BEIJING China said on Monday it was willing to consider any application from NATO-member Turkey to join a Russian and Chinese-led security bloc, after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said his country could join.
China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan formed the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in 2001 to fight threats posed by radical Islam and drug trafficking from neighboring Afghanistan.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Turkey was already a "dialogue partner" of the regional bloc and had for a long time closely cooperated with it.
China attached great importance to Turkey's wish to strengthen that cooperation, he told a news briefing.
"We are willing, together with other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and in accordance with the rules of its legal documents, to seriously study it on the basis of consensus consultation," Geng added, without elaborating.
Erdogan was quoted on Sunday as saying that Turkey did not need to join the European Union "at all costs" and could instead become part of the SCO.
Turkish government spokesman Numan Kurtulmus said on Monday that closer ties with the SCO would not mean Turkey turning its back on other allies.
"Turkey, with its history, culture, geopolitics and potential, is one of the few countries in the world that can cooperate with every corner of the world simultaneously," he told a news conference in the capital Ankara.
"A step taken (with the SCO) does not mean it will end Turkey’s relations with another country."
Turkish membership of the bloc would nonetheless be likely to alarm Western allies and fellow NATO members.
Having long been critical of Turkey's record on democratic freedoms, European leaders have been alarmed by Erdogan's crackdown on opponents since a failed coup attempt in July, and Turkey's prospects of joining the EU look more remote than ever after 11 years of negotiations.
The EU is treading a fine line as it needs Turkey's help in curbing a huge flow of migrants, especially from Syria, while Ankara has grown increasingly exasperated by what it sees as Western condescension.
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan speak Turkic languages, and Ankara signed up in 2013 as a "dialogue partner" saying it shared "the same destiny" as members of the bloc.
Mongolia, India, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan are observers, while Belarus, like Turkey, is a dialogue partner.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Andrew Roche)