Turkey's SCO ambitions: A complex East-West balancing act
Turkey seeks to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which also includes China and Russia. In addition to economic interests and an upcoming election, disappointment with the EU plays a pivotal role.
Amid the war in Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has attempted to present himself as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv, while Turkey remains a NATO member with Europe's most extensive military. However, the relationship between Turkey and the EU and the West is considered tense.
Now Erdogan is planning a step towards China and Russia and away from the West by joining the SCO.
This membership goal will likely be discussed at the group meeting next year. If Turkey were to join the group, it would become its first member, and the only one also part of the Western defence alliance NATO.
"From a Western point of view, Erdogan's appearance and his intention to join the SCO symbolises yet another rift and, indeed, strengthening relations with what Brussels and Washington consider autocratic regimes"
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is based in Beijing and deals with security issues and economic and trade policies in the region. Founded in 2001, it emerged from the Shanghai Five, founded in 1996. It includes the People's Republic of China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Erdogan's attendance alone had sparked outrage, particularly when pictures and videos of the Turkish president embracing Putin surfaced.
For Erdogan supporters, the images from the city of Samarkand were proof of their country's global importance, an increase in its geopolitical power, and their president's influence.
However, from a Western point of view, Erdogan's appearance and his intention to join the SCO symbolises yet another rift and strengthening relations with what Brussels and Washington consider autocratic regimes.
Indeed, Erdogan's attendance was a victory for the so-called Eurasians in Ankara, who distrust the US and Brussels. Their goal is to move Turkey toward the Eastern bloc of nations.
"Erdogan currently argues that Turkey has many different partnership options in terms of economy, military, and many other strategies, and therefore, it should not belong to the West only,” Erdi Ozturk, Associate Professor in Politics and IR at London Metropolitan University, told The New Arab.
“Indeed, this is the reflection of the transformation in domestic politics. After 2016, in domestic politics, he exchanged the support of liberals and proponents of the West for that of nationalists and Eurasianists.”
Looking at it pragmatically, however, the move is primarily intended to open up new markets for the crisis-ridden Turkish economy, with Erdogan walking a tightrope for months.
"He is one of the rare political actors who can talk both with West and East, and according to his foreign political strategy, this gives Turkey more power and alternative in world politics," Ozturk said.
Turkey has provided drones to Kyiv but has nonetheless managed to maintain its relations with Russia. While the West has been punishing Moscow with sanctions, Turkey has witnessed a rise in exports to Russia by almost 90 per cent the previous month - compared to August in 2021.
Turkey has "historical and cultural" ties to the Asian continent and wants to play a role in the organisation, whose members comprise "30 per cent of world economic output," Erdogan said at the SCO meeting.
However, given the economic sanctions already imposed on Russia (and other members of SCO), Turkey will need to consider carefully whether this tightrope act can be sustained.
"[Erdogan] is one of the rare political actors who can talk both with West and East, and according to his foreign political strategy, this gives Turkey more power and alternative in world politics"
With potentially more sanctions looming, Turkey must be careful in expanding its trade relations with Moscow and becoming a target of Western sanctions as of result. A major red flag is that even China has become wary of being too economically tied to Russia.
However, such punitive measures have always closed the ranks behind Erdogan, most recently in the presidential election campaign in early 2018.
Perhaps even more importantly, as an SCO member, Turkey could theoretically find itself between Article 5, the collective self-defence of NATO, and members of the SCO.
The latter has long been more than just a loose security and economic alliance led by Russia and China. Between 2005 and 2009, SCO members held three major military manoeuvres.
However, it is doubtful that Turkey will renounce the Western alliance's promise of assistance and entrust itself entirely to Russia.
Rather, Erdogan seeks to impress his voters for the upcoming elections with his move towards the SCO while strengthening relations with Putin and increasing his threat potential against the West.
Turkey is also firmly economically connected to Washington, Brussels, and the West as a whole. Turkish exports rely heavily on these markets, despite Erdogan accusing NATO and the EU, for which Ankara has had candidate status since 1999 without any significant progress, of lacking support for Turkey.
"Erdogan currently argues that Turkey has many different partnership options in terms of economy, military, and many other strategies, and therefore, it should not belong to the West only"
"After the coup attempt, Erdogan chose anti-Western Eurasians, nationalists, and Islamists as coalition partners, and in this context began to turn away from the Euro-Atlantic line towards China-Russia alignment. This caused him to pursue more brutal policies in the West," Ozturk noted.
Moreover, the SCO is not necessarily a group of like-minded peers. For instance, Putin failed to receive the support of Beijing for his war against Ukraine, while two other SCO members - Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan - engaged in heavy border fighting while the meeting occurred.
With that in mind, and the looming election, new friction between Ankara and the West is foreseeable – but whether the SCO is more than a vice for Erdogan to apply pressure to the West and increase his relevance remains to be seen.
Thomas O. Falk is a journalist and political commentator. He has covered politics for Al Jazeera, The Diplomat, The Spectator, Haaretz, GB News, South China Morning Post, and others
Follow him on Twitter: @topfalk