Turkey’s regional options in the 21st century: between the political West and the wider Asia

Turkey is located at the crossroads of a variety of geographical, economic, political, and cultural boundaries – across continents, regions, and subregions. This article documents Turkey’s dilemmas about participating in European and Asian cooperation formats and the structural limits they pose for further integration in one or the other direction.

This can be achieved by answering questions such as how the participation in these formats evolved, what the limits of integration in the Asian and/or European regional architectures are, and to what extent the economy, in particular trade, is leading or following this process.

A traditional Western partner questioning the regional order

An analysis of Turkey’s regional cooperation preferences highlights consistent variations across time regarding its cooperation and integration in different regional structures (mainly regional organisations, but also other regional cooperation formats). Changes over the past decade have raised questions concerning its commitment to the Euro-Atlantic area. But how true is this? A breakdown of the regional structures follows Turkish fluctuations in foreign policy options between the West and Asia.

For almost the whole of World War II, it remained neutral, only joining the Allies in 1945. The Soviet threat to the Western democracies contributed to its accession to the first Atlantic structures. Later, it reanimated interest in the Greater Middle East, while not remaining separate from Europe. Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 and generated multiple crises. “NATO is viewed as weakened by the war on Cyprus” was a headline in the New York Times in a report on the worries about “a renewal of 500 years of hostility” between two vital allies on the southern flank 1.

Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952, joining the Alliance during the first wave of enlargement, only three years after the Treaty of Washington was signed; it was also a founding member of the OECD, following the same economic development path as other, more developed member states. Similarly, it received an invitation to be a founding member of the Council of Europe in 1949. From 1987, it has been an applicant, and then a candidate for accession to the European Union. We can therefore argue that the international order after the Second World War assumes a Turkey that is integrated in the Western regional architecture and a pillar of the Western bloc, taking part in some of the most ambitious cooperation initiatives in the North Atlantic space.

The Cold War and the following period dominated by a single superpower provided the image of a Turkey committed to Euro-Atlantic integration. The post-Cold War era emerged with the hopes of further political liberalisation in Turkey. Yet, as the last decade has shown, Turkey has been challenging this regional order, and not for the first time. Moreover, the present shows ongoing structural changes with the emergence of Asia at the forefront. This emergent Asia has brought forth a set of regional initiatives which are affecting the Western periphery of the Asian continent.

The international order after the Second World War assumes a Turkey that is integrated in the Western regional architecture and a pillar of the Western bloc.

The terms of Turkey’s cooperation with Europe were defined in the first part of the Cold War. Formal relations with the European Economic Community were established in 1963 with the signing of an association agreement in Ankara. In the meantime, Turkey has become a strategic partner of the EU, an associated state, and a member of a customs union for trade in goods (from 1995), and a candidate country, albeit one whose accession negotiation has come to a standstill over its democratic backsliding. As an associated country, the Ankara Agreement aims to consolidate trade and economic relations, with an important impetus to develop cooperation – to raise both the Turkish economy and the living standards of its citizens. The creation of a customs union and the alignment of policies in key economic sectors are among its provisions.

These functions define different paths and purposes for EU/Turkish cooperation, based on an Accession Partnership that prepares Turkey for membership based on the Copenhagen criteria. Some of this new path, as we show in the next sections, can create tensions.

Lastly, Turkey is an international partner that has played a significant role in limiting the migration crisis. This has given it prospects as a foreign actor, albeit one which sometimes adopts conflicting paths in the absence of better cooperation and understanding. The Eastern Mediterranean crisis between Turkey and Cyprus, and the clash of Turkish and foreign interests in relation to Libya, are such instances.

A chronology of Turkey’s opening up to the East

In 2002, an intergovernmental forum – the Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD) was launched at continental level, with Turkey becoming a member from 2013 and even chairing the forum between 2019 and 2020. The ACD provides a bottom-up non-institutionalised format, trying to set topics related to regional cooperation and Asian unity, with a strong economic agenda: growing interdependency between Asian countries, economic development, increasing the competitiveness of Asia, and creating an ‘Asian Community’[2]. Turkey is among the Asian states that joined this cooperation format later.

The 2000s increased interest in the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a Sino-Russian organisation started from scratch with the Shanghai Five initiative, and which was institutionalised in 2002. The SCO has a specific vision of international relations and exceeds the bounds of classical economic cooperation: it has competences and initiatives related to judiciary cooperation, law enforcement, defence and security. Since 2012, Turkey has been a dialogue partner of the SCO. The concept of dialogue partner is formalised at SCO level, based on the idea that the states and organisation share principles and goals. This opens up the possibility for cooperation with third parties that cannot or do not want to become observers, thus gaining the possibility to take part in joint projects and meetings. Turkey is the largest economy with dialogue partner status among the SCO non-members, which consequently is valuable to it from this point of view. This also indicates Turkey’s availability for more intense cooperation within Asian cooperation structures, thus opening itself up to the East.

