Asia in Türkiye’s changing diplomacy

Türkiye aims to pursue an association with the SCO within its 'multi-dimensional' and 'diversified' foreign policy, not as a replacement with NATO.

Asia in Türkiye’s changing diplomacy

The recently-held Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit marked a new change in the time of a rapidly changing world order. Since the establishment of the SCO in 2001, this was the first time a NATO member country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has joined the summit in Samarkand.

Türkiye’s president met all top leaders of the SCO, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and other Central Asian leaders. The summit was much awaited to see how Russia and China might mobilize international opinion in their favor and more importantly in favor of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. After Russia's unchallenged military intervention in Syria and Libya, the West has, to some extent, succeeded to mobilize military and political support for Ukraine. The Middle Eastern countries accused the west of abandoning and withdrawing from their region. Consequently, important Middle Eastern powers like Saudi Arabia, Türkiye, Egypt, and the UAE have expanded and deepened their ties with Asian powers, Russia, China, and India. In 2015, when one of the Russian fighter jets was shot down by Turkish F-16 jet, for violating Turkish air space, Türkiye found itself isolated and alone to face the Russian reaction. Türkiye was also left alone to deal with the borders of war-torn Syria and Iraq.

Türkiye's relations with Asian countries

Türkiye’s tilt to Asia, later to be promoted as the Asia Anew Initiative, continued slowly but steadily. For many reasons, Türkiye-India relations have not progressed much as both countries’ leaders wanted to. Even though, their trade relations have expanded, their political relations have yet to overcome many differences. Political differences of two countries originated primarily in the Cold War-era fault lines when Türkiye had become a member of the Western military alliance, NATO while Iran and Pakistan had joined the Baghdad Pact or CENTO. Back then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had expressed his displeasure over Pakistan’s joining the CENTO. Türkiye and Pakistan had deepened their military and political relations. With the dissolution of CENTO in 1979, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Türkiye continued its close ties with Pakistan but India-Türkiye relations remained mostly unchanged. Türkiye’s South Asia perspectives were primarily defined by Cold War politics, making Pakistan a military ally and India, a non-aligned country, a trade and cultural partner.

As a member of the largest and strongest military alliance, NATO, Türkiye is unlikely to come out of the alliance. However, Ankara is aware of that the future global order will not be the one controlled and dictated by the West. The rise of a competitive and confident Asia in economic and technological domains is a reality that Türkiye cannot ignore for long since it needs bigger and more attractive export markets beyond Europe. Moreover, the demands for reform of the international organizations, mainly the United Nations and the Security Council, are pending demands for which the Asian powers have fiercely advocated. With the rise of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and BRICS, constituting the most populous block, the Western denial of their rights as equal partners of international governance is no longer tenable. India, for example, under Narendra Modi's authority, has become more vocal about a reform of the United Nations Security Council. In his last visit to India in May 2017, the Turkish president expressed his country's support for India's UNSC membership in his speech at Jamia Millia Islamia University.

Erdogan, once a staunch advocate of Türkiye’s EU membership, is fed up with the never-ending wait for EU accession. There are good reasons to say that Türkiye’s EU membership may not happen in near future, or even in the longer future. First, the European Union is much more divided on the question of Türkiye's accession, disoriented over the questions of immigrants' inclusion within Europe, and now ruffled by Russia-Ukraine war. Anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe are at an all-time high, the right-wing parties are making gradual and steady gains everywhere, and Türkiye's EU accession is a primary victim of spreading xenophobia in Europe. With the EU's failure to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine both in 2014 and 2022, to address the Middle Eastern crises, especially civil wars and political violence, including the Arab-Israeli dispute, Türkiye-EU disagreements on regional issues are more common than ever.

Türkiye's changing role

The EU's failures have, however, allowed Türkiye to build a strong bilateral ties on all issues including unique defense relations with Ukraine, Libya, UAE and Russia. With help of Russia only, not the EU members, Türkiye managed the longest period of ceasefire and peace in Syria and has stopped a further exodus of refugees from Syria towards Europe. The absence of the EU in helping the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict and post-conflict peace process is another example of why the EU and the West in general no longer hold the key to all solutions. Moreover, recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Israel, and Egypt has brought back Türkiye to the regional security architecture.

With its changing role, by turning into a more pragmatic and more reconciled one, Türkiye now aims to deepen its engagement with the SCO and other Asian international organizations including BRICS, ASEAN, and SAARC. While there is no major policy problem with any other organization, the SCO has indeed a different vision for international security, which makes the SCO less compatible with Türkiye's NATO affiliation. The SCO and NATO are neither compatible nor exchangeable. Even though the Turkish president has once again expressed his interest in joining the SCO, practically, nevertheless, Türkiye aims to pursue an association with the SCO within its "multi-dimensional" and “diversified” foreign policy, not as a replacement with NATO. Moreover, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the role of SCO has come under a shadow as most SCO members have stayed away from supporting Russian actions. Kazakhstan has even refused to recognize Russian claims on the recently invaded Ukrainian regions. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also recently told Vladimir Putin that “it is not an era of war.” In this context, the SCO, too, is to rebrand itself outside the shadow of Russia and China. In other words, India, a new member of the SCO, may find a more active role in the SCO and help the organization to reach balanced relations with the West. Türkiye's increasing relations with Central and South Asia open new opportunities for Türkiye-India cooperation.

Türkiye would like to reintegrate with Central and South Asia economically and culturally. To make this happen, it needs to revise its Cold War perspectives on the region, especially on the region's bilateral disputes. At the same time, the region needs to evolve an effective regional cooperation of which Türkiye can also be an important part without the struggle of balancing acts.

AA/Omair Anas