Turkey’s choice to buy a Chinese air defense system has alarmed its American and NATO allies, who say the move threatens cooperation between Ankara and its Western partners.
The competition for Turkey’s long-range missile and aerial defense program, called T-Loramids, has been the source of much speculation. The finalists in the competition were the U.S.-made Patriot, Russian S-400s, Chinese HQ-9 and a European consortium offering the Aster 30 SAMP/T. And that range of potential partners inevitably made the competition into a sort of geopolitical bellwether for Turkey, which is a NATO member and longtime U.S. ally but whose current government, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been strengthening ties with non-Western partners.
Three years ago, Turkey raised alarm in the U.S. by carrying out joint air force exercises with China. Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation wrote that “Ankara is signaling another shift in its geopolitical orientation, as well as the emergence of a new strategic partner besides Washington: Beijing. The U.S. policymakers should pay better attention to the ongoing tectonic shifts of the geopolitical plates.” Turkey, however, downplayed the geopolitical significance, with one anonymous defense official telling Defense News, “There is no need to seek hidden or deep motives behind this.”
This time around, Turkey again emphasized that it was looking at the air defense competition from a business perspective rather than through a geopolitical lens. And Ankara had made it clear that one of the priorities of the program was that it be jointly produced with Turkey, and that the winning bidder would allow Turkey access to all of the technology in the system. The Raytheon/Lockheed Martin team offering the Patriots had refused to go along with those conditions. China, meanwhile, met those conditions and also offered the lowest price. “[T]he selection of a Chinese firm was not intended to send a signal to the West,” wrote Aaron Stein, an Istanbul-based defense analyst. “The evidence strongly suggests that Ankara chose the system because of its emphasis on coproduction arrangements for military procurements.”
Nevertheless, U.S. and NATO officials quickly criticized Turkey’s move. Complicating matters was the fact that the Chinese manufacturer, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp, is under U.S. sanctions for doing business with Iran. “We, of course, have conveyed our serious concerns about the Turkish government’s contract discussions with a U.S. sanctioned company for a missile defense system that will not be interoperable with NATO systems or collective defense capabilities,” said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki. “Our discussions will continue.”
“The U.S. is very, very unhappy about Turkey’s selection of China,” one defense industry source in Ankara told Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman. “U.S. President Barack Obama has twice taken up the missile issue with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during their face-to-face meetings and reminded the Turkish prime minister about the interoperability problems that … a non-NATO system will create.” In 2012 NATO deployed several Patriot systems in Turkey, and in 2011 Ankara agreed to host part of a NATO air defense system over the objections of Russia and Iran.
After the announcement and the adverse reaction from the West, Turkish officials emphasized that the deal is not complete; final terms between Turkey and the Chinese company still must be negotiated. “The purchase is not definite. … There is a short list and China is at the top of it. We should look at the conditions, but there is no doubt that Turkey is primarily in NATO,” said President Abdullah Gül. U.S. and NATO officials said that they didn’t consider the decision final. It remains to be seen whether political pressure from Turkey’s allies could make it reconsider.