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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.