When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly claimed at the end of January that Turkey would turn away from the EU and join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, few people took him seriously. The Central Asian security bloc, dominated by an uneasy alliance between Russia and China, looked like an unlikely destination for Turkey no matter what its problems with the EU accession process.
But Turkey has now taken a step forward by becoming a formal ‘dialogue partner’ of the SCO. But significantly, there is even some confusion over what Turkey has become: although most reports say that Turkey is only now a dialogue partner, coverage of last year’s SCO summit said that Turkey was elevated to dialogue partner status in June, meaning that it took until now to formalise. No other SCO observer or dialogue partner has had a ten-month wait between the decision to grant it status and a formal memorandum.
Adding to the uncertainty, the Turkish Foreign Ministry in early February also said that it was seeking to become an observer, a step up from its current status as dialogue partner. And the SCO’s English-language webpage makes no reference to Turkey at all. This article from Al-Monitor covers the apparent confusion within the Turkish government over the issue.
So it’s not clear if Turkey has been brought in for the first time, has had an existing commitment to ‘dialogue partner’ status formalised, or has actually been rebuffed from its attempt to become an observer. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it illustrates the fact that the SCO – and Turkey’s shift towards it – is not a straightforward matter.
The confusion over membership status suggests that the SCO and Turkey are not engaged in a proper process of dialogue over the process, which raises further questions about the institutional capabilities of the bloc. What are the differences between dialogue partners and observers? Do they have any appreciable functions, or is this simply a formality which will allow a Turkish name plaque at the next SCO summit?
The SCO has struggled to define itself ever since its formal establishment in 2001, as Alexandros Peterson and Raffaello Pantucci have pointed out. Is it a geopolitical organisation, the ‘NATO of the East’? Is it focused on specific security threats like drug-trafficking (as well as the organisation’s ‘three evils’ of terrorism, extremism and separatism)? Or is it predominantly intended as a vehicle for China to economically engage with the Central Asian states in a multilateral fashion?
Part of this lack of clarity is explained by the subtle tensions in the bloc between China – which has been a driving force behind the SCO – and Russia, which has preferred to focus its efforts on the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which does not include China.
The Central Asian states themselves have been ambivalent about the SCO. The bloc has been a useful tool through which to engage China on multilateral energy and economic projects as well as to balance against Russian meddling. But they are wary about being dominated by either Moscow or Beijing (and often don’t trust each other), and their institutional weaknesses have reduced their incentives to cooperate and open up their opaque economies and political networks to outsiders.
So where does Turkey fit into the picture? Not very well, clearly. Politically, its open and raucous domestic scene is a world away from the closed, murky elites of the SCO members. Unlike any of them, Turkey is a functioning and pluralistic democracy. It is a NATO member with deep-rooted, if occasionally troubled, ties with the West. Its economy is plugged into Europe and the Middle East, not Central Asia.
An obvious but neglected point is that Turkey is nowhere near the SCO members. This is significant, because most of the issues which concern the SCO – Afghanistan on the security front, and transnational pipeline projects on the economic – are not geographic concerns for Turkey.
Turkey’s attempt to build closer ties is therefore not really about the SCO at all, but – as Joshua Kucera notes – about engaging with Russia and China as part of a broader effort to build ties with rising powers. It probably helps to be able to fire a warning shot across the EU’s bows at the same time, even if nobody really takes Turkey’s attempt to join the SCO seriously.
This extends even to the SCO. It is hard to believe that Turkey’s application was judged on anything other than geopolitical grounds by the SCO – hence the headline-grabbing news of the ‘formal acceptance’ of its new status. Membership (or shades thereof) appears to be considered purely on political considerations, rather than on whether the state contributes to the SCO’s ill-defined goals.
This reflects the fact that the SCO was designed as an arena to let Russia, China and Central Asian states engage each other, not as an open-ended collective like NATO. Expanding membership further – to Iran, Pakistan, or indeed Turkey – would entangle the bloc in geopolitical issues which it has no appetite or institutional capability to deal with. It is notable that no new members have been added since the organisation began and those which have tried have been kept in the waiting room.
Therefore the likelihood of Turkey actually becoming a member of the SCO is very slim. Turkey’s actual engagement with the group – let alone the issue of whether it really wants to join – appears to be patchy and lacklustre. As for the SCO, it appears unable to define its own purpose, let alone develop a rationale and a system for new members to join.
So Turkey is likely to remain a dialogue partner for some time – an outcome which seems to suit everyone.