Can the SCO be Turkey’s alternative to the West?

Erdogan suggests Turkey will seek full membership of the Russia and China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation amid strained ties with the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan shake hands
Erdogan and Putin shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Uzbekistan on September 16 [Alexander Demyanchuk/Sputnik via Reuters]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expressed his NATO-member country’s intention to become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), suggesting Ankara is seeking alternatives to its problematic ties with the West.

Erdogan, who made the remarks after attending last week’s SCO summit in Uzbekistan, was also quoted as saying by the Turkish media that the SCO’s 2023 meeting in India will be a venue to discuss this prospect further.

China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India and Uzbekistan are the full members of the of the political, economic, and security organisation.

Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran, and Mongolia are SCO observer countries, while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Turkey are the bloc’s dialogue partners.

“Our ties with these countries will be moved to a much different position,” Erdogan told reporters on Saturday.

When asked by reporters if he meant Turkey would seek to become a member of the organisation, the president said: “Of course, that’s the target.”

The SCO is not seen as an alternative to NATO, a military alliance with collective defence responsibilities under Article 5 of its founding treaty, which considers an armed attack against one or more members to be considered “an attack against all”.

Mensur Akgun, a professor of international relations, told Al Jazeera that the SCO is an hybrid bloc that seeks to prevent a vacuum in Central and South Asia through cooperation.

“It aims to increase dialogue and cooperation, solve problems among its members when needed and stand in solidarity with one another against interventions in the region by outside powers,” he said, adding that the SCO is closer to the model of the European Union than to NATO.

“An organisation that has arch-rivals India and Pakistan under its umbrella would not be able to have automatic military interdependence like NATO has,” Akgun said.

Akgun also said that growing political and economic ties between Turkey and Russia in recent years contributed to Erdogan’s remarks on SCO membership, especially considering Turkey’s often tense relations with Western powers.

Turkey bought Russia’s S-400 defence systems, which prompted US sanctions in addition to Turkey’s removal from a US-led programme developing F-35 fighter jets. Russia is also building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and the two countries signed an economic cooperation deal in August.

Even though Turkey and Russia backed opposing sides in Syria’s war, the two countries have largely coordinated closely during the conflict.

The Turkish government has also taken a balanced stance over Moscow’s February invasion of Ukraine. It has provided Ukraine with arms, in particular with drones, but it has not imposed sanctions on Russia and criticised what it calls Western policies “based on provocations” towards Moscow.

Ankara has tried to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict and helped broker an agreement in July for Ukrainian grain ships to sail to outside markets.

Strained ties with the West

Galip Dalay, a nonresident senior fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, said that Erdogan’s remarks on SCO membership stem from Ankara’s tensions with the West.

“Whenever there is discontent with the West – in particular, with the US [over] the perception that Turkey is treated unfairly – the idea of alternatives come up,” he told Al Jazeera.

“And because of that Ankara currently believes Turkey’s interests are better served by a balancing act between different centres of powers – meaning China, Russia and the West,” Dalay said.

Ankara has also been at odds with the US and certain EU member states over their support for Syrian Kurdish fighters who allied with the West in the fight against ISIL (ISIS) in the war-torn country.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main part of the anti-ISIL alliance, to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting against the Turkish state for decades.

Erdogan threatened to block Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids over what he said was their support for these groups, but lifted his opposition after a meeting with US President Joe Biden in June.

Following the move, Biden expressed support for sales of F-16 jets to Turkey – warplanes currently in use and inferior to the F-35s in development. However, he needs the approval of the US Congress for the move.

In July, the US House of Representatives approved an amendment creating a new hurdle for Biden’s plan to sell F-16s to Turkey, imposing strict conditions to any sales.

Erdogan said last week that his government might consider other options if the US is unable to fulfil its promise to provide the jets.

Recently, escalating tensions in the Mediterranean Sea between NATO members Turkey and Greece have also prompted the EU and the US to condemn Turkey.

Ankara and Athens are at odds over an array of issues such as overflights, the status of islands between the two countries, maritime boundaries and hydrocarbon resources.

However, Akgun believes that Turkey is unlikely to gain SCO membership for several reasons, considering the bloc’s structure and purposes.

“Turkey’s membership to the SCO does not seem possible as a NATO member and an EU candidate, but also because it is currently geographically and politically irrelevant to the SCO’s purposes of existence,” Akgun said.

Source: Al Jazeera