BACKGROUND: The 2009 Yekaterinburg summit created a new affiliation category—that of “dialogue partner”—for countries that are neither full SCO members (like China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) nor formal observers like India, Iran, Pakistan, Mongolia, and now Afghanistan, admitted at the Beijing summit. In the past, the SCO had established formal partnerships only with other multilateral organizations, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-dominated military alliance of former Soviet states that includes all SCO members except China. The Yekaterinburg summit however, decided to grant Belarus and Sri Lanka “dialogue partner” status. These partners cannot sign SCO documents or participate in SCO decisions; they can only offer advice in those areas of cooperation specified in a memorandum negotiated between the SCO and the partner. How Belarus and Sri Lanka have actually engaged with the SCO, whose center of gravity clearly lies in Central Asia, remains unclear.
But designating Turkey a dialogue partner makes imminent sense given Turkey’s longstanding interest in Central Asia and newfound ability to influence developments in that region. The issue of Turkey’s acquiring some kind of formal affiliation with the SCO), the dominant multinational institution in Eurasia, has been under discussion for years, but it was not until this summer that the SCO governments finally decided to offer Turkey some kind of formal affiliation after Ankara had assured them that Turkey would not be a stalking horse for NATO in Eurasia.
In addition, Turkey’s population provides Ankara with one of the biggest and most readily deployable armies in Europe. Turkish academies and trainers have been working with Central Asian militaries since these countries became independent in 1991. Turkey is located astride multiple global hotspots—the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East—giving its significant geopolitical weight. And allowing a NATO member to affiliate with the SCO helps reduce the concerns of some outsiders that the SCO is seeking to construct an alliance of anti-Western autocracies in the heart of Asia.
NATO’s impending military withdrawal from the region has finally spurred the SCO to assume a more forthcoming role in securing Afghanistan’s security. By making Turkey a dialogue partner and Afghanistan a formal SCO observer, the SCO now has the most comprehensive set of members to address Afghanistan's regional security and economic integration. Turkey has played a major role in enhancing Afghanistan’s security and development. More than one thousand Turkish soldiers serve in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Turkish diplomats also have been pursuing regional peace initiatives such as the Istanbul Process aimed at reconciling Islamabad and Kabul. Ankara is thus well-situated to mediate any peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents.
Turkey could also help the SCO realize its aspirations to have greater economic impact. Turkey has considerable assets in such sectors as finance, transportation, energy, telecommunications and construction. Although not yet in the same class as China, India, and Russia, Turkey’s booming economy has already propelled Turkey to the ranks of the G-20. Turkey already has some $11 billion in combined trade and investment in Central Asia, as well as approximately $1 billion in Eximbank loans and some $30 billion in contracts to almost 2,000 Turkish firms.
IMPLICATIONS: What does Turkey gain from its new SCO status? In addition to Afghanistan, the main security preoccupation of the SCO thus far has been the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism, and extremism—all national security priorities of Turkey’s as well. A strengthening of Islamist radicalism in Central Asia could easily redound negatively in Turkey, while Turkish authorities want to delegitimize Kurdish aspirations. Turkey’s border security is constantly challenged by narcotics and human trafficking from Central Asia since Turkish territory provides the most direct land route to European markets.
Turkey’s bilateral relations with Central Asian governments and peoples could use the supplementary link provided by the SCO to the newly independent Turkic republics. The Turkish Council, TÜRKPA, TÜRKSOY, the Turkish Academy and Turkey’s numerous student scholarships have not yet yielded Ankara much influence in these states. Ankara’s bilateral relations with Uzbekistan (and Turkmenistan, which has no SCO affiliation) are strained. The impact of the Central Asian projects sponsored by the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TİKA) has been weakened by the decision to expand its aid recipients to dozens of countries rather than retain its original focus on the newly independent Turkic republics. The educational and cultural outreach efforts sponsored by the Turkish government and various Turkish NGOs have had limited impact building on the shared ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other bonds between Turkey and these nations.
The SCO provides Turkey with another means of deepening its still modest political engagement with Central Asia, and in a framework acceptable to Russia and other countries that remain wary of what can appear to be neo-Ottoman, or rather pan-Turkic, aspirations regarding the Turkic nations of Central Asia. And Ankara also has a better prospect of participating in SCO-led diplomatic initiatives regarding Afghanistan or Central Asia and the organization’s socioeconomic initiatives, which might extend to the energy realm. If the SCO forms an oil and gas club, then Turkey wants to be one of its members.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s status in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere also stands to increase through a formal affiliation with the SCO. Turkey’s designation helps counter critics that hold that the country’s ambitious policy of zero problems with neighbors has failed to attain any enduring results. NATO members also now have a means to engage Iran, which is often excluded from U.S. and EU initiatives, directly on Afghan issues. And Turkey is now eligible to become a formal observer or full member of the SCO, with enhanced privileges, in the future.
But Turkey also will find it harder to avoid the contradictions that permeate the SCO. Turkish diplomacy has already fallen afoul of the confrontation between SCO observers India and Pakistan, with media commentators in both countries accusing Turkish leaders of not paying sufficient heed to their respective security interests in Afghanistan. Although currently camouflaged by Turkey’s relying on NATO to bolster its security regarding Syria, some NATO officials remain uneasy about the implications of Turkey’s eastward drift for alliance cohesion. Turkey might seek to use its SCO ties as leverage in NATO debates.
Ankara also will find it hard to avoid the differences between Beijing and Moscow regarding the SCO’s proper role and development. Whereas China would like the SCO to establish a free-trade zone, Russia has sought to sustain barriers that help preserve the privileged status many Russian businesses inherited from the Soviet era. This is especially true in the energy sector, where China is eager to expand its access to Central Asian oil and gas resources traditionally under Russia’s control. The differences between China and Russia have contributed to the SCO’s not admitting any new full members to its ranks since its founding in 2001.
CONCLUSIONS: China was likely supportive of deepeningthe SCO’s ties with Turkey. Beijing has been cultivating Turkey on many levels and Sino-Turkish economic and more recently security relations have become increasingly important. Chinese scholars have expressed admiration for Turkey’s strong economic performance while policy makers in China are content that Ankara has made it clear that it is not going to champion Uighur or other Turkic separatism in China or other countries. Central Asian governments also welcome Turkey’s growing ties in the region in helping them pursue multi-vector foreign policies even as other NATO countries reduce their presence in their region.
However, Turkey would not have been designated a dialogue partner had it not been for Russia’s consent as well. Russia and Turkey have developed robust economic and security ties and Russian policy makers see Turkey as an important platform supporting their energy aspirations in Europe. That said, Turkish influence in Central Asia could be constrained if President Vladimir Putin’s Eurasian Union, designed against China and the EU, becomes more important than the SCO. Ankara has been fortunate – so far – that Moscow has not become overly irritated by Turkey’s confrontation with Syria, Moscow’s main client in the Middle East, or by Turkey’s support for NATO’s missile defense architecture in Europe. Russian-Turkish relations can nonetheless be expected to worsen soon for these very reasons, not least as a consequence of Turkey’s commitment to bring about regime change in Syria. Turkey will therefore likely remain a mere dialogue partner in the SCO for some time to come.
Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis, Hudson Institute
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".