Turkey’s regional assertiveness in the Greater Middle East is constant

At the subregional level, Turkey’s cooperation and participation have been constant over time. Its interests in the Middle East and northern Africa region, in the Turkish space, in Central Asia and the basins of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea are not novelties. Yet there may be surprises regarding its assertiveness and contestation of the subregional order, as is the case with its renewed territorial claims in the Eastern Mediterranean area, not to mention its active involvement in the Caspian area.

During the Cold War a less well-known military alliance was established: the Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO), an anti-Soviet initiative with linear participation from Turkey to Pakistan, plus the United Kingdom. It benefited from the participation of the United States for one year in the military committee during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. The organisation did not last, but in the 1970s three general-secretaries of this military intergovernmental organisation came from Turkey. Despite being unsuccessful, it was also a receptacle of Turkish interests.

With the rise of Asia, Turkey has been embracing the Beijing Consensus: this is premised on an active role for the state in economic development and national interests, and a reduced focus on liberal institutions.

Turkey was a founding member of the Economic Cooperation Organisation in 1985, a successor to an organisation established by Turkey, Iran and Pakistan in 1964, the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), which focused on intraregional economic cooperation. In the meantime, the ECO now has ten member states from wider Central Asia, covering 6% of the global population, but only 2% of global trade. The role of Turkey in this organisation is important from the perspective of the organisation’s future and the sustainability of the regional project.

Focused on transport, trade, energy and tourism, the vision assumed by the organisation encourages economic integration, a free trade area and, overall, enhanced cooperation[3]. It sets the doubling of intraregional trade as a strategic objective, with the implementation of the ECO trade agreement (signed in 2003, in force from 2008), the growth of the number of parties, and its upgrade to a free trade area from the preferential-trade agreement role as its expected outcomes. Turkey is part of this vision, which could create a free trade area from the Mediterranean Sea to Western China, from Siberia to the Indian Ocean, despite still being a distant prospect.

Currently, the vision of the ECO is centred on the growth of intraregional trade cooperation. For example, its connectivity projects can be highlighted: the launch of a freight train route between Islamabad and Istanbul, which was announced more than 10 years ago, is expected to come about in 2021, with promises of further connections to Europe. This railway should be around 6500 km in length and allow trains with a capacity of 20 containers to reach their destination in only 11 days[4]. Turkey has been investing in Asia and in its neighbourhood and broadening its foreign policy options. This is supported by the economic trends presented below; nevertheless, there are certain limits to its further integration.

Incompatibilities amongst organisations challenging deepened integration

These institutional architectures in the political West and the wider Asia are by default incompatible. In addition, some of them set limits of cooperation through their provisions, plans and actions.

Alternative development plans and trade policies

Limits emerge from processes such as the coordination of the regional planning and the national development plans or, as mentioned above, the implementation of customs unions. Turkey’s enhanced integration in the European economic ecosystem could raise challenges and incompatibilities between the development plans in relations to Europe and Asia. For example, the Regional Planning Council of the ECO is responsible for preparing action programmes, including the annual sectoral work programmes, which aim to achieve the objectives of the organisation, and analyse, endorse and submit them for approval by the ministers.

Turkey’s trade intensity within the ECO increased at a faster pace compared to those within the European Union-Turkish macroregion, the latter remaining at a constant level.

Due to the customs union, Turkey faces some trade policy dependencies, reducing its own options for trade agreements, and leaving it to mostly follow a reactive pattern. The operationalisation of the ECO trade agreement as a preferential agreement with Central-South-Western Asia, together with the preparation for a free trade agreement for the region, could bring new challenges to the prospect for a renewed trade agreement with the European Union.

The SCO is not only about defence

The dialogue with the SCO is a challenge for Euro-Atlantic cooperation. Unlike the general perception, the SCO is not only a defence-focused alliance. It has strong political, economic, energy, technological and trade dimensions. Turkey is a dialogue partner for the SCO, an organisation that has a revisionist vision for the international world order. When the memorandum between Turkey and SCO was signed in 2013, before the “new age of systemic rivalry”, the Turkish foreign minister declared that it was the declaration of a “common destiny” and ”the beginning of a long road where Turkey and the SCO walk hand in hand”[5].

