Earlier this year NATO stationed American, German and Dutch Patriot air defense systems in Turkey, to offer protection against an unlikely missile attack from Syria. Turkish defense specialists were introduced this way to the special qualities of the Patriots. A fortunate concurrence of circumstances, since Turkey is in the market for its own air defense system. Raytheon, the American producer of the Patriots, cooperated with the Turkish defense industry before and was preparing the contracts already.
Turkey’s ruling justice and Development Party (AKP) decided differently. No Patriots for Turkey, at least not for the time being. Instead the Turkish government is interested in the Chinese equivalent of the Patriot. Turkey’s NATO allies were amazed. A NATO country with a Chinese weapon is something bizarre to begin with, but there are also practical objections. The Chinese system is simply not compatible with the NATO infrastructure. It does not connect to the early warning system of NATO, which is designed to protect Europe and Israel from evil plans made in Iran. In other words, Turkey can shoot with Chinese missiles, but is not able to locate its target.
Because the friend/foe detection system used by NATO does not connect with the Chinese air defense missiles, it is also difficult to combine them with Turkey’s F-16 fighter jets. Another complicating factor is that NATO does not want to see the top-secret data of the friend/foe system end up in Chinese hands. The Turkish plans will certainly be seen as a risk factor in this respect.
Turkey mentioned (acceptable) technology and low price as advantages of the Chinese proposition. The Turkish defense industry could also obtain valuable know-how through a deal with China. However, the advantages do not compensate for the incompatibility with systems used by other NATO countries. Ankara must be quite aware of this. It has been said that the Turkish government pretends interest in the Chinese system to push western weapon manufacturers into offering better delivery conditions. But even if that’s the case, it remains interesting that Turkey plays this maneuver through China.
The understanding between China and Turkey has its ups and downs. There’s a conflict about the Uighur people in the Xinjiang province, who are in cultural and religious ways related to Turks. The Turkish government supports their struggle for independence, which of course annoys China. Violent repression against protesting Uyghurs in 2009 was followed by sharp Turkish condemnations of China. PM Erdogan spoke of genocide, while his trade minister called for a boycott of Chinese products.
However, the following year relations between the two countries improved suddenly, resulting in agreements on trade and the exchange of technology. Furthermore, Turkey became a dialogue partner last year of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a Eurasian security organization of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The SCO treaty includes cultural and economic cooperation, but the members are also participating in collective military drills. In this respect the SCO is seen as a counterpart to NATO. That’s why international observers took it as quite extraordinary when Turkey established official relations with the SCO.
PM Erdogan described Turkey’s decision to become a dialogue partner of the SCO as a signal expressing the Turkish (im) patience concerning EU membership. Erdogan’s statement had something of a threat: speed up the EU accession process, or NATO loses a partner. The recent Turkish interest in air defense missiles manufactured in China is a similar signal.
But Turkey won’t resign from NATO overnight. Erdogan may have joked with Russian President Putin about full-fledged SCO membership for Turkey, but in the short run severe differences of opinion are ruling this possibility out. On Syria the approaches are extremely different for instance. Turkey wants an end to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime as soon as possible, while China, Russia and Iran (which has an observer status in the SCO) are having more understanding for the situation of the Syrian president - to say the least.
But the differences may be temporarily. In the long run Turkey could very well grow towards the SCO. The ‘international conspiracy’ government representatives were seeking behind Istanbul’s Gezi park protest is significant. The ease by which the US and the EU were believed to be part of a scheme against Turkey indicates the changes in the perception of the outside world. If this anti-western stance continues, European politicians may have to consider how, and in which form Turkey can be kept on board. Or in the longer run there may be the risk that this strategically situated country with its fast growing economy will be absorbed by an eastern sphere of influence.
From an anti-imperialist point of view it could of course be amusing to see NATO lose one of its most valued members. Yet, Turkey’s turn towards the East could also have grave effects on the human rights situation. For the SCO is not expected to punish Turkey for human right violations the way the European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) is used to. Therefore, a stronger alliance with the SCO will give free rein to undemocratic tendencies in Turkey. In other words, the move towards the East does not seem to augur very well for Turks cherishing western liberties and European democratic standards.
Peter Edel is an analyst and investigative journalist based in the Netherlands. He is a regular contributor to Boiling Frogs Post.