Is Turkey 'gravitating' toward China?

By Emre Tunç SAKAOĞLU

Top Turkish authorities, Prime Minister Erdogan first and foremost, have been voicing their eagerness to join China and Russia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) on various platforms in recent years. Ankara recently became an SCO “dialogue partner”, and stated its willingness to participate more actively within the SCO as the single NATO member in such a position. Ankara has been demonstrating its will to increase mutual ties with Beijing through several important projects—and not only in economic terms but in the fields of defense, aviation, high-speed railroad infrastructure, nuclear energy, and high-technological cooperation as well. Such an effort to draw closer to China was reinforced by five top-level visits between China and Turkey from 2009 and 2012, including PM Erdogan's visit to China in April 2012—the first such visit in 27 years. 

 

It is clear that cooperation between the two countries has been flourishing especially in the last couple of years. A major step in this vein was taken through the joint military exercises held in Konya between September 20th and October 4th, 2010 that were organized by the Turkish Armed Forces with the participation of the People's Liberation Army (PLA, i.e. the Chinese military). Iran and Pakistan also supported these exercises by providing border clearance and air-refueling when four Sukhoi-27 (SU-27) fighter jets from China were making direct flights to Turkey, and when they were flying back to China. In response, Washington expressed its concern and reservations regarding the participation of Turkish F-16s (imported from the U.S.) in the military exercises, both because of political reasons and its urge to preserve the technological and strategic secrets of the military aircraft for the sake of NATO's integrity. Therefore instead of F-16s, older F-4 fighter jets were used by the Turkish military during the exercises. 

 

According to military officials involved in this bilateral exchange, the negotiations to carry out the joint exercise took two years; which means that since 2008 the Turkish government has been gravitating in a coordinated manner towards in-depth military cooperation with China, albeit behind the scenes. Moreover, the military exercises coincided with the former Chinese Prime Minister's (Wen Jiabao's) official visit to Turkey. During the meeting it was decided that the next joint exercises would take place in China in the coming years. The meeting also saw the signing of the Joint Declaration on the Establishment and Development of the Strategic Relationship of Cooperation by Turkish PM Erdogan and Chinese PM Wen Jiabao. 

 

Finally on 26 September 2013, three years after the aforementioned joint military exercises, the Turkish government agreed to develop a missile defense system (Fáng dùn 2000, or simply FD-2000) within Turkish borders in cooperation with the controversial Chinese China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC). The deal involves Turkey acquiring long-range ballistic missiles for the first time in the country's history. The decision to acquire such technology from China was made by the Defense Industry Executive Committee, which convened under Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's guidance. European, Russian, and American firms (Raytheon-Lockheed Martin of the U.S. and French-Italian Eurosam SAMP/T, for instance) were also bidding to supply Turkey with missiles of their own. But, as the Turkish government explained, the Chinese firm's bid was cheaper and involved a complete technology transfer to Turkey. 

 

A deal between Turkey and CPIMEC is indeed a problem from NATO's perspective. The real reason why CPMIEC has a negative reputation is that it had previously provided arms to Iran, Syria, and North Korea, and as a result was blacklisted by the U.S. for contributing to arms proliferation with "rogue" states. The same firm is accused of conducting military espionage in order to acquire Western technology illegally. Also, the FD-2000 is a system which will most likely not be interoperable with NATO equipment. If the missile system is acquired by a NATO member like Turkey or even by others in the near future, there will be a weak point in NATO’s military intelligence, as these systems and the Chinese experts involved in operating these systems will gain access to NATO's strategic backyard. 

 

Since the Chinese won the missile defense bid in September 2013, the Turkish government and the bureaucratic authorities involved in Turkey's accelerating military build-up policies have begun to articulate that Turkey needs to build its own capacity and technology in the military-industrial sector in order to attain greater elbow-room in its foreign policy. Nevertheless, Turkey did listen to some Western criticism regarding the risks and repercussions of such a move for Turkey's long-term interests, and moderated its stance up to a certain extent. In response to increasing pressure from the U.S., Merill Lynch's and Western investors' reactions, and further offers from other bidders, Turkey finally extended the bidding period from 31 January to 31 April 2014. However, considering that officials claim that Western parties’ latest bids still can’t compete with the Chinese bid, Ankara cannot be expected to agree with a Western partner and turn its back on Beijing on in such a short while. 

 

The latest instance demonstrating Turkish authorities' slight change in attitude is that Murad Bayar, who had been serving as the Undersecretary of Defense Industry since 2004, was removed from his post on 28 March 2014—only one month before the extended bidding period ends. Mr. Bayar was known to be influential in the deal with the Chinese, and he was specially invited to leave his job in the United States and come back to Turkey to serve as the head of Turkey's defense industry decision-making mechanism by Prime Minister Erdogan himself. After his dismissal from his former post though, he was immediately appointed as Principal Advisor to the Prime Ministry, which is a highly prominent position close to domestic politics and the current government. Therefore, it is still not yet certain whether the Turkish government will comply with NATO’s norms in this matter, or insist on moving in the opposite direction.  

 

At the end of the day, Turkey's recent trend toward cooperation with China in various vital projects and the repercussions of such a policy perspective on the domestic and international stage do not necessarily hint at a political realignment with a "rival camp". Nevertheless, Turkish foreign policy used to cherish the principle of prioritizing NATO, as a member state should, while keeping a certain distance from its "rivals"; but now its focus has clearly shifted. Today, we see concrete actions exemplifying how the Turkish authorities of today consider NATO's "unofficial rivals" to be "alternative strategic partners". And in light of the conviction and recent statements by high-level figures that are gradually distancing Ankara from its long-standing allies, such a trend cannot be reversed easily.

 

 

USAK

 

 

23.04.2014

 

 

 

 

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