Since 2002, SCO members have been taking part in joint military exercises, without Turkey. These drills are highly visible, and rather unimaginable for a NATO member state. But other forms of cooperation may raise concerns about Turkey’s commitments to the Euro-Atlantic structures. The SCO Charter adds a long list of areas for regional cooperation which are distinct from the trans-Atlantic ones.

These differences are perceptible in practice. If we consider electoral rights, the differences are significant. The OSCE criticised the 2018 early presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey[6], while the SCO’s observers reported the elections as a mere formality, even claiming they were “transparent, authentic and democratic”[7]. While this may not be a problem for the state and its autocratic leaders, the Euro-Atlantic ideals of free institutions and the focus on individual rights and liberties are having their core values contested.

In the area of defence, tensions emerged with the procurement of the Russian S-400 Triumph air missile defence system, which cost up to US$2.5 billion, in contrast to the operability of a NATO system. After numerous warnings, the United States imposed sanctions based on CAATSA against Turkey for its involvement in a significant transaction with Rosoboronexport for this procurement. This decision provoked a spill-over against other joint projects within the North Atlantic Alliance, such as the partnership for F-35 fighter jets. It is worth highlighting that the S-400 procurement is not only a Russian-Turkish affair, but one that suggests a broader pattern across the Asian space, particularly under the SCO’s umbrella. For China, units of the system were delivered in 2018-19[8], while in the case of India the first units are planned to be delivered in 2021[9]. Iran is still using the older S-300 system. The defence cooperation dynamics in Asia provide an outlook which calls for a concrete response from the West. This shows how Turkey’s option, despite not being the final one, was intended to support the projects of a revisionist alliance of states.

Testing the resilience of long-lasting policy cooperation frameworks

With the rise of Asia, Turkey has been embracing the Beijing Consensus: this is premised on an active role for the state in economic development and national interests, and a reduced focus on liberal institutions. Membership in the Asian organisations is largely considered as a transmission belt for this model.

For illiberal political elites, the challenges that may arise from the liberal dimensions of the Western organisations limits their further integration. One concrete illustration of this is the implementations of the decisions taken by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), a sine qua non condition of the European integration process. Such obligations are not applicable in the case of the Eurasian/Asian counterpart organisations (ECO, SCO), which are focused on economic development without liberal constraints.

However, Turkey has a tradition of engaging with the Council of Europe for 70 years that contrasts with its engagement with the wider ‘Asian Community’ for only 7 years. On the other hand, the ACD’s cooperation pillars do not include hard-power elements that could easily transform to zero-sum games[10], even if the recent conflicts on emerging technologies demonstrate that the economy, technology, and even cultural cooperation can be weaponised. In the Council of Europe, the single forum which includes almost all of Europe’s states, this type of community engagement in transactional, power-driven terms is mostly missing.

The relative economic decline of the Euro-Atlantic actors in Turkish trade relations

The third point of this investigation concerns the impact of economic interests on readjustment towards the Eastern or Western partners. Economic trends show that Turkey is increasingly dependent on Asia and preoccupied by the trade in its neighbourhood.

The symmetric trade introversion index displays the growth pace of intra-regional trade flows to the extra-regional ones. Its value for Turkey over the past two decades shows that the intensity of the flows within the ECO have accelerated significantly, reaching a similar level to a virtual UE-Turkey macroregion[11]. This indicates that Turkey’s trade intensity within the ECO increased at a faster pace compared to those within the European Union-Turkish macroregion, the latter remaining at a constant level. This reflects a growth in intraregional trade flows within the ECO compared to stability of the intra-European flows. When we analyse the trade indicators, the data supports this finding.

In 2000, Europe and Central Asia made up approximately 65% of Turkey’s exports and imports, followed at a distance by East Asia with 3% of the exports share and 10% of the imports share. In 2018, the share of imports from Europe and Central Asia fell to 51% and exports to just under 60%. Furthermore, the growth of Turkey’s trade deficit with Russia, China, India and Iran can be emphasised. By country, as shares of Turkish exports, in 2000 Germany had a 18.18% share, followed by the United States (11.11%) and the United Kingdom (7.36%), followed by Italy and France with around 6% each. In 2018 the same states, despite their top position, collapsed as market shares for Turkish exports: Germany 9.61%, the United Kingdom 6.61%, and Italy 5.69%. The United States almost disappeared, with a similar export market share to Iraq, of around 5%[12].

