BACKGROUND: When the Central Asian states became independent in 1991, many U.S. leaders and Turkish elites assumed that they might look to Turkey as a model of a Muslim country that was nonetheless secular and modernizing if not democratizing. Turkey’s efforts to assume the role of an “elder brother” quickly fell flat as they grated on Central Asian leaders who rejected any such “patronage.” Moreover, it soon became clear that Turkey could not effectively project power into the Caucasus let alone Central Asia. After 1993, Central Asia fell off the list of priority issues in Turkish foreign policy.
But in recent years that has changed. The Fetullah Gülen educational movement that has deep roots in Turkey has spread across much of Central Asia. The ideology of Turkish foreign policy has become self-consciously Islamic even as Turkey has become more democratic since the 1990s. Turkish investment and interest in Central Asia, not least for its energy assets, has also grown considerably. To the degree that Turkey takes for granted that it is foreordained to play the role of an energy hub between the Caspian and Central Asian producers and European consumers, Turkey’s interest in gaining a secure and recognized foothold in Central Asia has grown. In the last several years, Erdogan and President Abdullah Gül have made several visits to Central Asian states to promote Caspian energy shipments to Europe through Turkey and to obtain contracts for large-scale Turkish construction and other investment projects with some success.
All this activity suggests a rising interest in expanding Turkey’s profile in Central Asia. Erdogan also obtained for Turkey the role of a dialogue partner of the SCO and there was talk before January 25 of Turkey becoming an observer, a step that would mark not just Turkey’s heightened interest in Central Asia but a kind of acknowledgement of that interest by the members of the SCO. In other words, the record of the recent past offers no grounds for assuming a priori that Turkey’s or Erdogan’s interest in becoming a member of the SCO is merely a tactical feint to increase pressure on the EU. While that could be the case; Erdogan’s remarks suggest that he sees no incompatibility between membership in the EU and the SCO as such membership would give Turkey a recognized, formal, and enduring status within the SCO and enable it to play an important role in its processes, thereby gaining greater standing throughout Central Asia.
IMPLICATIONS: Turkey’s SCO membership would certainly signify a seal of Central Asian and Russo-Chinese approval of Turkey’s ambition to play a key role in Central Asia. But the implications of membership go farther than that. If membership confers a presence and real status it allows states like Turkey and India to upgrade their effective influence in Central Asia. The SCO observers Iran, Pakistan, and India have also all sought membership. Not only would membership in the SCO demonstrate Turkey’s determination to play a major role in Central Asia consistent with its increased interest and investments there, it would also facilitate Turkey’s efforts to gain access to Central Asian oil and gas, and realize its obsession with being an energy hub. Membership in the SCO might also strengthen the forces making for an Islamist turn or even Pan-Turkic visions in Turkish foreign policy.
There are many signs that Turkey is stepping up its efforts to play a leadership role as a provider of security in the Caspian basin. Indeed, Turkey recently led an effort with Azerbaijan, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan to set up a gendarmerie organization to strengthen ties among these governments’ paramilitary forces and ensure security. Such activities are entirely consistent with membership in the SCO and its charter and signal a desire for greater Turkish participation in Central Asian security affairs.
At the same time Turkish membership in the SCO, particularly if the EU talks continue to sputter, could reinforce the Islamist imperatives in Turkey’s domestic policy that continue to obstruct its full democratization. Enhanced domestic Islamism could generate domestic pressures inside of Turkey to spurn Europe for a highly authoritarian group that regards democratization as anathema. Also, although all the members of the SCO reject Turkish pretensions to leadership in Central Asia and its official Islamism; Central Asian states certainly would welcome more Turkish investment while Beijing and Moscow might regard Turkey’s application to join as another sign of the weakening of the West that they wish to encourage. Turkish membership could then be construed as Turkey’s turning away from Europe and the U.S. towards a policy posture more compatible with SCO members’ political values and ideologies.
Furthermore, while China would certainly welcome Turkey’s commitment to the three principles of fighting terrorism, secession, and extremism that comprise the SCO charter, as that would force it to reduce if not terminate support for Uyghur nationalists in China, it is unlikely that Russia would welcome another economically vibrant and ideologically fortified Muslim rival in Central Asia. While China has cautiously suggested a favorable response to Turkey’s interest, Russia has remained silent. Turkey’s move could also furnish China with another excuse for delaying India’s bid. Thus, perhaps inadvertently, Turkey’s move highlights Russia’s dilemmas vis-à-vis the SCO and China in Central Asia while potentially heightening China’s prominence there.
CONCLUSIONS: The full implications of Erdogan’s gambit remain to be seen. Turkey may actually be using the specter of the SCO merely to compel the EU to grant it concessions. Alternatively the members may decide to turn Turkey away as membership issues have previously revealed serious fissures between Russia and China, most notably regarding India and Pakistan. Similarly their suspicions of Iranian policies, not least its nuclear program, have also led them to reject Iran’s many efforts to gain membership in the SCO. If Turkey were to succeed in becoming a member, that might lead Tehran to an interesting process of rethinking some of its past policies and it would probably engender a comparable process of rethinking in India and Pakistan both of whom have also frequently expressed their desire for membership.
Therefore if Turkey is not bluffing and genuinely seeks full membership in the SCO, it has possibly triggered a new dynamic in the organization that could have several interesting and potentially serious ramifications. A serious Turkish quest for membership could add a new item to the agenda of Sino-Russian rivalry. Second, it could stimulate a new approach to India, Iran, and Pakistan’s efforts to gain membership and enhanced standing in Central Asia more generally. Third, it could add a new dimension to the strains in Russo-Turkish relations due to Syria’s civil war, Cyprus’ energy finds, and Turkey’s quest for becoming an energy hub in Eurasia. Fourth, despite Central Asian suspicions of Turkey’s religious stance and ultimate objectives, it is entirely possible that Central Asian members would welcome another economically vibrant member into the group so that they could further pursue their own “multi-vector” policies toward the larger powers by stimulating a three-sided economic rivalry among Turkey, China, and Russia for economic and political influence in Central Asia. That rivalry could well work to reduce Russia’s competitive profile in Central Asia, especially if Turkey can forge a mechanism for a Trans-Caspian pipeline to bring oil and/or gas from Central Asia to Europe that does not transit Russia. Beyond Central Asia, Turkish membership in the SCO would also have serious reverberations in the Caucasus where Turkey has recently solidified its partnership, if not alliance, with Azerbaijan. Success in moving energy through the Caspian would also greatly strengthen Azerbaijan, leading it and Turkey to potentially think about increased pressure on Armenia or support for Georgia’s distancing from Russia.
In other words, Erdogan was not necessarily bluffing even if he used the SCO to threaten EU members with some success. The signs of greater Turkish interest and presence in Central Asia are indisputable. If Turkey is truly interested in joining the SCO, it is clear that it has imparted a new dynamic element into the international competition for influence and standing in Central Asia whose outcome cannot be predicted at present, but whose course will undoubtedly engender very consequential developments.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Stephen Blank is Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.