Turkish officials announced today that the country will go forward with talks with American and European firms to build its first long range missile defense system, since the previously-preferred Chinese company is dragging its feet. The tender for the contract, valued at $3.4 billion, has been mired in controversy and sudden changes of heart since its launch.
In September 2013 Turkey selected China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corporation (CPMIEC) over European, American, and Russian firms, only to change its mind afterwards, extending the deadline for revised offers multiple times since then. Publicly, Turkey’s primary criteria (besides functionality) have been overall cost, the desire for local co-production, and technology transfer. Turkish officials said on Thursday that CPMIEC had yet to provide a full guarantee on technology transfer.
Turkey’s negotiations with CPMIEC immediately caused alarm and strong disapproval from NATO countries, particularly the U.S. CPMIEC has repeatedly been under American sanctions for providing arms to Iran and Syria despite an embargo. As a full NATO member, Turkey is included in the alliance’s 2010 Lisbon agreement for missile defense coverage of its European member states. However, numerous Western officials warned that the Chinese system would pose unacceptable security risks for it to be inter-operable with existing and future NATO missile defense systems deployed within Turkey. China could plausibly use backdoor software in any linked system to access confidential data on NATO antimissile capabilities and procedures, or even disrupt them.
While Turkey has defended its own choice of a contractor as a symbol of its independence, its government is caught in indecision. Last week Turkey’s defense minister said his country did not plan to integrate the antimissile system with NATO infrastructure, but days later the presidential spokesman said that the systems would indeed be integrated, according to Reuters.
The flip-flopping reflects a similarly confused foreign policy. Bolstered by a rapidly growing economy and a desire for more influence in the region, Turkish policy has gone in a more autonomous direction in recent years. In particular Ankara sought out greater economic (and political) links to China — annual bilateral trade between shot up from $1 billion in 2000 to $24 billion currently. Meanwhile, China see Turkey as one of few allies that is neither too unstable or pro-Western, and which could beneficially deepen its involvement in the Middle East (where it sees geostrategic opportunities resulting from America’s slow but inexorable withdrawal).
Yet Turkey looks to be drifting back to a more pro-Western foreign policy. Faced with immediate threats of jihadist groups and further spillover of violence and refugees from Syria, Turkey is imploring NATO to take a larger role there, perhaps in establishing a no-fly zone. Whatever the legitimate contractual issues with CPMIEC may be, Syrian security apparently trumps greater ties with China.
Turkish defense officials went to Italy in late January for discussions with Eurosam, and will visit the U.S. in March for talks with Raytheon. Despite being eliminated in the first round, Russia has revised its tender bid and is still interested, although no talks are currently under way. A some point a Turkish delegation is set to travel to China for further talks, but for now it’s anyone’s game.