Of Turkey’s import markets share, Europe and Central Asia had 65.12% in 2000, East Asia and the Pacific 10.1%, the Middle East and North Africa 9.95%, and North America 7.65%. In 2018, Europe and Central Asia had only 50.91%, East Asia and the Pacific 17.82%, while the Middle East and North Africa remained constant at around 9.8%, and North America dropped to 6.44%. In 2000, Germany led exports to Turkey with 13.13%, followed by Italy with 7.98%, then United States and the Russian Federation with around 7% each. In recent years, China was the main source for Turkey’s imports, in competition for first place with Germany and the Russian Federation at around 10% each, while the United States stabilised at 5%. Moreover, India and Iran followed a trend in which they overcame France and the United Kingdom through their shares.

Turkey’s trade intensity within the ECO increased at a faster pace compared to those within the European Union-Turkish macroregion, the latter remaining at a constant level.

The correlation between trade and political options can be noticed. Turkey’s participation in regional cooperation projects in Asia is encouraged by this region’s positive economic trend in Turkey’s trade relations, as well as its increasing dependence on Asia, as shown by trade deficits. At the same time, Europe and the United States have diminished their position in the trade policy of Turkey, even though they still retain a principal role.

Functional cooperation instead of grand narratives

To conclude, the previous points underline that Turkey remains closely associated with the West, despite the perception of increasing conflicts. However, there have been structural developments allowing it to functionally broaden its foreign policy options. As a transcontinental country, Turkey had traditional access to continental economic, political and security architectures.

Since the Second World War, it has been part of the Euro-Atlantic space and included in most organisations developed in the West. However, the emergence of Asia has opened its gates to participation in the frameworks of wider Asia. In both cases, the participation is incomplete, largely due to its peripheral role and transit function, which restrict the opportunities for deepened integration. Despite the recent tensions, which are not novelties, its options for regional cooperation remain open between the political West and the wider Asia, including in a complex Eurasian and Middle Eastern space.

As we have shown, there are limits and incompatibilities to further integration in both structures. This could be a challenge for consolidated political and economic integration as well as security cooperation, while at the same time offering opportunities for functional cooperation. It seems this path is being followed through selective engagement, consistent with the relative decline of Euro-Atlantic trade relations. However, in the medium and long term one may see the perspective of a Turkey that remains anchored in the Euro-Atlantic regional organisations. This analysis has emphasised the challenges to managing Turkey’s external actions, particularly its deepened engagement with the regional organisations and cooperation frameworks of the West and of the wider Asia; at some point it will have to choose sides, with their institutions and their trade influence. Considering Turkey’s policy dependency path with the West, 70 years of cooperation cannot be convincingly replaced by an emerging continental architecture in Asia.

1 The New York Times, 13 August 1974, ‘NATO Is Viewed as Weakened by the War on Cyprus’, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/08/13/archives/nato-is-viewed-as-weakened-by-the-war-on-cyprus.html

2 ACD, 2020, About Asia Cooperation Dialogue, http://www.acd-dialogue.org/about-acd.html

3 ECO, 2017, ECO Vision 2025, Economic Cooperation Organization, http://www.eco.int/pa rameters/eco/modules/cdk/upload/content/general_content/3624/1506486491201cflnbtm0acra83f5arho4dgc65.pdf

4 Financial Tribune, 23 December 2020, ‘Islamabad-Tehran-Istanbul Train to Be Launched in 2021’, https://financialtribune.com/articles/economy/106699/islamabad-tehran-istanbul-train-to-be-launched-in-2021

5 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Turkey, 2013, ‘Turkey and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Dialogue Partnership Memorandum was signed in Almaty’, http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkey-and-the-shanghai-cooperation-organization-dialogue-partnership-memorandum-was-signed-in-almaty.en.mfa

6 OSCE Elections Observer Mission, 25 June 2018, Statement of preliminary findings, early presidential and parliamentary elections Turkey, 24 June 2018, https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/turkey/385671

7 SCO Elections Observer Mission, 25 June 2018, Statement by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Observer Mission on monitoring the preparations for and holding of the special presidential and parliamentary elections in the Republic of Turkey on 24 June 2018, http://eng.sectsco.org/news/20180625/454510.html

8 TASS, 24 January 2020, ‘Russia completes delivery of second S-400 missile system regimental set to China – source’, https://tass.com/world/1113113

9 Indian Times, 12 November 2020, ‘Working hard to ensure early supply of S-400 missile systems to India: Russia’, https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/working-hard-to-ensure-early-supply-of-s-400-missile-systems-to-india-russia/articleshow/79189588.cms

10 ACD, 2020, Areas of cooperation of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, http://www.acd-dialogue.org/areas-of-cooperations.html

11 United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS), 2020, Regional Integration Knowledge System 2.0 (RIKS). https://riks.cris.unu.edu

12 WITS, 2020, World Integrated Trade Solution, Turkey Import/Export Partner Share by region in percentage 2000-2018, https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/TUR