Turkey is a major military power, with an army of 400,000 soldiers and a very large air force, yet it doesn't have long-range air defenses — a pretty glaring deficiency for a country perched in a dangerous neighborhood, with the Ukrainian conflict to the north and the Middle Eastern powder keg sitting on its southern border. The Turkish government was close to a giant, $3.4 billion deal with a Chinese firm to buy just such a system, but in a sudden twist, cancelled it last week. And it made the announcement just while it was hosting China's president Xi Jinping at the G20 summit last week in Antalya.
The deal would have been a major coup for Beijing — a multibillion dollar sale to a rapidly rising regional power, and a member of NATO no less, which would have marked China's arrival on the world arms market as a serious player. But its scrapping signals that China may not be quite ready yet for a place at the table where the big boys of arms export — the US, Russia and a select few European countries — share a pie worth at least $76 billion.
In 2013, Ankara provisionally chose a Chinese system, the FD-2000 — also known as the HQ-9 — as the core of the Turkish Long-Range Air and Missile Defense Systemm or T-Loramids. The derivative of the Russian S-300 system, a long-range missile that's the most advanced anti-aircraft weapon currently offered by anyone who isn't the United Sates, is made by China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corp. or CPMIEC, and beat out bids by companies from Turkey's biggest allies: the American firm Raytheon, and the European missile maker Eurosam.
The deal struck with CPMIEC in September 2013 was politically controversial from the outset. Instead of going with the expected choice of a system produced by its European or American allies, Ankara instead selected a Chinese firm sanctioned by the US for violating the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act. The choice of China over Turkey's NATO allies did not seem to make for particularly good politics and, unsurprisingly, drew criticism.
"Economic prudence, as well as serious military planning, suggests that Ankara should have chosen the United States' Patriot or Europe's Aster-30 SAMP/T," the Atlantic Council's Dr. Aaron Stein wrote in a 2013 blog post.
The Chinese missile seemed like an odd choice for more pragmatic technological reasons as well. The Chinese system came at a lower price, but would not be interoperable with NATO systems. Turkey's use of NATO's systems and data incentivize it to continue to choose weapons of American or French-Italian manufacture. NATO's Identify Friend or Foe (IFF) system, which allows radar systems to identify friendly aircraft, would not be used in the Chinese missile defense system, increasing the chances of "friendly fire" accidents.
"There is no place for China within this critical system. We would not wish to see a virus in a complex system," an unnamed NATO defense attaché told Hurriyet Daily News after the 2013 announcement.
As issues of interoperability continued to plague the discussion of T-Loramids and technology transfer agreements became a sticking point in ongoing negotiations with the Chinese, the deal looked unsteady long before last week's announcement. In March, conflicting government statements about whether or not the system could or needed to be integrated into NATO architecture led to speculation that Turkey was in the process of changing its mind. In July, reports said Turkey was willing to consider renegotiating the deal.
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According to Dr. Bleda Kurtdarcan, a professor of law at Galatasaray University, Turkey's reasons for scrapping the deal were likely twofold. First, it appears "that the Turkish government couldn't manage to get CPMIEC to acquiesce on the transfer of technology and the negotiations came to a deadlock," he said in an email. Additionally, a couple of Ankara's long-term political calculations may have fallen through. The government "tried to use the entire tender and the negotiation processes as a political leverage in its relations with Europe and the US, apparently to no avail," Kurtdarcan said.
"My sense was that the Turks were basically dilly-dallying," said Dr. Barin Kayaoglu, an independent international affairs analyst. "They knew, I think, that they couldn't effectively use a weapons system that was not certified by NATO."
The whole process may have been a long-running negotiation tactic that failed to pan out for Ankara. "I think, in the greater scheme of things, what [Turkish] President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan and Prime Minister [Ahmet] Davutoglu were thinking was to gain some more leverage for either the United States or European systems. To get them to agree with more know-how transfers or lower the price…" Kayaoglu said. This interpretation resonates with analysis from 2013, when experts believed Turkey was merely toying with the idea of giving China or Russia the air defense contract in order to drive down the price for either the American-made PAC-3 Patriot system or the French-Italian Aster 30 Samp/T.
"Facing an increasing resistance from its NATO allies and overwhelmed by other, more pressing, issues (Syria, ISIS, to name a few ), which require the support of its allies, it seems that the Turkish government had to give up on this game plan," Kurtdarcan said.
With China out of the running, the US and European companies are again primary candidates for building Turkey's missile defense system. Ankara has indicated it wants to make the contract domestic, potentially turning to Turkish defense contractors Aselsan and Roketsan to complete the project.
"Turkey has been increasingly relying on its national capabilities in the modernization process of its armed forces," Kurtdarcan said. Aselsan and Roketsan have already partnered to develop short- and medium-range surface-to-air missile systems, known as Hisar-A and Hisar-O.
The pressures of the current security situation have undoubtedly highlighted for Turkey the need to preserve its European and American partnerships and to fill the long-range gap in its missile defense architecture.
But even as the missile deal has passed by the wayside, Turkey's relationship with China isn't completely stuck. During the G20 summit, Erdogan met with Chinese President Xi and signed agreements relating to closer Turkish integration into China's long-term Silk Road project, through which China is attempting to build overland trade links with Europe. While China's defense industry is out of Turkey for the time being, it doesn't mean China's influence in Ankara is necessarily on the wane.
Follow Torie Rose DeGhett on Twitter: @trdeghett
Photo via Wikimedia Commons