China missile deal ‘sign of Turks’ frustration with US’

China missile deal ‘sign of Turks’ frustration with US’

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
China missile deal ‘sign of Turks’ frustration with US’

It is not technically and politically feasible to expect that the military deal with China will ever be finalized, says Serhat Güvenç adding Turkey’s arm procurement past is full of unfinished contracts. DAILY NEWS photos, Hasan ALTINIŞIK

Turkey’s decision to choose China for a missile defense system demonstrates Ankara frustration with its American ally, according to a scholar. 

The two allies policies on Syria and Egypt differ, while Washington’s unusually critical stance on anti-government protests in Turkey has increased Ankara’s frustration, said Dr. Serhat Güvenç of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. 

How do you evaluate Turkey’s decision to buy missile defense systems from China?

Acquiring this system is actually a belated decision, whose past goes back 20-25 years. Each time we faced a crisis, we relied on NATO, and probably the expectation of using NATO’s capabilities also delayed the decision. Currently, we are trying to build our own means. Looking from the political point of view, the choice of China is not a suprise. Look at what happened between Turkey and the United States in the last couple of months. The May visit of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] to Washington was not as successful as publicized. There was some reaction building up; the choice of China was a manifestation of this frustration on the part of Ankara.

So you believe it was rather a political decision. 

It was a political decision, but not without a military and strategic component of course. There is preoccupation or obsession in Turkey to build everything locally, nationally. From that perspective, the decision makes perfect sense. The Chinese have offered better conditions than any other bidders in terms of transfers and the share of know-how, et cetera. Yet, while there are compatibility problems, there are also political problems. 

Why is there a buildup of frustration, and is it with the United States or the West in general? 

Here, the principal audience was the U.S. There is frustration over Syria and Egypt. Over Syria, the Turkish and American positions are not compatible and actually, there was very little overlap until a couple of weeks ago. 

Turkey could not [bring] its allies into the picture for an international intervention for a regime change. Turkey has been consistently championing an intervention for a regime change whereas [U.S. President Barack] Obama expressed his readiness to carry out only a limited, punitive intervention from the air which was way short of Turkey’s expectations. And Turkey’s favorite actors on the ground are Washington’s terrorists. There was this unbridgeable gap between the strategic calculations of two allies that brought them to loggerheads with each other. And I think Egypt was the final straw. The problems reached a tipping point; but it was brewing. I think the recent domestic, social developments in Turkey obviously aggravated the situation. In the Gezi Park events, Washington’s stance was unusually critical of the AKP [Justice and Development Party] government. It should be considered an important turning point in Obama’s view of Turkey and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

So what is exactly Turkey saying by opting for China, in view of the fact that the decision is yet to be finalized?

It can be regarded as an attempt to put on a brave face and to show that Turkey can take decisions independently [of its allies]. 

I doubt that it will ever be finalized. It is not technically and politically feasible to expect that the deal will ever be finalized. 

This was a way of showing that Turkey could act independently and that its national interests matter more than anything else. But there are implications about alliance solidarity. 

Turkey is now enjoying protection afforded by the allies in the form of Patriot missiles; six batteries are deployed in Turkey. Alliance solidarity is on display. Consider a situation when Poland needs the deployment of similar missiles. Let’s assume that Turkey bought those Chinese missiles and they could be operated without being integrated into NATO’s air defense system. If Poland needs the help of its allies, Turkey will not be able to contribute because it would have a standalone system which [won’t be any use to] any NATO member other than itself. 

But experts say it can be technically interoperable.

On two conditions: provided that the U.S. allows Turkey to have access to the source codes of other integrated systems and provided that China is willing to share its secret technology with Turkey so that Turkey can tinker with the system to make it compatible with the NATO system. This is difficult for both U.S. and China to accept. 

Insisting on the Chinese option will give a very profound signal, especially to Turkey’s Western partners, that Turkey is shifting its axis. You cannot get away with such decision.

Is China seen as a foe?

“Foe” would be too strong a [definition] but China is a potential adversary. And also, we have to keep in mind that NATO Secretary-General [Anders Fogh Rasmussen] came up with two new concepts; smart defense and connected forces. The latter implies far deeper integration than exists at present. In a world of shrinking defense budgets, he has been urging allies to rationalize their arms procurement, and this implies closer cooperation. 

