BACKGROUND: Erdogan’s latest statement reopens several questions. Why does Turkey want to join the SCO and in effect become a recognized player in the Central Asian sweepstakes? What are Turkey’s policies in Central Asia and how would membership in the SCO facilitate the realization of Ankara’s objectives? Do the other members of The SCO want Turkey as a member and how does that possibility affect the SCO and Turkey itself?
Turkey has in the last few years sought to expand its economic, trade and investment profile in Central Asia. Turkish construction companies in 2013 acquired contracts around the world for 235 projects totaling US$ 23.7 billion, 44 percent of which are in Turkmenistan. Other Turkish projects are similarly underway throughout Central Asia. Turkey has also joined with other governments to sell arms to Central Asian governments.
Erdogan has linked Turkey’s economic presence in Central Asia to membership in the SCO, which might lead observers to assign a preeminently economic motive to this ambition. But that answer represents only part of the truth. There is indeed a strongly economic motivation behind the AKP’s domestic and foreign policies that have led to Turkey’s enhanced global role and Central Asia represents a promising market for further Turkish trade and investment projects, particularly regarding infrastructure. Moreover, Ankara’s ambition to become a global energy hub has, if anything, grown now that the Southern Corridor to Europe, in the form of the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline or TANAP, goes from the Caspian Sea through Turkey to Europe. In that context, improving ties with Central Asian states could ultimately foster Turkish contracts and potential future pipelines to bring Central Asian energy to Europe through Turkey.
However, Turkey’s interests appear to go beyond economics and ideological instruments of influence complement economic power. In this context, some observers have discerned tendencies towards neo-Ottomanism in Turkish foreign policy. These tendencies comprise rhetoric from some political quarters that call for an expansive Turkish foreign policy embracing all the areas that once were part of the Ottoman Empire. But in the case of Central Asia, which was never part of that empire, such tendencies are more properly located within the rhetoric of the Pan-Turkic movements of the early 20th century. Though these movements utterly failed to create a pan-Turkish political bloc; their ideas and rhetoric have survived. Even so, it is difficult to find their trace in Turkey’s actual diplomacy and foreign economic policies.
Another source of “ideological” power might be new or renewed efforts to advocate a kind of Turkish model in Central Asia, tested in 1992-93 under utterly different circumstances and promoted by Washington at that time. Yet, this movement too utterly failed. Turkish power was at that time insufficient to affect geopolitical or economic outcomes in the Caucasus not to mention Central Asia, and Central Asian states resented the patronizing tone of Turkey’s diplomacy that attempted to create an “elder brother” status for itself. This history might affect Central Asian states’ current attitude towards a Turkish attempt to join the SCO, but again it is difficult to find traces of this mentality in public Turkish policy.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey undoubtedly hopes to gain enhanced standing in Central Asia by becoming a member but it is by no means clear that the SCO can take it in or wants to do so. Membership issues have proven to be extremely difficult as India, Pakistan, and Iran have all tried to obtain membership several times with no result. And they are SCO observers, considerably more than dialogue partners. Indeed, Turkey did not receive an invitation to the last SCO summit in Kyrgyzstan, which is indicative of the lack of interest in inviting it as a member. Both Beijing and Moscow were quite noncommittal when asked about Turkey’s desire to join the SCO despite Moscow’s close ties with Ankara.
While Central Asian states have reservations about Turkey becoming an overbearing member; it is also possible that they might welcome another major actor to balance or dilute Chinese and Russian influence. However, in that light it is quite unlikely that either China or Russia would welcome a potential economic and political competitor into the SCO. Turkey’s membership would complicate Russia’s policies in the Caucasus and it is not clear that Turkey shares the other members’ definitions of terrorism given its position in Syria and its large and vocal communities of Circassians and other refugees from the North Caucasus.
Turkey would likely oppose Russian energy proposals in the SCO given its determination to open up the Caspian to further energy transfers to Europe. Likewise, it is unlikely to support China’s use of the Silk Road program to convert Central Asian states into economic dependencies on China. If the primary motive of Turkey’s desire to join the SCO is to find new avenues for projecting economic power through enhanced trade and infrastructural investments in Central Asia related to energy, it is almost certain to clash with both Russian and Chinese policies.
It is also difficult to see what Turkey gains through membership in the SCO; it may indeed turn out to be worth less than Ankara believes. Rather than being an effective security provider, the SCO constitutes a forum for the management of China’ rising power as expressed in Central Asia. The SCO has served to create a kind of drapery behind which the mutual rivalry, mistrust, and suspicion between Russia and China concerning each other’s regional policies may be decorously concealed. But that hardly benefits Turkey. Neither does membership do much to advance security in Afghanistan for anyone, including Turkey. In previous crises in Central Asia, the SCO played virtually no role as a security provider or manager.
Furthermore, it is by no means clear that SCO membership would benefit Turkish influence in Central Asia. Anyone who wants to play a major role in the region must be ready to spend immense amounts of money for an uncertain return. Indeed, the U.S. and NATO are pulling out of Afghanistan and Central Asia. Inasmuch as other members of the SCO view Turkey, albeit probably wrongly, as a stalking horse for Western interests, they are not likely to accord it enhanced standing in the region beyond a nominal status even if it gains membership in the SCO. And it remains an open question whether Turkey truly has the resources to play any kind of significant political role in the region beyond that of an investor.
CONCLUSIONS: Turkey should grasp that gaining membership in the EU, an opportunity that has again become possible, even if it requires arduous efforts on its part, far outweighs the uncertain benefits of membership in the SCO both economically and politically. Economically both the EU and Turkey would gain immeasurably from membership and Turkey could play a stronger role in its immediate neighborhood with the EU behind it. These issues could include Syria, the Levant in general, and even possibly Cyprus, issues that are of much more direct and immediate consequence to Turkey. The EU may frustrate Erdogan but it is not clear what Central Asia really offers Turkey other than the mirage of influence.
Similarly, if Turkey’s ambition to be an energy hub persists it should be interested in Europe more than in Central Asia. It will be unclear for a long time whether Central Asia’s huge reserves can be redirected from their current paths to the southern corridor to Europe through Turkey. Russia and China would undoubtedly mount serious campaigns to counter any diversion to Turkey. On the other hand, Kurdish, Iraqi, and now possibly Iranian energy could be redirected through Turkey to the West, especially if the Iranian nuclear question moves towards resolution.
Undoubtedly Turkey stands to make a lot of money in Central Asia, but it is by no means clear that it needs membership in the SCO to achieve that goal. Ultimately, membership in the SCO may not only be a bridge too far, it may also be a mirage that diverts attention away from projects and goals that are both nearer to home and more rewarding in the short and long-terms.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow with the American Foreign Policy Council.
(Image Attribution: kremlin.ru)