Turkey Turns East

A man looks at missiles displayed at the stand of China AVIC Avionics Equipment, at the Beijing International Aviation Expo in Beijing on September 26, 2013. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

A man looks at missiles displayed at the stand of China AVIC Avionics Equipment, at the Beijing International Aviation Expo in Beijing on September 26, 2013. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Judging from the reactions, as well as from private conversations with diplomats, Turkey’s decision to co-produce a missile defense system with a Chinese firm caught Ankara’s Western allies by surprise.

Yet the track record of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) more than decade-long governance has other examples of such surprises. Recall how in 2003 Turkey refused a US request to use its territories to attack Iraq; or how it voted against sanctions towards Iran in the United Nations Security Council in 2010. Who would have expected Turkey and Israel, both US allies to risk confrontation at the Mediterranean?

For Dr. Serhat Güvenç, an expert on Turkish foreign and security policy, in view of the present political situation, Ankara’s recent statement that it is likely to sign a USD 3.4 billion missile defense deal with a Chinese firm that is subject to US sanctions comes as no surprise. Although the decision is not yet final, the statement was enough to send shock waves throughout Turkey’s allies, who were quick to express their concerns.

Turkey’s decision is a manifestation of its frustration with the United States, according to Güvenç. The two countries have diverging views on Syria. Turkey champions a regime change in its southern neighbor through international intervention, a position at odds with that of Washington. Both capitals have also differences over developments in Egypt.

While Turkey’s plans to acquire anti-missile defense systems go back more than two decades, the recent urgency stems from the Syrian crisis. Turkey asked NATO to deploy Patriot missiles last November to protect its 700 kilometer border with Syria from potential spillovers of fighting. The Turkish government’s decision to buy Chinese missiles while Dutch, German and American missiles have been protecting Turkish borders for nearly a year is, on the surface, an incongruous one.

First, if the deal is finalized, Turkey would be buying Chinese technology to protect itself from a hostile country supported by China, which together with Russia is obstructing multilateral action against Bashar Al–Assad’s regime. Turkey is also hosting NATO radars on its territory against a possible attack from Iran, while the Chinese firm Turkey prepares to work with is under US sanctions for cooperating with Tehran.

Second, while Turkey enjoys NATO alliance solidarity, if it purchases the Chinese system, it will not be able to contribute to the security of other NATO members, since its own system will not be connected to the NATO system. With the shrinking of European defense budgets, NATO's secretary-general has been urging alliance members to rationalize their arms procurement, something which implies closer cooperation on this issue. Turkey’s decision falls in stark contrast with that trend.

Turkey tried to depoliticize the issue by arguing that the decision is based on the economic criteria. According to Can Kasapoğlu and Aron Stein from the Center for Economic and Foreign policy Studies (EDAM) China’s bid is reported to have been close to USD 1 billion below that of its closest competitor among the US, Russian and European firms bidding for the contract.

In addition the Chinese offer better conditions than any other bidder in terms of the transfer and sharing of technological know-how and co-production. This is crucial. In the words of Güvenç, “there is an preoccupation, an obsession to produce [weapons] locally.”

That preoccupation stems from Turkey’s mistrust of its Western allies. While Turkey is a member of the Western alliance (it even became a NATO member before Germany did) at the same time, it does not feel that it is a fully-equal member. Turks have still the bitter memory of how Germany stalled in providing Patriot missiles to Turkey during the first Gulf crisis in 1991. The yearning to act independently of allies and the possibility forging alliances with non-Western powers have always been there, even since the early days of the Republic.

In the eyes of the Western diplomats, Turkey’s latest decision is a political one. Turkish statements that the Chinese and NATO systems will be interoperable are simply dismissed. “This is not just a technical issue. We need interoperability at all levels. And obviously China is not an ally,” a NATO diplomat told The Majalla. NATO will simply not accept the integration of the two systems.

Insisting on the Chinese option will send the message to Turkey’s Western allies that Ankara is shifting the axis of its security policy, according to Güvenç. The European Union's former envoy to Turkey, Marc Pierini, agrees. It will send a message that Turkey will go its own way, swiftly and irrespective of the country’s international environment and commitments, according to Pierini.

Güvenç believes Turkey will backtrack and review its decision. This is also a widespread conviction among Western observers. While such a review of the decision will come as a relief, since insisting on China will create tremendous strains in Turkey’s relations with its allies with critical consequences, it would put Turkey’s credibility at stake, showing it has overplayed its hand. No matter which decision Turkey will take, this whole ordeal has once more demonstrated Turkey’s problematic relationship with its Western allies.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla Magazine.

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