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China and the SCO: Turkey looks East for security cooperation alternatives

14 July 2017

By Jan Gaspers 

Turkey’s flirt with the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization casts doubt on Ankara’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration. So far, Beijing has remained cautious, but it may decide that closer cooperation with Turkey is in its long-term interest. This is a joint blog post with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Handshake between alienated partners: Erdogan and Merkel at the G20 summit.
Image: Bundesregierung/Kugler

Turkey’s shift from a parliamentary democracy to one-man rule Turkey’s weighs heavily on the country’s relations with the West. During the diplomatic standoff with EU member states over AK Party (AKP) campaigning in Europe in the run-up to the April constitutional referendum, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu openly threatened a strategic realignment: “If Europe keeps this up, they will lose many places, including Russia and us.”

In its search for alternatives to Euro-Atlantic integration, Ankara is zooming in on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – an organization where China calls the shots.

Ankara seeks to play the SCO card

Turkey has been an SCO dialogue partner since 2012 and has expressed interest in obtaining observer status or even joining the organization as a full member since 2013. President Erdogan made his latest public reference to the idea of full SCO membership in November 2016.

Western security analysts tend to refute the geostrategic significance of the SCO and rightly downplay its potential as a direct military competitor to NATO. Nevertheless, Turkey’s cozying up to the SCO should ring some alarm bells in Europe and the United States. Turkey continues to hold significant strategic value for the West when it comes to tackling regional security challenges. For EU member states, it is paramount that the refugee deal struck with Turkey in March 2016 holds firm. Turkey also hosts a range of important NATO military facilities that are of vital strategic importance to the alliance’s ability to project force in the Middle East.

Turkey’s timing for seeking closer ties with the SCO could hardly be better, as the organization has just embarked on an expansionary course. India and Pakistan joined at the SCO Astana Summit on June 9, 2017. The SCO has started more intense discussions on expanding into the Middle East as well.

Beijing gradually warms up to Turkey’s advances

The SCO is a consensus-based organization and China is its most influential player, not least because Beijing increasingly complements the organization with its ambitious economic initiatives in Eurasia. After a period of hesitance, Beijing has embraced SCO expansion as a logical addition to its expansive geo-economic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Turkey, for its part, seems receptive to the lures of economic and security cooperation with China. During the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in mid-May 2017, Erdogan told delegates that the world’s economic center of gravity was shifting to the East and said that he would like Turkey’s planned infrastructure expansion to be linked with the BRI.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs initially remained evasive on Turkey’s interest in forging closer SCO ties, noting in response to Erdogan’s November 2016 statement that China values Turkey highly as a dialogue partner of the SCO and that it would take a very close look at a potential deepening of ties. A similarly guarded statement was made by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson in Beijing in March 2017. However, in mid-May 2017, the Chinese Ambassador to Turkey, Yu Hongyang, announced that his government was prepared to support a Turkish SCO membership application.

Nevertheless, Beijing still views Turkey’s SCO ambitions with caution, being conscious of the challenges that integrating India and Pakistan into the organization will entail. The development of bilateral relations with Turkey poses another concern. A failed multi-billion Turkish procurement of a Chinese missile defense system in late 2015 is indicative of the strategic distance that continues to define relations between Ankara and Beijing. The AKP government originally pursued the Chinese offer for constructing Turkey’s first long-range air and anti-missile defense system on grounds of price, short delivery times and, most importantly, favorable technology transfer conditions, snubbing both US and European offers and worrying NATO allies. Eventually, however, the talks with China faltered over technology transfer conditions that were less favorable than originally anticipated by Turkey.

Is Turkey’s SCO flirt a bargaining chip in dealing with NATO?

Most Chinese strategists also remain skeptical about Turkey’s commitment and prospects for full SCO membership. They refute the notion that Ankara’s interest in the SCO means that Turkey will switch from the Western to the Eastern camp. From Beijing’s perspective, Erdogan’s SCO rhetoric mainly serves as a bargaining chip in talks with NATO, the United States, and the EU. Chinese experts also tend to see Turkey’s flirtation with the SCO as driven mainly by Ankara’s rapprochement with Russia. Overall, Chinese analysts suggest that Turkey’s new balanced diplomacy does not amount to a complete reorientation of foreign policy but rather to an attempt to expand Ankara’s strategic choices and autonomy.

China’s leadership will seek to avoid a confrontational approach toward the West in the near future and hence be disinclined to use Turkish SCO ambitions to actively undermine existing transatlantic security frameworks. So far, China has remained largely neutral in response to the openly confrontational, anti-Western stance that Moscow wants the SCO to take. In the medium to long term, it is likely that China will shift its stance and seek to expand the SCO’s influence, including into the Middle East. It is also possible that Beijing wants a more ambitious, and ultimately confrontational SCO to undermine U.S.-led security alliances.

Whether or not China choses this more venturous path will be determined by various circumstantial factors, specifically Russia’s shifting preferences. Beijing currently has no reasons for discarding a tactical alignment with Moscow on Turkish SCO prospects. Beijing’s stance on Turkey’s role in the SCO is also likely to become more firm as its relationship with Ankara evolves. Turkey’s geostrategic location is a key aspect in achieving important components of China’s BRI. China’s political elites also tend to seize small windows of opportunity like the one Turkey’s current strategic disorientation provides.

Transatlantic community should avoid becoming a bystander

Given China’s hesitance, Turkey’s integration into the SCO is unlikely to go beyond securing observer status for now. Yet, Ankara’s apparent determination to seek alternatives to NATO poses significant challenges to the existing transatlantic security architecture. Central and Eastern European countries are concerned that a NATO member contemplates more systematic cooperation with a security organization that has Russia at the core of its decision-making. If Turkey were to entertain even closer ties with the SCO in the future, it would become a major source of distrust within NATO.

Closer Turkey-SCO cooperation would also pose an operational challenge to transatlantic security cooperation. Even Turkish observer status within the SCO would prompt NATO members to be more reserved about sharing information with Turkey.

The wider dynamics in NATO’s Eurasian neighborhood underscore that Ankara’s estrangement from NATO and Europe is not solely a reflection of shifts in Turkey’s political orientation. Turkey’s strategic realignment illustrates a broader trend towards erosion of transatlantic security cooperation as well as the fact that NATO has to brace itself for new competitors in its traditional spheres of influence.

It is therefore time for the EU and NATO to devise new and better strategies to strengthen economic and political solidarity among their respective members and to remind them of the benefits of transatlantic pooling of defense resources. The organizations and their members should also re-establish a credible option of enlargement and/or attractive alternatives of deeper economic integration for countries in Europe’s neighborhood, specifically those that might otherwise be “lost.”

The US administration and European governments must also be consistent in signaling to Beijing that Turkey’s relationship with the SCO could become a serious source of friction in the transatlantic relationship with China. Devising a convincing approach to managing Turkey’s strategic realignment will be critical if the United States and Europe wish to shape China’s still bounded but increasingly visible global security ambitions in a way that is conducive to transatlantic strategic interests.

This article summarizes a Policy Brief published by the German Marshall Fund of the United States on July 5, 2017.

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The  Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS)is a Stiftung Mercatorinitiative. Established in 2013, MERICS is a Berlin-based institute for contemporary and practical research into China.

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