Five [former name of the SCO] is better — much more powerful.” Erdogan also noted that Turkey has more “common values” with the SCO member states.
The issue, however, is that the SCO remains a nascent organization that is still in the process of defining itself. Absorbing new members, or figuring out the protocols for new members to be formally acceded, is merely one of the many problems the SCO faces. The Organization’s security structures, including the unfortunate-acronym RATS Center [Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure], have yet to fully flesh out their purpose in advancing regional security in a very militarily tense region. Meanwhile, China continues to dominate the SCO's economic agenda, including negotiations to establish an SCO Free Trade Area (FTA), an SCO Development Bank, and Beijing offering $10 billion in loans for member states. All of this alarms Russian strategists who see China encroaching on Moscow's Central Asian interests. Nonetheless, all of this results in a minimal concrete presence, something we found first-hand as we travelled around Central Asia over the past year, finding little tangible evidence of the Organization’s footprint on the ground.
Further complicating matters, Turkey is not the only country that has expressed an interest in becoming a full member. In fact, Pakistani and Indian officials both said their countries were interested in becoming full-fledge members at the Prime Minister’s Summit in Bishkek last December. Iran too has expressed an interest in joining the organization, although Moscow recently said this would not be possible so long as Tehran remains under UN sanctions. All three countries currently languish as “observers,“ a status that Pakistan and India have held since 2005 and one that is considered superior to the ‘dialogue partnership’ that Turkey was only accorded last June. Still, both Pakistan and India – strategically important allies for China and Russia respectively – would undoubtedly feel put out were Turkey allowed to jump the queue.
None of this is to say that Turkey does not have a key role to play in Central Asia, the SCO’s primary area of operations. Waiting for visas in Bishkek, we found ourselves jostling with Turkish truckers getting visas to Kazakhstan, whilst in the city’s downtown, eager students at the Kyrgyz-Turkish Manas University told us how exciting it would be to visit Turkey. In neighboring Uzbekistan, our driver told us how he preferred to fly Turkish airlines and how convenient the country was linguistically. This ethnic proximity is something that China in particular has sought to cultivate – in April last year, Erdogan broke protocol when he started his Chinese trip with a stopover in Urumqi, capital of historically Turkic Uighur Xinjiang.
Eager to attract outside investment to encourage prosperity as a salve for ethnic tensions between Uighur and Han Chinese and historical underdevelopment, the Urumqi government has established a Turkish-Chinese trade park outside the city, offering Turkish investors favorable rates and support to develop businesses in the province. Turkey is clearly a significant regional player and its SCO “dialogue partner” status reflects this. But full membership is a step too far and one that seems out of whack with the Organization’s current trajectory.
Far more likely, Erdogan is hinting at a shift in orientation in frustration at the West’s relationship with his country. Europe has repeatedly proven an awkward partner and the United States has demonstrated little appetite to get overly involved in the problems that sit right on Turkey’s border. Aware of his nation’s geopolitical location at a global crossroads, Erdogan is highlighting that he has options.
Still, the reality is that joining the SCO would not heighten Turkey’s global stature or teach the West a lesson. U.S. and NATO policymakers keep an eye on the SCO, but none seriously view it as a strategic counterweight. In some respects, Western strategists have been far more eager than their Chinese counterparts about the possibility of an SCO role in stabilizing Afghanistan after Western combat forces depart in 2014. In the past year, the Organization has expressed some interest in doing more in Afghanistan, but it remains light years away from replacing NATO as a security guarantor.
As an ascendant power in Eurasia, Turkey may find it useful to keep in a toe in the SCO. However, full membership is not in the offing. And even if it were, Turkey’s decision-makers would quickly find that China’s multilateral cover for its bilateral engagement in Central Asia is still an empty shell.
Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Dr. Alexandros Petersen is the author of The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West and an Associate Professor at the American University of Central Asia. Their joint research is available at www.chinaincentralasia.com.