Following the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Uzbekistan in September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey intends to become a full member of the SCO, a China-led Eurasian intergovernmental political, economic, and security organization. At present, Turkey is a dialogue member. Full membership would make Turkey the only North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member in the SCO. While Erdogan’s declaration suggests that Ankara is seeking alternatives to its often tense relations with the West, it can also be seen in the context of Turkey’s growing influence in Central Asia and broader geopolitical ambitions.
Growing Presence in Central Asia
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Ankara set up the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency to increase cultural and economic ties with the Central Asian countries. A couple of decades later, in 2009, the Cooperation Council of the Turkic Speaking States (known as the Turkic Council) was formally established. In 2021, the council decided to rename itself as the Organization of Turkic States. Made up of five members – Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan – and two observer states (Hungary and Turkmenistan), the organization’s participant states are home to around 170 million people and a combined GDP of $1.5 trillion. The trade volume among these countries is estimated at $16 billion.
Amid shifting global and regional geopolitics and the Russian war in Ukraine, Turkey has sought greater engagement with Central Asia through a number of trade and defense agreements as well as arms sales. In March 2022, Erdogan visited Uzbekistan to strengthen the Turkey-Uzbek partnership. Ten agreements were signed during the visit, while both countries pledged to increase bilateral trade volume to $10 billion.
Similarly, in May 2022, Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev visited Turkey to sign 15 bilateral deals to strengthen the Kazakhstan-Turkey strategic partnership. During the visit, Tokayev noted that since Kazakhstan started using Turkish shipping routes, the cargo transport time from Khorgos to Istanbul has significantly declined from 60 days to 13.
Sales of one of Turkey’s most powerful and lucrative exports – arms – have boosted the country’s image in Central Asia. Used by Ukraine to destroy Russian military hardware, by Azerbaijan against Armenia in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, and elsewhere,Turkey’s drones have also attracted the interest of Central Asian countries. Turkmenistan, for instance, a long-time client of Turkish arms, bought more than one Bayraktar TB2. Kyrgyzstan also bought Turkish drones in 2021 and established a new base for drones last month. Likewise, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have expressed interest in Turkish drones, while Kazakhstan has agreed to begin domestic production of Turkey’s Anka drones.
Further linking Turkey’s foreign policy objectives and “drone diplomacy,” China’s cheaper military hardware means that potential joint collaboration between Turkey and China is not out of the question. Nor are suggestions that Turkey’s future arms buyers will be SCO members, particularly given that the combined gross domestic product (GDP) of SCO members accounts for nearly 25 percent of global GDP.
Turkey’s Energy Needs
Ankara’s greater engagement with Central Asia is partly driven by Turkey’s energy needs and regional energy transit hub ambitions. Given the country’s limited domestic energy reserves, despite significant gas finds in the Black Sea in 2020, Turkey remains significantly dependent on external energy supplies. Ankara is particularly keen to secure energy supplies and transportation corridors that neither Russia nor Iran, eager to develop its own trade with Central Asia, has a monopoly over.
Further linking Turkey’s energy needs and interest in Central Asia is Ankara’s backing of Azerbaijan in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Aside from gaining greater access to Azerbaijani gas and the Caspian Sea, Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan, Ankara’s biggest gas supplier in 2019–2020, will likely result in improved access to Turkmenistan’s enormous gas reserves alongside potential trilateral cooperation hydrocarbon exploration. Such efforts will likely strengthen Ankara’s regional energy hub ambitions through energy infrastructure projects like the proposed Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP). The TCP aims to pump gas from Turkmenistan to Azerbaijan and onward into the Southern Gas Corridor (SGC) that runs via Turkey into southeastern Europe.
Another aspect to consider is Turkey’s push for greater regional and economic connectivity. By positioning itself as an alternative to Russia’s position in China’s Belt and Road, Ankara seeks to expand its sphere of influence and role in Eurasian and global markets, connecting China, Central Asia, and Europe. While Moscow may still influence Central Asia, this influence appears to be waning, resulting in Central Asian governments eager to find alternative partners.
The Trans-Caspian International Transport Route (TITR), also known as the Middle Corridor, is a multilateral, multimodal transport route. The route connects China to Turkey and Europe via Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Estimates suggest that TITR will transport between 75,000 to 100,000 containers annually. Rather than traversing across Russia, which has been the main land link between China and Europe for decades, TITR bypasses Russia with the newly built 826-kilometer-long Baku-Tbilisi-Kars (BTK) railway. The BTK railway, sometimes referred to as the Turkish version of the New Silk Road, stretches from the Caspian Sea port of Alat in Baku, Azerbaijan, across Georgia to the city of Kars, Turkey, for access to European markets.
The China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan (CKU) railway project, estimated to cost around $4.5 billion, aims to connect China to Europe via Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Turkey. In so doing, it aims to reduce the journey by around 900 kilometers and eight days as well as bypass Russia. Following a tripartite online meeting held by China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan earlier this year, China’s National Development and Reform Commission announced in early June that construction of the transnational CKU railway would begin in spring 2023. Currently, preparations for the three countries to carry out a feasibility study are underway.
While Russia has used its historical role as a regional hegemon to curtail Turkish influence in Central Asia, in recent years, Turkey and Russia have developed stronger economic and political ties partly due to Turkey’s often tense relationship with Western countries. While Ankara has provided Ukraine with drones and other arms, it has not imposed sanctions on Russia.
