Is Turkey about to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)?
After years of delay on its application to join the European Union (EU) as a full member, Turkey has made overtures to the SCO as an alternative to the EU.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said after a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that Turkey was seriously considering becoming a member of the SCO instead of continuing its efforts to join the EU.
“The European Union needs to stop stalling us,” Erdogan said. “We have a strong economy. I told [Putin], ‘You should include us in the Shanghai Five [the former name of the SCO] and we will say farewell to the European Union.’ The Shanghai Five is much better off economic-wise. It is much more powerful. We told them, “If you say come, we will.'”
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What’s the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?
The SCO’s full members are China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Mongolia, India, Iran and Pakistan have observer status in the SCO while Turkey is a dialogue partner along with Sri Lanka and Belarus.
Originally formed in 1996 to demilitarize the border between China and the former Soviet Union, the SCO was expanded in 2001 to include Uzbekistan.
According to a background study by the Council on Foreign Relations, the SCO has the potential to be an important body for regional energy and security cooperation in Central Asia, but has so far not achieved anything substantial.
Both China and Russia have secured bilateral agreements with other SCO members to build pipelines from the energy-rich Caspian Sea region to their respective home markets but this has taken place outside of the SCO.
“The competing efforts of Russia and China to secure influence in the region are a potential obstacle to extensive SCO energy cooperation,” the Council on Foreign Relations concluded.
If genuine energy cooperation could be achieved by the SCO, particularly if it included Iran, that would be a boon for Turkey, which depends on imported energy to fuel its rapidly growing economy.
Would SCO Bid Affect Turkey’s NATO Status?
Turkey is a member of NATO, while the SCO is seen as acting as a counterweight to American interests in Central Asia – if not outright anti-American.
The SCO has called for U.S. troops to leave the region but the U.S. has military bases in several Central Asian countries, including SCO members Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, to support the war in Afghanistan.
Although those bases are subject to bilateral agreements with the countries involved and not with the SCO, the issue of what happens to those bases when the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan at the end of 2014 will be a thorny one.
Of course, the U.S. has a major military presence in Turkey. If Turkey joins the SCO, what will happen to the U.S. bases there? Will Turkey want to withdraw from NATO?
As the U.S. State Department said, if Turkey joins the SCO, it will be “interesting.”
SCO a Cover for Big Power Diplomacy?
Many experts feel that the SCO can never be an effective security or energy cooperative organization because of its membership.
Russia has a proprietary interest in the Central Asian countries Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which used to be part of the Soviet Union, and clearly wants to keep rival China out.
For its part, China wants to get access to the energy-rich area around the Caspian Sea which, according to the BP Energy Survey, holds about 21% of the world’s oil and 45% of the world’s natural gas.
Would Russia or China really welcome Turkey, a significant power with regional ambitions of its own, into the SCO?
That, too, would be “interesting.”
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