Jessica Michek and Harry Parkhouse contributed to this post.
After large protests erupted in Istanbul’s Gezi Park and Taksim Square at the end of May, quickly spreading across the country, Turkey dominated the news. But as that unrest died down and as the rest of the Middle East grew even more chaotic Turkey disappeared from the headlines. In the last several weeks, however, we have witnessed the Turkish government beginning to react to the summer’s events. While not as captivating as the earlier protests, several events, ranging from the cautiously hopeful to the slightly peculiar, are noteworthy for what they indicate about the careful balance Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are trying to strike in their politics, both foreign and domestic.
This post, the second in a series on significant developments in Turkey over the past month, deals with Turkey’s choice of a Chinese company – over its traditional Western allies – to shore up its national defense. Yesterday, we examined the AKP government’s democratization package, a series of measures meant primarily to further Turkey’s faltering Kurdish peace process, but also to nominally address concerns of the opposition and other minority groups while also advancing the AKP’s Islamist ideology.
For recommendations on how the United States should address these changing dynamics in Turkey, watch out for the report of the BPC’s Turkey Task Force, chaired by former U.S. Ambassadors to Turkey Morton Abramowitz and Eric Edelman, From Rhetoric to Reality: Reframing U.S. Turkey Policy, that will be released on October 23.
Chinese Missile Deal: A Shift from the West?
The Turkish government has recently announced that it has chosen the Chinese defense company China Precision Machinery Export-Import Group (CPMIEC) over U.S., European, Russian, and Italian competitors for its first long-range air defense and anti-missile system, expected to cost approximately $4 billion.
The deal has raised concerns from the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for several reasons. Firstly, CPMIEC has been sanctioned by the United States due to accusations of illicit arms and missile technology sales to Iran and Pakistan. Secondly, the missile defense systems will be incompatible with current NATO technologies employed in Turkey. Although Ankara has claimed that the system could be made inter-operational with NATO systems, the United States and NATO reject potential efforts as it would create the risk of China being able to access NATO infrastructure and data.
These concerns have been rebuffed by the Turkish government, which cites the priority of Turkish national defense and the nonexistent obligation for Turkey to adhere to other nation’s trade blacklists. Turkey’s rationale for choosing CPMIEC is allegedly because it was the most economical deal – costing $3 billion less – and that some of the production would be undertaken in conjunction with Turkey. However, the deal with CPMIEC is not final, and so there are still opportunities for counter-offers by European and U.S. firms.
Sourcing weapons from a Chinese company under U.S. sanctions could imply a change in Turkey’s stance towards its relationship with NATO, which has historically been the prime source of Turkish defense capabilities, and a newfound sense of military independence. While Turkey has sought NATO assistance against spillover violence from Syria, receiving 6 Patriot missile batteries to defend against ballistic missile threats, it is estimated that comprehensive coverage would require three times as many Patriot missiles. While Turkey is looking to fill legitimate gaps in its border defense, its choice of China over proposals from NATO members suggests a snub of its longtime ally NATO, which has refused to further assist Turkey with Syria.
However, despite concerns from outside observers, Ankara was keen to point out during this process that they still hold their allegiances and obligations to NATO and the United States in high esteem, with Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay asserting that “we are a member of NATO and we have had good relations from the beginning with NATO countries, especially the United States.”