Beijing hosted the Lanting research forum, which was attended by representatives of embassies of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s member states to China, and also by researchers and journalists from different countries. Issues discussed at the event are expected to be on the agenda of the SCO. One of them is granting Turkey the status of a dialog partner. The attractiveness of the organization for neighboring countries is fairly high.
What will Ankara gain from participation in the SCO and what can it offer the Shanghai Six? Salih Kapusuz, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and head of the Parliamentary Group of Friendship with Russia, said in an interview with the Golos Rossii radio station, “Better relations between Eurasian countries improve cooperation between political leaders and business circles; dialog and cooperation are expanded in all directions. We vest special importance in joint measures to improve contacts and cooperation between our countries. We are extremely interested in raising the level and scale of relations we have reached in recent years. I believe relations between Turkey and Russia will seriously contribute to the development of regional cooperation in Eurasia.
“There is a certain number of international organizations in the world. They emerged as a result of nations’ mutual aspiration towards better cooperation. Turkey participates in some organizations directly and in some others, indirectly. Obtaining the status of a dialog partner in the SCO is in line with the Turkish Republic’s general mission, as it advocates dialog between different countries. We attach significant importance to joint efforts and breakthroughs of this kind. We are still in talks with the EU on full-fledged membership, but we also support development of our ties with other unions, we are trying to contribute to improvement of cooperation with other international structures and taking significant effort to expand our bilateral relations with different countries.
“We support the joint effort made by organizations like the SCO and we value our ties with such organizations. We also value our bilateral relations with the SCO member states; with some of them, they are at a fairly high partnership level.”
Today, Turkey is rapidly developing its ties with key Eurasian countries in almost all areas, the vice premier said. But won’t it affect its relations with the West? Professor Resat Arim, chief expert of the Turkish Foreign Policy Institute, answers, “The West needs to understand that Turkey is a country interested in development of political, economic and cultural ties with the entire world. Turkey is working to strengthen its ties even with Central Asian states. The West needs to understand that apart from the West, there is the North, the South and the East in the world. And Turkey needs breakthrough relations in all directions. This is the foundation of Turkey’s foreign policy today.”
Promoting cooperation between key Eurasian countries, the SCO is becoming the main international player in Eurasia, Professor Arim says. And this attracts neighboring countries.
Overall, Turkish analytical centers give a positive assessment to the SCO activities. Notably, experts of the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BILGESAM) note the following achievement of the Shanghai Six in their collective report: 1) settlement of border disputes between China and other SCO member states; 2) signing of the Shanghai Convention on Fight against Terrorism, Separatism and Extremism; 3) the setup of the SCO Secretariat; 4) the setup of the regional anti-terrorist center and the Executive Committee of the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS).
An important sign of the SCO’s success is, they believe, the fact that the organization has been given the status of an observer at the UN General Assembly. The authors of the report also point to the growing level of trust between the organization’s member states: “After SCO heads of state adopted the Tashkent Declaration in 2004, cooperation within the Shanghai Six has been developing in all areas. In order to improve mutual trust during the summit in Astana in 2005, the SCO countries asked the United States to decide on the timeframe for withdrawal of its troops from Central Asia.” However, certain disagreements between SCO member states still remain, BILGESAM analysts say. It is well known, for example, that China advocates the setup of a free trade zone within the SCO, something Russia doesn’t want to rush.
Turkish experts are positive that the level of relations between Turkey and SCO member states is to a large extent determined by the role of the former on the international stage. Political observers from the Afro- Eurasia Strategic Research Center (AFASAM) note that Turkey has been consistently expanding its bilateral relations with Central Asian states since the early 1990s and has been taking effort to create regional platforms as well.
Special attention, AFASAM experts say, should be paid to the Economic Cooperation Organization, which comprises three Middle Eastern countries, five Central Asian countries, Azerbaijan and Pakistan. Besides, Turkey supports the NATO Partnership for Peace program, which was launched in 1994. Turkey also plays an important part in energy projects of Central Asian states and holds a strategic place for the building of the “new Silk Way,” the analysts conclude.