With the European Union and the United States criticizing Turkey’s human rights record and the U.S. imposing various sanctions on Turkey over the years, Ankara has strengthened relations with its non-Western partners. In 2021, after Turkey bought Russian S-400 defense systems, the U.S. sanctioned Turkey, and removed the country from a U.S.-led program developing F-35 fighter jets.
Aside from growing political ties, Turkey and Russia have strengthened economic ties. Turkey’s financial woes are largely due to poor management and Erdogan’s unorthodox economic policy. In September this year, the country’s official inflation rate soared to a new 24-year high, exceeding 83 percent. Alongside Turkey’s spiraling economy and low poll numbers for the current government, the Erdogan-led Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been looking for new partners.
Having refused to ask for assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and with talks on a swap deal with the United States Federal Reserve failing, Ankara has become economically dependent on Moscow to provide the money necessary to avoid a balance of payments crisis ahead of Turkey’s elections next year. In August, the two countries signed an economic cooperation deal. Over $20 billion appeared on Turkey’s balance sheets since January. Although this source is unknown, it is assumed that most of this sum is from Moscow.
Elsewhere, Turkey and Russia have coordinated closely in Syria’s war, despite supporting opposing sides.
The China Factor
Although Moscow and Ankara have strengthened political and economic ties in recent years, current events suggest that Beijing, rather than Moscow, is moving closer to Ankara. For Turkey and China, stronger bilateral relations support their respective foreign policy goals. For Beijing, Ankara’s strategic position, situated on a key route for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and located between Eurasia, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean, means that Beijing can use Turkey as a launching pad for greater influence in and engagement with the Middle East and the Mediterranean. For Ankara, stronger engagement with Beijing means that China can support Turkey’s ambitions on the world stage without the challenges that deeper ties with Russia entail, simultaneously balancing Turkey’s relations with the West.
Since the official strengthening of bilateral relations in 2010, China has played a growing role in Turkey’s foreign policy, resulting in stronger political, economic, military, and security bilateral ties. In addition to supporting Turkey through “vaccine diplomacy,” China has also demonstrated interest in trade and military equipment. Currently, China is one of Turkey’s biggest importers among individual countries. In 2021, Sino-Turkish bilateral trade totaled $32 billion, a significant increase from $1 billion in 2001. In addition, in 2019, China extended its currency swap agreement with Turkey. As per this agreement, Beijing provided Ankara with an additional $1 billion cash transfer.
Following a strategic cooperation agreement in 2010, both countries also signed a memorandum on the aforementioned Trans-Caspian International Transport Route. TITR is intended to complement the BRI. Additionally, Erdogan has visited Beijing numerous times, including for the opening ceremony of the 2017 BRI Forum.
In another example of closer relations with China, Turkey currently favors China’s stance on the Uyghur issue despite Turkey hosting a large Uyghur diaspora and previously having raised concerns. Although Beijing has repeatedly warned Ankara not to become involved in Uyghur issues, various conservative and nationalist groups in Turkey are keen for their government to have a say in the issue. An extradition treaty between the two countries was ratified by China in 2020, but Ankara has not done so yet.
At the same time, Turkey is demanding the extradition of Kurds from Sweden as a condition of Turkey approving Sweden’s entry into NATO. While China may play the “Kurdish card” in response to Turkey’s criticism, economic pragmatism is expected to continue to override pan-Turkic solidarity, given that Ankara has avoided any prolonged sustained criticism of China’s Uyghur policy.
The (Re-)emergence of Turkish power
Ankara’s interest in playing a more significant role on the global stage is demonstrated by its activities regarding Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the Syrian refugee crisis. More recently, in relation to the Russian war in Ukraine, Ankara has sought to mediate between both countries through peace talks and played a role in brokering an agreement in July for Ukrainian grain release efforts and in September for a Russia-Ukraine prisoner swap.
As part of Ankara’s push for more engagement with Central Asia and China for greater regional connectivity and economic cooperation, Turkey aims to establish viable alternative routes to those that run through Russia. While the creation of new trade routes and greater Turkish interest in Central Asia is influenced by Turkey’s domestic energy needs to some extent, it also builds on Ankara’s cultural and economic outreach in the region. With Russia at war with Ukraine, Turkey is reinforcing its global ambitions and foreign policy objectives, positioning itself as a key “connector” between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.
For Central Asian countries, Turkey’s rise as a Eurasian power is set to result in new trade opportunities and regional connectivity by transporting goods and potentially people between the various countries in the region. At the same time, Turkey’s involvement enables greater access to the European and global markets for Central Asian countries and China without the involvement of Russia. Central Asian countries could further capitalize on this by taking advantage of these opportunities to secure their own interests, independent of Russia and China. However, the growing use of drones from Turkey may also exacerbate disputes and tensions between Central Asia countries, particularly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
It is within this broader context that Turkey’s quest for growing geopolitical power on the world’s stage can be placed. Erdogan’s declaration following this year’s SCO summit suggests that Ankara both can and wants to pursue non-aligned foreign policy objectives that suits its own geopolitical goals rather than those that favor NATO. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how effective this effort will be.