Last week, 1,453 trucks paraded in Istanbul’s largest airport that is under construction, a number that symbolized the year in which Istanbul was conquered. That airport, according to the Turkish president, is part of ambitious Silk Road that China is reviving.
The massive Chinese infrastructure project, One Belt One Road, demonstrates its rising economic profile, pulling scores of nations into its orbit of influence, including Turkey. Earlier last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey went to Beijing to “highlight that Istanbul is a large-scale transportation hub” that connects Asia to Europe.
Deepening economic ties with China comes with an added bonus for Ankara: Joining a security bloc dominated by Russia and China.
On May 12, the Chinese ambassador to Turkey, Yu Hongyang, voiced Beijing’s readiness to welcome Ankara into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization “in consultation with other member states.”
Mr. Yu noted that Turkey had already become a “dialogue partner” of the bloc since it has attended different SCO meetings in recent years.
The SCO, which comprises of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was founded in 2001 to serve as a regional political, economic and military alliance. Prior to Tashkent’s decision to join, the group of states was known as the Shanghai Five. Some experts have suggested that the SCO aims to become a challenge to organizations like NATO.
Mr. Erdogan has flirted with the idea of joining the SCO amid tensions with the EU and grim prospects of becoming its member.
“Turkey must feel at ease. It mustn’t say ‘for me it’s the European Union at all costs’. That’s my view,” Mr. Erdogan said in November last year. “Why shouldn’t Turkey be in the Shanghai Five?”
Russia, which leads the SCO along with China, has been supportive of the Turkish membership, with officials saying that it was up to Ankara whether to join the bloc.
In December, a former Turkish foreign minister, Yasar Yakis, said Ankara’s chances to upgrade its SCO status have become stronger.
Although the SCO has signaled it is fully ready to embrace Turkey as its new partner, Ankara’s decision to join the alliance would be considered a very bold move by NATO and could lead to dramatic changes in relations with the EU.
Rainer Stinner, a former member of the German Bundestag who served as the Free Democratic Party’s spokesperson on foreign policy, told The Globe Post that Ankara is playing the SCO card to optimize its role in the international arena.
“SCO membership is not inevitable at all, it would come at a high political cost for Turkey and should be well considered,” he said. “This [membership] would be very problematic for NATO, as Turkey would be excluded from much sensitive information.”
Last week, reports suggested that Germany is considering to veto holding the upcoming NATO summit in Turkey. Denying Turkey to host the summit will further illustrate to what extent the Alliance is frustrated with Turkey, which is in talks with Moscow to purchase S-400 anti-aircraft defense systems.
Turkey is currently playing the role of the southeastern pillar of the alliance. The SCO membership will endanger this layout and force NATO to look for alternative partners in the region.
“At first sight, not many candidates come into play,” Mr. Stinner noted.
In theory, Turkey does not have to exit NATO to become a member of the SCO, but Ankara’s close relations with the Shanghai alliance can become too much for Europe to bear.
“Turkish SCO membership would severely strain the already difficult relationship between Turkey and its NATO allies and would bring with it many operational challenges. Therefore, some observers consider Turkish SCO and NATO membership incompatible,” German Council on Foreign Relations Program Officer Laura Lale Kabis told The Globe Post.
Turkey has started to pay greater attention to Asia amid souring relations with the EU over Ankara’s human rights and freedom of speech record. Its participation in China’s One Belt, One Road project, which was launched in 2013 as Beijing’s new strategy of economic development, has become a way to cement bilateral relations with the country.
“One Belt One Road is a very clever Chinese move to increase its influence tremendously. As more than 60 states cooperate with China, Turkey can also do it without being looked at suspiciously by the West,” Mr. Stinner noted.
Nevertheless, Europe still remains a vital trading partner for Turkey and an important source of direct investment. If Ankara decides to make a real pivot to Asia and join the Shanghai bloc, the consequences of such a move to its relations with the West will be grave.
“While Turkey is seeking closer ties with Russia and China, the actual political and economic benefits from joining the SCO remain unclear. It appears more likely that Turkey is trying to use a potential SCO membership as a leverage,” Ms. Kabis said.
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