During a trip to Russia in November, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again said that Ankara would abandon its quest to join the European Union if it was offered full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
According to Turkish newspapers, Erdogan made the comments during a press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The impetus for Erdogan’s remarks was Putin’s response to a question about Ukraine recently pulling out of talks over an EU trade pact.
“We will ask Turkey what we can do. Turkey has great experience in EU talks,” Putin said sarcastically, referring to Ankara’s long and checkered history of seeking EU membership.
Without skipping a beat, Erdogan responded: “You are right. Fifty years of experience is not easy. Allow us into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and save us from this trouble.”
Given the context the comment was made in, it might be easy to dismiss the comment as a lighthearted joke. However, this is not the first time that Erdogan has said Turkey would gladly forgo EU membership if it was invited to join the SCO as a full member.
Indeed, Erdogan made waves in January of this year when he stated, that “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. Pakistan wants in. India wants in as well. If the SCO wants us, all of us will become members of this organization.”
He added, “The Shanghai Five is better and more powerful, and we have common values with them.”
This followed comments he made in the summer of last year when, again speaking with Putin, Erdogan said Ankara would like to join the SCO. Shortly after making these initial comments, his office wrote them off as a joke. However, he has now repeated it no less than three times.
The SCO is an international organization created in 2001 by China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. It was born out of the Shanghai Five group, which consisted of the same nations minus Uzbekistan.
Alongside these permanent members, the SCO also has an increasing number of dialogue partners and observers. Last year, Turkey joined the SCO as a dialogue partner during a summit in Beijing. Belarus and Sri Lanka are also dialogue partners while Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia enjoy observer status at the SCO.
The SCO mainly focuses on common security challenges like anti-terrorism and separation movements. For a number of years now, China has also sought to strengthen economic cooperation within the SCO. These moves have generally been resisted by Russia, which is steadily losing influence to Beijing in Central Asia and already belongs to the economically oriented Eurasian Economic Community with all five Central Asian nations (Uzbekistan is currently suspended from the group).
Consistent with the Shanghai part of its name, China is generally seen as a more enthusiastic backer of the SCO. That Erdogan has generally directed his pleas to join the SCO toward Putin likely reflects the Turkish prime minister’s sentiment that Moscow is the main obstacle to Ankara gaining entry into the SCO. In fact, whereas Turkey and China have some basis of cooperation in Central Asia, Ankara and Moscow has historically competed for influence in the region. Furthermore, although Turkey does suffer from the same kind of separatist movements that the SCO preoccupies itself with, Ankara is most likely seeking to advance its economic interests by joining the SCO.
Whatever the reasons behind Erdogan’s SCO bid, it is just one of a number of recent examples that suggest Turkey is embarking on its own Asian pivot of sorts. As previously reported, Turkey—which is a NATO member—recently announced that it will purchase an air and missile defense system from a Chinese defense company that is under U.S. sanctions. Similarly, Sino-Turkish bilateral trade has grown from US$1.4 billion in 2000 to over US$24 billion last year.
Turkey has also been expanding its relationship with other Asian powers. For example, a Japanese firm won a bid to construct the Marmaray tunnel, one of Erdogan’s most prized projects. Japanese PM Shinzo Abe visited Turkey in October to attend to the official opening of the tunnel. Abe also visited Ankara back in May when he and Erdogan officially upgraded bilateral ties to a strategic partnership. While in Turkey this spring, Abe also concluded a US$22 billion deal in which a Japanese and French firm will jointly build Turkey a second nuclear plant.
Relations between Turkey and South Korea have also been growing steadily. In fact, in March of last year, the two sides signed a free trade agreement. When the agreement came into effect this year, South Korea became the first Asian nation to have a free trade agreement with Turkey. They are already examining ways to expand the FTA by including services and investment.
Australia hopes to be the second country in Asia to conclude an FTA with Turkey.