Professor Mehmet Akif Okur, analyst of the Ankara Institute for Strategic Studies, considers the SCO activities in terms of America’s ambitions in Central Asia. “The main historical and strategic goal of the United States,” he argues, “is to prevent the emergence of a dominating Eurasian military and political force on the international stage and to keep the opportunity to influence Eurasia’s political and economic development.” He comes to the conclusion that as a strategic ally of the US and a NATO member, Turkey indirectly supports Washington’s goal. Ankara’s support is seen especially clearly in its attempts to involve Central Asian states in the NATO Partnership for Peace project.
At first sight, it would seem that the opinions of Professor Okur and Professor Arim are different, but, in fact, they complement each other. This can be proved with a comprehensive article written by Professor Hasret Comak, vice chancellor of the Kocaeli University and expert of the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM), “SCO’s Future during Global Polarization and Turkey’s Security,” in which he writes that developing relations with Russia, China and Central Asian states, Turkey first of all pursues the following goals: 1) to become a powerful force in Central Asia; 2) to expand and preserve its influence in the region; 3) to become a participant of the region’s most influential organizations; 4) to play an active part in the affairs of influential regional organizations; 5) to develop the potential possibility of becoming a regional power. Pointing to the growing number of initiatives to expand cooperation between the EU and NAFTA, and also between NAFTA and APEC, Professor Comak says that the “vacuum” in the cooperation chain between Asia Pacific and Eurasia still exists. Turkey, he argues, could play the part of the missing link in the chain of truly global interaction. To achieve this ambitious goal, he proposes developing trade and information relations with APEC and NAFTA as part of institutional cooperation. To begin, Turkey should obtain the status of an observer with such international structures as ASEM (the Asia-Europe Meeting), APEC and NAFTA.
Recalling that today’s agenda includes the building of a “new Silk Way” that would ensure transportation of energy from Central Asia and the South Caucasus to Europe and expand trade between China and European countries, Professor Comak insists that the SCO cannot be viewed as “an alternative international economic platform.” By pursuing “rational multilateral diplomacy,” Turkey can obtain what it failed to achieve with bilateral diplomacy, he says.
The following of the professor’s arguments are of interest for understanding the goals and tasks of Turkey’s strategy in Central Asia: “The United States and Japan are using APEC to try and create an important economic potential in Asia Pacific, while the European Union, in order to expand cooperation with Asia’s economic agents, launched the process of regular summits within the Asia-Europe Meeting in Bangkok in 1996. Similarly, Turkey should use its advantages, including those achieved thanks to the Customs Union with the EU, and not only participate actively in the process of shaping of the global cooperation system, but also be in this system. Forming new channels of cooperation with regional economic unions, Turkey should insist on getting the status of an observer with APEC and ASEAN.
“It is necessary that the Economic Cooperation Organization should become an international structure that interacts actively with the EU, ASEAN and APEC.” Remarkably, Comak does not consider Russia’s and China’s full membership in the ECO. But he emphasizes that the organization should create “special forms of cooperation” with Russia and China. So we can conclude that the TASAM expert believes that the ECO could play the part of the SCO’s regional rival. However, given the escalating rivalry between Turkey and Iran, the expansion of the SCO’s influence and decline of US influence in Central Asia, the ECO does not seem to be the right tool to intensify regional integration. This was one of the reasons the role of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States became more important in Turkey’s Central Asian policy.
So the SCO is an important structure today, its influence and attractiveness growing every year. This organization is of huge importance for Turkey, first of all, from the economic point of view. It should be noted that the SCO member states are also interested in a partner like Turkey. Most Turkish experts believe that their country should work to become not just a SCO dialog partner, but an observer in the organization. This corresponds both to Turkey’s current foreign political ambitions and to its role on the international stage.