Red flags over Turkey-China weapons deal

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As tensions in West Asia and Ukraine rose in recent years, Turkey moved to jointly manufacture a sophisticated missile defence system. The $3.4 billion plan would have given Turkey’s military more firepower and laid the foundation to start exporting missiles.

But Turkey abruptly abandoned the plan just weeks ago in the face of strong opposition from its allies in NATO.
Concerns in NATO

Their main objection: Turkey’s partner, a state-backed Chinese company. Western countries feared a loss of military secrets if Chinese technology were incorporated into Turkey’s air defences.

As one of its highest economic and foreign policy goals, China has laid out an extensive vision for close relations with Turkey and dozens of countries that were loosely connected along the Silk Road more than 1,000 years ago by land and seaborne trade. But Beijing’s effort to revive ancient trade routes, a plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative, is causing geopolitical strains, with countries increasingly worried about becoming too dependent on China.

With the missile deal, Turkey was turning toward China partly to reduce its reliance on NATO. “Our national interest and NATO’s may not be the same for some actions,” said Ismail Demir, Turkey’s undersecretary for national defence. But the deal immediately raised red flags in the West.

Besides the technology issues, the Chinese supplier, the China Precision Machinery Import Export Corp., was the target of Western sanctions for providing ballistic missile technology to Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Syria. So Turkish exports based on a partnership with China Precision could have also been subject to sanctions.

Complicating matters, China and Russia are close allies on many issues. Russia is especially distrusted in Turkey because of its military intervention in Syria and its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. And Turkey had been a close U.S. ally ever since it sent a large contingent of troops to fight North Korea and China during the Korean War.

Ethnic issues have further complicated China’s relations. Many countries in the region are Muslim, and versions of Turkish are spoken in more than a dozen countries, partly a legacy of the Ottoman Empire.

That history has fanned regional tensions over Beijing’s stringent policies toward the Uighurs, Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region who speak a Turkic language. Beijing has blamed Uighurs for a series of attacks on Han Chinese from eastern China.

When China suppressed Uighur protests in 2009, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister at the time, condemned the actions as “a kind of genocide.” Last July, Turks and Uighurs held two rounds of protests in Istanbul and Ankara.
Technology sharing

Now the President of Turkey, Mr. Erdogan is prioritising ties with China. He calmed the anti-Chinese protests last summer by urging his countrymen to be wary of rumours on social media about China’s treatment of the Uighurs.

Turkish military analysts compared a long list of variables, like missile range and the willingness to share technology and manufacturing. The analysis was approved by a committee including the Defence Minister, generals and Mr. Erdogan, Mr. Demir said.

Within days of the announcement about China’s leading bid, NATO member countries organised a campaign to overturn the decision. President Barack Obama, Western European heads of state and top NATO commanders contacted Turkish leaders.

NATO officials have been cautious, saying any country has a right to choose its own equipment. But they have publicly expressed concern that Chinese missiles might not be compatible with NATO equipment — and privately that they were loath to share technical details to make compatibility possible.

Last month, Turkey opted to go ahead on its own. It will probably subcontract some components to foreign manufacturers, possibly China Precision.

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