President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will fly to Samarkand, Uzbekistan to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit. The organization, of which Türkiye is a dialogue partner, was established in 2001. Its members include Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Whereas the SCO gained further importance with India and Pakistan joining in 2017, the Samarkand Summit attracts extraordinary attention in light of the Russia-Ukraine war. Indeed, the Western media have been describing the Summit as a “new anti-Western alliance” and a “meeting point for the West’s opponents.” Moreover, they stress that Iran, the Gulf states, Egypt and Türkiye showing an interest in the organization could have serious consequences for the West and the Middle East.
In the wake of the Ukraine war, the Chinese and Russian leaders, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, are expected to throw their weight behind various projects intended to ensure that the SCO play a more active role – despite the ongoing competition among them. Hardly anyone would be surprised to see that those folks, who have been critical of Türkiye’s refusal to join the sanctions against Russia, respond to Erdoğan’s participation in the Samarkand Summit with the all-too-familiar complaints about his country’s “axis shift.” It goes without saying that I disagree with that line of criticism.
Here's what is happening: Ankara adapts to the new circumstances, rooted in great power competition, by remaining part of the Western alliance. As alliances become more and more meaningful, Türkiye opts to develop multiple relationships. As an influential regional power, it has accumulated enough experience to conclude that those old-fashioned approaches, which were considered obvious choices, do not yield results.
After all, how would a traditional sense of alliance help respond to the United States and the European Union providing military support to the PKK-YPG or their attitude toward the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ)?
It is absolutely no coincidence that many observers believe the Samarkand summit signals a geopolitical shift in the international system. The coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war have expedited great power competition. That development is expected to trigger widespread and major changes over the next years.
According to Richard Haass, who argues that the 2020s could witness a century's worth of change, says that this is a “dangerous decade” due to the “sharp decline in world order.” That development occurs at the intersection of old threats, such as great power competition, imperial ambitions, the fight over resources, and new issues like climate change, the pandemic, nuclear proliferation, at a time when the United States cannot deal with them. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in turn, brings together Russia, which Haass calls a “near-term problem,” and China, a “medium and long-term challenge.” Keeping in mind that many nations, which are not part of the Western alliance, have not joined the sanctions against Russia, it is possible to understand why Haass is so concerned about the rise of anti-Western world order. As the United States increasingly lacks the ability and will to fix the existing world order, it is a simple fact that the non-Western world remains on the rise. It is also obvious that India, the Gulf states and the Middle Eastern nations are coming to terms with that reality.
The critics of Türkiye's policy of actively balancing Russia and Ukraine have claimed that Erdoğan "agrees with Putin" and "sides with Russia." Others interpreted the Turkish president's remarks in Serbia as a sign that Ankara was "shifting toward Moscow."
Instead, Türkiye has been trying to strike a delicate balance between Kyiv and Moscow. The country, which refused to join the sanctions against Russia, supplied Ukraine with armed drones that made a significant difference on the battlefield. Able to speak with both sides, Ankara plays an important role in the grain deal and in ensuring the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.
The Turkish influence has been recognized by French President Emmanuel Macron, who recently complained that Türkiye was the only power in contact with Russia, and the Russian leader, who stressed that he had created the grain corridor with Erdoğan.
As such, it is important to focus on Türkiye being simultaneously part of the Western alliance and on good terms with the SCO members, including Russia. To think of those relationships as a “contradiction” would be misleading. In the emerging world order, Türkiye’s position, opportunities and threats cannot be sustained by subscribing to the narrow patterns and impositions of the traditional idea of alliances.
Türkiye's participation in the SCO Summit represents an effort by that country to take its foreign policy from a regional to a global level.