30 April 2013

Turkey and Shanghai Five

A couple of months ago, I posted a piece about Turkey's seemingly inexorable drift towards Asia, citing the Prime Minister Erdogan's public declarations to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), known as Shanghai Five.

As you might know, the SCO was formed by China and Russia and has Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as its members.

A couple of days ago, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signed a memorandum of understanding with SCO for Turkey to become a dialogue partner of the organization.
"This is really a historic day for us," Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in Kazakhstan's commercial capital Almaty after signing a memorandum of understanding with Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev. 
"Now, with this choice, Turkey is declaring that our destiny is the same as the destiny of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) countries."
To be sure, in and of itself this is not a big deal, as dialogue partner status is below that of observer status that was previously given to India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. But in his speech, Davutoglu claimed that it was the beginning of a deeper process of cooperation.
"I hope at the next summit in (the Kyrgyz capital) Bishkek we will be present, as well as at ministerial meetings," Davutoglu said. "This is the beginning of a long way, walking together, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder."
It is possible to see this move as just a symbolic rebuke directed at the European Union. But I think there is more to it than the desire to send a signal to EU officials and European leaders.

As Turkey is part of the European Customs Union, it is already benefiting from the free trade advantages offered by EU. Formally joining the union would not bring much additional benefits. In fact, it would make life more difficult for its industries by subjecting them to stringent environmental and social regulations.

By opening up to Asia (while maintaining its ties to EU) Turkey is betting that it could become a true bridge between the two continents. With the proposed high speed train to connect China to Europe, Turkey hopes to become a major conduit between East and West. They also believe that their strategic goal of becoming an energy hub, supplying Europe with natural gas and oil through an extensive network of Central Asian and Middle Eastern pipelines would enhance that position.

One other interesting aspect of this Asia policy is to hedge Turkey's military bets as well. There are hints that SCO could become a larger security organization to counterbalance NATO. If that were to materialize, as a NATO member Turkey could find itself in a unique position.

In short, I can't see much of a downside in all that for Turkey. Actively pursuing a rapprochement with the Shanghai Five is a win-win proposition for them.

But if I were a European politician I would pay closer attention to the evolution of that relationship.

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