OPTIONS OPEN

The Turkish government, looking to extend its array of bilateral and multilateral FTAs, has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in its sights.

Frustrated by the lingering EU accession negotiations, which have dragged on for decades, Turkey has recently begun to explore parallel options for alternatives in the East. During a joint press conference with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in February 2014, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated that Turkey would begin serious internal discussions regarding whether or not to pursue membership into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Formally known as the Shanghai Five for the original founding member countries of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, the organization was restructured as the Shanghai Cooperation Council in 2001 to include Uzbekistan. The political, economic, and military organization also includes five observer states (Afghanistan, India, Mongolia, Pakistan, and Iran), three dialogue partners (Sri Lanka, Belarus, and Turkey), and three guest appearances (ASEAN, the CIS, and Turkmenistan).

Turkey is unlikely to abandon its EU bid, and Turkey's President Abdullah Gül has publically stated that EU and SCO membership were not mutually exclusive. However, this could potentially signal how Turkey, a founding NATO member and staunch ally of the US, is slowly making a pivot toward the East. The seriousness of Turkey's desire to join the SCO can be debated, but at the very least it sends a clear message to the EU that is growing increasingly weary of the long EU accession process.

Turkey officially joined Sri Lanka and Belarus as a “dialogue partner" of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signing ceremony on April 26, 2013, in Almaty. The MoU, which was signed by SCO Secretary-General Dmitry Mezentsev and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey Ahmet Davutoğlu, laid the legal foundations for SCO-Turkish cooperation in security, economy, and culture. Beyond collaborating on security and counter-terrorism issues, the SCO also has a focus on economic and transportation integration. Turkey's introduction as a dialogue partner is notable as Turkey is the only NATO member associated with the SCO.

Analysts who hint at a possible Turkish pivot away from the West also point to Turkey's surprising announcement to purchase an air and missile defense system from a Chinese defense company that is under US sanctions. The Chinese company CPMEIC won the $4 billion contract over other Western and Russian defense firms, such as US defense giant Lockheed Martin, and China's HQ-9 system is not interoperable with the air defense systems utilized by most NATO countries. A key factor in Turkey's decision to spurn the expected Western defense firms for CPMEIC is believed to be the Chinese company's less stringent stance regarding technology transfer. The contract is presently under review until the end of June at the earliest, allowing time for Western defense firms to present competitive alternatives to the Chinese air defense system. In the wider economic picture, the volume of bilateral trade between China and Turkey has grown from just $1.4 billion in 2000 to over $24 billion in 2013.

However, Turkey's inclusion into the Shanghai Cooperation Council should be understood within the country's trading matrix. The EU remains Turkey's top trading partner, both in exports and imports. Turkey's geography also comes into play, as it borders none of the current SCO members, and holds a strategically vital position for the EU as a NATO ally. Talk of this alignment shift is likely premature, but it is clear that Turkey is not looking to wait idly by for the EU to determine its fate. On the contrary, Turkey is using its growing regional and international status to explore its options and further assert its influence.