When the Chinese emperor ordered a solution to protect lives during the mid-9th century, Chinese alchemists found a highly flammable substance. This substance was later referred to as the “elixir of life”- what came to be known as modern-day gunpowder, supposedly discovered to save lives. Ironically, it did more damage than good. Of many historical ironies, this one stands out the most as a reflection of the origins of gunpowder can be seen in many international security organizations of today. One such case is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, commonly called SCO, which also ironically finds its origins in modern-day China.
Shanghai Corporation Organization
Founded by the Chinese government in 2001, the SCO is the largest regional intergovernmental organization in terms of geographic scope and population, with eight permanent member states (China, Pakistan, India, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan), four observer states (Iran, Belarus, Mongolia, and Afghanistan), and six dialogue partners (Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Armenia, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Turkey). In 2021, three additional dialogue members (Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt) were admitted to the organization. The SCO is in cooperation with the UN (2004), CIS (2005), ASEAN (2005), CSTO (2007), ECO (2007), CICA (2014), and ICRC (2017).
Turkey’s SCO Ambitions
While being a “dialogue” partner may not seem like a big deal, at least not more significant than being a member state, Turkey and China have one dream in common – a Eurasian Vision. SCO serves as the ideal blueprint for a Eurasian security organization, especially amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Turkey’s ambitions to join SCO first surfaced in 2013 when the then Turkish PM (and now the President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed interest in becoming a party to the SCO during Abant Platform in Bolu. Erdogan was of the idea that joining SCO would be widely appreciated as SCO was considered far more powerful than the EU. This also came as a response to Turkey’s delayed EU membership process. Turkey’s goal had been mainly economic: focused on energy security and transportation sectors. This move raised many questions as a NATO member and a forerunner for EU membership.
However, this proposition was not entirely new to Turkey. AKP opposition, the liberal, left-wing “Eurasianists” of the Labor Party, had already proposed a shift away from NATO ten years prior in 2002. The foreign policy shift to the East simply meant diversifying into more markets. However, the interest in SCO would have been beneficial had it been an economic organization and not a loose security framework. Moreover, Erdogan’s interest in joining the SCO was also “out of place” given Turkey’s strong support for Western intervention in Syria and China’s clear anti-interventionist policies. It is no secret that the SCO ideology mainly reflects China and Russia, two of its most vital members. Hence, their shared values, mainly respect for territorial sovereignty and isolation from conflicts, are not in line with many member states, including Turkey. However, it cannot be said the same today, especially for Russia. On the other hand, while Turkey has refrained from international conflicts, it tends to cherry-pick conflicts with religious origins, such as the ones in Kosovo and Syria. Whether the SCO and Turkey have shared values or not is debatable.
Was The SCO Needed?
Scholars argue that the SCO, majorly driven by China, is spurred primarily by three factors. Firstly, the organization has provided an excellent portrayal of the balance between China’s strategic position in the South China Sea and its economic interests in neighbouring countries. Secondly, the SCO is an ideal platform for the Chinese government to voice and defy the three evils of “terrorism, extremism, and separatism”, especially playing as a perfect guise for the anti-terrorism campaigns in the Xinjiang province. And lastly, some scholars have argued that the SCO is a bridge between the resource-rich Central Asian countries and China for economic needs. Moreover, the Afghan conflict allowed for the US military bases to be operational from Central Asia, which had been alarming for Russia and China.
On the one hand, insecurity surrounded the growing US influence in the Central Asian region. On the other, it had been an opportunity for the SCO to counter crimes such as drug trafficking. However, not much was achieved by the SCO during the US presence in the region. Hence, it can be argued that the SCO’s relevance is tied to its ability to counter a Western-led order in the East.
Dissatisfied with NATO & the EU?
Earlier, Erdogan’s willingness to join the SCO was viewed as a zero-sum game in the light of its NATO membership and its second-largest military presence in NATO- something the organization has been reliant on in the face of growing Russian aggression. It would mean a devastating blow to NATO. Contrarily, joining SCO would mean rekindling cultural values with Central Asian states and defying the dominant Russian culture in the region. This is startling for Russia, topped with the insecurity that NATO might be looking to expand in the East, using Turkey as a Trojan Horse inside SCO. While providing drones to Ukraine yet seen embracing Putin in SCO’s recent meeting in Samarkand, Erdogan has ironically been mediating between Russia and Ukraine. Nevertheless, tensions with the EU seem elevated, and the Turkish economy seems to be tumbling.
On the brighter side, membership in SCO could mean NATO-SCO cooperation against terrorism, bringing new economic prospects. As voiced by former US President Donald Trump, the NATO expenditure is too high, and much of the financial burden falls on the shoulders of the US. As a NATO member in the SCO, Turkey could mediate financial cooperation over security matters. Although a shot in the dark, this membership could also mean a potentially mediating truce between Russia and Ukraine. Nonetheless, with Turkish elections right around the corner, Erdogan could very well be putting on a perfectly devised show for local support. Despite his growing interest in the SCO, Erdogan’s government still has a firm footing in the Western markets.
It is significant to note that the SCO members are already conflicted in the face of the Russia-Ukraine war. There have been ongoing disputes over Kashmir between Pakistan and India and between India and China. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are actively involved in a border dispute. Additionally, as Iran is set to gain full SCO membership by 2023, there may be red flags among Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. While countries like Mongolia previously sought to gain full member status, they might now be hesitant because of the organization’s internal geopolitical conflicts. This could mean restricting one’s foreign policy to the likes of the organization and losing bilateral opportunities which observer states can enjoy without being answerable to the SCO. Similarly, Turkey could eventually lose a lot of economic and security cooperation opportunities by gaining full membership.
As hard as the SCO tries to champion a security outlook with Russia and China at the front, the organization is losing within. China might have set out to discover an elixir for regional security, but it is evident that it has, instead, found gunpowder. It is hard to determine whether this highly flammable posture will provide a good line of defence or burn relations in the process.