November 05, 2013

Global Insights: Money, Not Realignment, Drives China-Turkey Missile Defense Deal

Turkey’s decision to buy a Chinese-made air-and-missile defense system has aroused undue anxiety about Ankara’s ties with Beijing. While the purchase of the untested Chinese system is unhelpful from the perspective of NATO interoperability as well as Turkey’s protection, Ankara and Beijing see the deal primarily as a business transaction rather than as a precursor to closer security ties. The Chinese firm simply offered better co-production, technology transfer and pricing terms than did the competitors.

Turkey’s acquisition program aims to establish a national air-and-missile defense system that can intercept incoming ballistic missiles inside the atmosphere. On Sept. 26, after years of discussions and changing tender terms, the executive committee of the Turkish Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, chaired by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that Turkey had selected China’s FD-2000 surface-to-air missile—the export version of the HongQi-9—as its preferred choice over the competing systems on offer. These included the U.S. Patriot, Europe’s Aster 30 SAMP/T and Russia’s S-300. Under the terms of its $3.4 billion bid, the China Precision Machinery Export Import Corporation (CPMIEC) will provide four batteries capable of firing up to 288 surface-to-air FD-2000 missiles. The parties expect to sign the final contract next year, with the first FD-2000 delivery occurring in 2017.

In explaining Turkey’s choice, some analysts have pointed to the strained relations between Ankara and its traditional Western partners over such issues as the shift under Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) away from Turkey’s traditional strict secular policies; frustrations over Turkey’s stalled European Union membership application; or tensions over the West’s reluctance to intervene more decisively in Syria. But one of the major pillars of Turkish foreign policy for the past decade under the AKP has been to diversify Turkey’s partnerships with other countries. Turkish-China ties have been a clear beneficiary.

Chinese analysts consider Turkey an increasingly important country for China due to its growing economy, increasingly independent and influential diplomacy, and pivotal geopolitical location between Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East. In addition, they view Turkey’s moderate, stable and secular political system as a preferable model for the overtly Islamic-oriented governments currently emerging in Eurasia and the Middle East, compared to the less stable regime in their client state of Pakistan and the aggressively extremist form of Islamic government in Iran. 

Conversely, there are many reasons Turkey wants good relations with China. Above all, Ankara wants to develop economic ties, especially to attract Chinese investment to help develop Turkey’s energy and transportation sectors. In addition, China’s status as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council gives Beijing considerable say over issues of concern to Ankara, including Cyprus, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East peace process. Furthermore, Chinese officials refrain from attacking Ankara’s policies toward the Kurds, talking about an Armenian genocide, criticizing Turkey’s repression of media freedoms or otherwise interfering in Turkey’s internal affairs. Finally, good ties with China could give Ankara leverage with other countries.

Even so, the main reasons for Ankara’s FD-2000 decision are commercial. This is nothing new. Chinese-Turkish military cooperation began in the 1990s after Ankara turned to Beijing following failed negotiations with the United States to co-produce, with technology transfer, the M-270 Multiple Launch Rocket System. Turkey then negotiated to manufacture, under license, the Chinese WS-1 302mm and TR-3000 rockets, as well as the B-611 short-range surface-to-surface missile.  

Although the FD-2000 is not battle-tested like the Patriot, and its reported range and effectiveness is less than that of the competing systems, China’s bid was reportedly $1 billion less than those of the competition. Most importantly, China has offered to co-produce the systems in Turkey and transfer defense technology in the process, meeting Turkey’s long-standing preference to improve the capacity of its national defense industry. 

Other countries are also turning to Beijing for weapons, as China is becoming a legitimate player in the global arms market. In March of this year, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that China had become the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter from 2008 to 2012. During these years, the volume of China’s major conventional weapons exports of warplanes, warships, missiles and artillery surged by 162 percent. Chinese products fill a niche for countries that either cannot buy Western arms due to sanctions or other reasons, or for those seeking “good enough weapons” that are less expensive than better competing systems. 

The bilateral relationship between China and Turkey is nowhere near as extensive as, for example, the broad and deep ties each has with the United States and Europe. Indeed, Turkey and China could easily become commercial rivals in third markets. This includes in the global arms market, where Turkey is making a major effort to boost its arms sales, which have increased from $600 million in 2008 to $1.26 billion in 2012. Although Turkey has strengthened ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in which China has the greatest influence, Ankara’s role in the organization has remained limited. Turkey was not even invited to send a representative to this summer’s SCO heads-of-state meeting. Among other matters, Turkey’s position regarding Syria strongly differs from that of the core SCO members, which besides China includes Russia and four Central Asian countries. 

Meanwhile, despite the planned FD-2000 purchase, Turkey’s support for NATO’s region-wide missile defense architecture continues. In particular, Turkey is hosting an advanced AN/TPY-2 X-band missile-tracking radar in the Malatya-Kurecik region near Iran, while NATO ships on missile defense patrols enjoy access to Turkey’s Mediterranean ports. 

Although for now anxieties regarding Turkey-China security ties are exaggerated, Turkey would have done better to purchase the superior Patriot system, which is currently defending Turkish skies from Syrian air strikes. If NATO commanders continue to insist that they will not connect a Chinese-made system to NATO’s integrated missile defense architecture, Turkey will lose time and money developing its own detection, tracking and cueing systems. 

Still, NATO policymakers should behave judiciously when challenging Ankara’s decision. Attacking Ankara in public is ineffective since it just leads the Turkish government to pursue a policy of stubborn defiance and indignation. Instead, they should give Turkish officials some space to reconsider their FD-2000 procurement decision on technical grounds. In the long term, Western governments and defense firms also need to improve their own arms transfer and integrated procurement policies to keep Turkey and other clients from turning elsewhere. 

The China-Turkey relationship looks to become even more important in coming years, due to the two countries’ status as rising global powers and their current governments’ inclination to embrace new partnerships and opportunities. But Turkey’s security anchor remains NATO even as its procurement officials pursue cost savings and technology transfers wherever they can find them.