If Turkey wants COVID-19 to be a window of opportunity
Turkey’s Kale Group, which produces the engine parts for F-35 fighter jets, stands to be one of the companies most affected by a U.S. decision to suspend Turkish participation in the multinational production program of the fifth-generation warplanes.
The decision, which Washington took last summer after parts of the Russian S-400 anti-ballistic missiles began arriving in Turkey, left the company in limbo in terms of its production timetable through to 2022.
“The orders through to 2022 have not been canceled; we are continuing to produce. In fact, this is one area in which we have not put our production on hold,” Kale Group President and CEO Zeynep Bodur Okyay told a group of journalists on May 18.
“We thought halting production would have harmed our reliability and thought we should continue under whatever circumstances,” she said during the online press conference in which she explained how the group has been handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
The company has not received new orders since March, she added.
Frankly, I would be surprised if there are any new orders until a formula is found to convince Washington, which insists it will not accept anything short of a credible guarantee that Ankara will not activate the S-400 system.
Just as the United States refused to hand over two F-35 planes to the Turkish army even though Turkey had already paid for them, the Kale Group could have been told to stop the ongoing production. It was probably too complicated to replace the firm, and the COVID-19 pandemic has doubtlessly made the search for a replacement even more difficult.
While the pandemic has had an adverse effect on the group’s production in some areas, it has helped it in their defense production.
Similarly, while trying to handle the negative consequences, Turkey is also trying to turn the pandemic into an opportunity. Indeed, the pandemic opens a window of opportunity for the country, but making the best of it will be easier said than done, especially if the country’s ruling elites think it’s possible to make an omelet without breaking eggs.
To start with, declaring the postponement of the activation of the S-400s due to COVID-19 will not suffice; unsurprisingly, it has failed to assuage Washington.
Likewise, it is going to take much more than sending masks and medical equipment to mend fences with Western capitals.
According to Ufuk Ulutaş, the director of the Foreign Ministry’s Strategic Research Center (SAM), there are signs that Turkey could continue its relations with the United States within a more “positive framework.” Speaking to daily Milliyet, Ulutaş justified his point by pointing to a letter from U.S. Congress members thanking Turkey for its medical assistance.
He is right to say that it has been a long time since Congress has sent a positive message about Turkey. But it seems he avoided talking about another letter – the one sent by members of Congress to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, urging the administration to engage with Ankara to secure the release of political prisoners in Turkey.
Turkey’s ruling elites won’t like to hear it, but democratic backpedaling is going to be a significant obstacle to seizing the opportunities that COVID-19 is presenting.
Turkey is approaching these opportunities from a purely economic point of view. It no longer hides its wish to replace China on the supply chain. The pandemic has provided a renewed wakeup call to the West about its overdependence on Asia in sectors like textiles (when it comes to masks) as well as pharmaceuticals, with Western capitals realizing their shortages for simple pills like paracetamol.
While the jury is still out on a final ruling given that the fight against the pandemic won’t be over for some time, the overwhelming view is that Turkey has succeeded in handling the health crisis. As a result, it has shown that it can sail its boat in uncharted waters during unexpected storms. This resilience against the crisis should be presented as an asset in order to become a production hub replacing China.
Currently, Turkey can best prepare for the upcoming economic storm only if it can convince its partners, and that depends on the credibility of its messages, as well as its deeds, not words. Turkey can be a better business partner if it is more democratic, that is not the case with the West's other anti-democratic trade partners.
When Western capitals and companies display hesitation in trusting Turkey due to the high number of jailed journalists and activists like Osman Kavala, they do so not because they are in love with the press or respect human rights.
Otherwise, how can you explain their dealings with China, whose prisons have no shortage of political prisoners?
The crux of the matter is the rule of law. If they are convinced that the rule is bent to imprison dissidents and obstruct the workings of opposition-run municipalities, they feel there is no guarantee that the law will not be bent against them one day.
Turkey could well miss its opportunity if its decision-makers were to make the mistake of assuming that fundamental democratic principles will fall by the wayside in the post-COVID-19 era.