After Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan talked again about joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) instead of European Union on Nov 20, the first question is: How serious is he, this time? Since he first mentioned it during a television interview in January 2013, he has talked about it quite a few times - including making a direct request to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a press conference in Nov 2013.
To join EU or SCO, this is a zero sum game for Erdogan — he can only choose one side. For Erdogan or even all Turkish people, EU accession has been a national dream of Turkey pursued with utmost efforts since 2005. Today, the prospect looks remote. Erdogan’s crackdown on the coup has invited quite a few loud grumbles from Europe and the US; meanwhile, an EU plagued by nationalistic populism and economic downturn may look less attractive too. But Turkey’s hope for accession is not totally shattered. In an attempt to encourage Turkey to harbor the vast number of refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Europe, countries like Germany still promise to speed up Turkey’s EU bid. For Erdogan to act decisively for SCO membership, he probably needs a plebiscite in the first place.
Even if Turkey decides to switch to SCO, there is another problem: Turkey is a NATO member state. As a NATO member for 65 years, Turkey has never flirted with the idea of leaving NATO. In fact, Turkey’s ambition for EU entry comes in no small part because of its confidence as a NATO ally. On the other hand, a Turkey withdrawal from NATO and joining SCO can only be a devastating blow to NATO. The primary concern of NATO today, as in the Cold War, is still Russia. The Turkish Armed Forces, with an estimated strength in 2015 of 639,551 military, civilian and paramilitary personnel, collectively rank as the second-largest standing military force in NATO. If Turkey withdraws, NATO’s first line of defense against Russia will crumble.
So the real question is: Can Turkey join SCO as a NATO member state? Theoretically yes. Turkey is already a dialogue partner of SCO. It can apply to become an observer before it is finally promoted to become a SCO member state. But to become an observer, Turkey has to compete with Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal and Sri Lanka, which are also dialogue partners. If it becomes an observer one day, it will still compete with observers such as Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia, which have all expressed clear intentions to become SCO member states.
Turkey’s bid is more than a question of procedure. The attitude of major powers in SCO is crucial. In SCO, China and Russia’s de facto leadership is reflected in the working languages – only Chinese and Russian. Beijing has no spat with Ankara, although it does seek greater Turkish cooperation in curbing separatists of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a terrorist organization, from launching sabotage activities in China from Turkish territory. When a Chinese spokesman from Ministry of Foreign Affairs commented on Erdogan’s recent remarks, he said China attaches importance to Turkey’s aspiration, that the Chinese side is willing to consult with other SCO members and seek consensus through close study in accordance with legal documents and regulations of the SCO. Such an expression is widely taken as a green light from Beijing.
But Moscow’s attitude is less easy to read. Historically Russia and Turkey have been rivals for influence in Central Asia. Turkey is promoting the idea of the “common Turkic home” in the region. It is actively promoting the transition from the Cyrillic script to the Latin alphabet in Central Asia. If Turkey joins SCO, it is not only physically connected again with the hinterland of Central Asia, but it could also use its historic, linguistic, cultural and ethnic connections with Turkic-speaking countries to offset predominant Russian cultural, economic and geopolitical influence. For some Russians, this mirrors NATO’s eastern expansion and they see Turkey as just a Trojan horse of NATO inside SCO.
By all means, Turkey’s admission into SCO won’t be an easy ticket. But is it impossible? SCO’s goodwill to Turkey was witnessed on Nov 23, when Turkey was granted chairmanship of the Energy Club of SCO for the 2017 period. It’s the first non full member to become chairman of a club in the organization.
If SCO accepts Turkey as a NATO member state, it would be as bold and creative as Deng Xiaoping’s “one country, two systems” defining the relationship between the mainland China and HK. It could serve to improve the NATO-Russian relationship; further promote SCO economic integration; and add strength in counteracting terrorism, separatism and extremism, the primary goals of SCO.
It might also be good for a NATO that US President-elect Donald Trump described as obsolete and extremely expensive. Cooperation, for example, could start on such common interest as counter-terrorism. Should this happen, Turkey, like the Bosporus Bridge in Istanbul linking Asia and Europe, would happily find itself in a unique position to bridge the largest alliance and the largest non-alliance in the world.