ALMATY (Reuters) - NATO member Turkey signed up on Friday to became a “dialogue partner” of a security bloc dominated by China and Russia, and declared that its destiny is in Asia.
“This is really a historic day for us,” Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital Almaty after signing a memorandum of understanding with Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Secretary General Dmitry Mezentsev.
“Now, with this choice, Turkey is declaring that our destiny is the same as the destiny of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) countries.”
China, Russia and four Central Asian nations - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - formed the SCO in 2001 as a regional security bloc to fight threats posed by radical Islam and drug trafficking from neighboring Afghanistan.
Since then, Central Asia’s former imperial master Russia has watched with unease China’s economic expansion in the resource-rich region, with Beijing investing billions of dollars in oil and gas and issuing large loans to local governments.
Turkey has displayed interest in closer ties with the SCO at a time when it is upset by the slow progress of accession talks with the European Union.
Ankara began talks on joining the EU in 2005 but has only completed one of the 35 policy areas, or “chapters”, every candidate must conclude to be allowed entry due to disagreements largely over the divided island of Cyprus.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has called Turkey’s wait to join the bloc “unforgivable” and has accused Brussels of not being a fair or genuine negotiating partner.
While China vies with Russia and the West for access to Central Asia’s vast natural resources, some analysts view the SCO as a potential counter-balance to NATO.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan speak Turkic languages, and while pledging to cooperate with the SCO economically and in fighting terrorist threats and drug trade together, Davutoglu stressed common historic roots.
“Turkey will be part of a family, which is composed of the countries which lived together not for centuries - for millennia,” he said.
Turkey’s “dialogue partner” status, also granted to Sri Lanka and ex-Soviet state Belarus, is below that of observer status held by India, Pakistan, Mongolia, Iran and Afghanistan which participate in SCO meetings but have no right to vote.
Davutoglu, upbeat and smiling, stressed however that this status was “just the beginning”.
“I hope at the next summit in (the Kyrgyz capital) Bishkek we will be present, as well as at ministerial meetings,” Davutoglu said. “This is the beginning of a long way, walking together, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder.”
Editing by Michael Roddy