Turkey’s Unwise Pivot to the East

In January, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that because his country’s talks to join the European Union had stalled, he might seek instead to join China and Russia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Few took the threat seriously; Turkey has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization since the 1950s. Yet the government’s decision late last month to award a $3 billion air and missile defense system contract to a state-run company from China suggests that Erdogan is turning east to look for new security partners.

The China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp., or CPMIEC, won the contract to co-produce its HQ-9 surface-to-air missile system in Turkey over bids from the makers of U.S. Patriot missiles, Russian S-300s and a French-Italian equivalent. CPMIEC offered to produce the Turkish defense system, T-Loramids, for about $1 billion less than its competitors, and with more flexibility for transferring the technology involved to Turkey. The Chinese also offered to invest in building a technology park on the outskirts of Istanbul.

So there were good, practical reasons to want the Chinese deal, yet from a wider standpoint, the decision suggests Erdogan’s government wants to demonstrate to the West that it can have its defense needs met elsewhere. Erdogan’s disillusionment with the U.S. and the EU has deepened since his statement in January, due to their condemnation of the harsh way in which he dealt with the so-called Gezi Park protests, which he characterized as a foreign plot conducted by terrorists. He has been upset, too, by the failure of the U.S. to intervene militarily in Syria.

Chinese-built missiles, as U.S. officials said in expressing concerns about the deal after it was announced, would not be interoperable with NATO systems, as are the Patriot missiles that Germany installed along Turkey’s border with Syria last year. In putting a Chinese system in place, analysts say, Turkey would forfeit an important NATO radar capability, including for a planned missile defense system that will have its forward radar in southeastern Turkey. This involves top-secret technology that cannot be transferred to non-NATO members, yet Chinese designers would need access to that information if they were to make their system interoperable.

Another worry for the U.S. is CPMIEC’s alleged arms dealings with Iran and Pakistan, which prompted the U.S. to ban any U.S. individual or company from doing business with the Chinese company. President Barack Obama twice warned Erdogan against the deal in recent face-to-face meetings, according to the Turkish Today’s Zaman newspaper. After the news broke, State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki said the administration had conveyed its “serious concerns” to Turkish officials.

Working with CPMIEC would appear to be a cheaper option for Turkey, while giving it more potential to develop its own defense industry. But should cost be the top concern, given the larger ramifications? The Erdogan government’s hesitation — seen days later, when officials said the deal was still in the negotiation phase and could be reconsidered — suggests it may be rethinking the ramifications of flirting with Beijing on security. Turkish officials have denied that U.S. pressure is a factor.

From a geopolitical standpoint, selling arms to Turkey makes sense for China, whose influence in the Middle East has been on the rise, if unevenly so. The Chinese have deepened their economic ties with countries such as Jordan, a strong U.S. ally. Increasing bilateral trade volumes and high-level meetings clearly demonstrates China’s interest in the region — China’s trade with Arab nations more than quadrupled to $200 billion from 2004 to 2011, and the government has targeted a figure of $300 billion by 2014. In Libya, where 35,000 Chinese workers had to be evacuated during the 2011 uprising against former President Muammar Qaddafi, it became clear that this scale of involvement in the Middle East has security implications for China.

For Turkey, the tie makes less sense. The two countries are on opposite sides of the global standoff over the Syrian war, with Turkey supporting the rebels and pushing for a stronger response from the West, while China has joined Russia at the United Nations in protecting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The two countries’ positions on Iran’s controversial nuclear program also don’t line up. And China was a harsh critic of NATO operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, which Turkey strongly supported.

So if Erdogan does continue to seek Chinese military cooperation, what could that mean for any future Middle East conflict? As the U.S. to some extent pulls back from the region in coming years, implementing its own “pivot to Asia,” this may open a space for China, which wants a bigger role in the Middle East to meet soaring energy needs. China, however, has no track record of sharing the values that the West — including Turkey, as a long-standing democracy in the region — has promoted there. Erdogan, therefore, has no way of knowing whether China will share Turkey’s priorities in future crises, and the split over Syria is only the latest and most obvious indicator that it probably won’t. The last thing Turkey needs is to make itself dependent on a major military power that it can’t trust in its own neighborhood.

Cenk Sidar is the managing director of Sidar Global Advisors, a Washington-based political risk assessment and advisory firm.

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