The Turkish decision stands in stark contrast to that trend. It shows that we don’t take into consideration the alliance when we make such an important decision.

Members like Turkey, Britain and France would probably want to maintain a residual national capability. That is understandable because they have businesses to take care in other parts of the world. Smart defense is mostly for small- to medium-size member states. But this does not [mean] that important members [can] be totally oblivious to this principle.

What does it tell us about Turkish foreign policy thinking?

That brings us to the issue of being a lone wolf. If you go to recent public opinion surveys, the Turkish public prefers a lone wolf behavior; [the belief is that] Turkey does not have friends to rely on, so it has to stand on its own. Especially when Turkey’s relations are deteriorating with the EU or the U.S., Turks tend to fall back on their lone-wolf position, hoping that it will offer a way out to the dilemmas and frustrations about the West.

In the Western security community, we have two pillars. One is Washington, the other is EU. For about two decades, Turkey has been oscillating between the two. 

In order to enlarge its room to maneuver and latitude for action, alternatives have been explored; that’s been true since the early days of the republic. Non-Western alternatives have always been [explored]. Experiencing lows in relations with the U.S. and EU is the principal reason why Turks look for non-Western alternatives. In 10 years we are back to the Eurasia option; remember [then-National Security Council Secretary-General] Tuncer Kılıç’s statement in 2002, asking to give up on EU and forging alliances with Iran and Russia.

Ten years ago the Eurasian alternative was Russia-focused; now it is on China. Ten years later it could be India or some other non-Western power. The yearning for being a lone wolf has revived.

But Turkey has been part of NATO for 60 years and did not leave the alliance since it probably benefited from it.

Turkey became part of NATO two years before Germany. Turks should keep this in mind. And of course, Turkey benefited and benefits are mutual. Bbut there is a sort of schizophrenic relationship: We feel part of it but also not part of it.

What do you think of the current Western reaction?

My impression is that they decided to keep a very low profile on it. They don’t want to get embroiled in a domestic agenda, especially when the Turkish domestic scene is pretty loaded with upcoming elections. But I think common sense will prevail, and Turkey will backtrack. 

I think Turkey overplayed its cards.

What will be the consequences if it insists on the China option?

Turkey will need to sell all of the U.S.-built military hardware it possesses at the time. U.S.-built fighters would be identified as neutral at best by the Chinese system. Let me recall that in 2005, Israel tried to sell very sensitive high-tech military equipment to China and the U.S. undermined the deal. This should give you an idea of [what will happen].

So you think relations with the West will be jeopardized? Some think Turkey is not expendable for the U.S.

Israel is as important but its deal with China was blocked twice. Sticking to the decision will have huge strategic consequences, and it will jeopardize relations with the U.S. I don’t think Americans will ever be able to accept that decision. The history of Turkey’s arms procurement and co-production deals are full of unfinished major military contracts, included bids awarded to American companies.


Serhat Güvenç earned his BA in international relations and MA in European Studies at Marmara University and his PhD in political science and international relations at Boğaziçi University. In 2004, he became the first Turkish scholar awarded a fellowship to the West Point Summer Seminar in military history. 

Güvenç is currently an associate professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. Previously, he worked at Istanbul Bilgi University and also taught at the University of Chicago as a visiting assistant professor of history in 2006. 

Güvenç’s research interests include Turkish foreign and security policy, Turkish defense policy and modern Turkish military/naval history. He is the author of “Birinci Dünya Savaşı’na Giden Yolda Osmanlıların Drednot Düşleri” (the Ottomans’ Quest for Dreadnoughts on the eve of the First World War) and “Turkey in the Mediterranean during the Interwar Era: The Paradox of Middle Power Diplomacy and Minor Power Naval Policy.” 

In a previous professional incarnation Güvenç worked as the Istanbul-based photographer and correspondent for Warships International Fleet Review between 1999 and 2003. He was a partner and an editor of the now defunct “Kanatlar” (Wings) aerospace journal in 2002-2003. As an aviation and naval affairs writer and researcher, he has made photo and text contributions to publications such as Air Forces Monthly, Air International, Airliners World, Military Technology, U.S. Naval War College Review, Zipper and Savunma ve Havacılık.