ISTANBUL // The United States is “seriously concerned” about Turkey’s decision to counter possible missile threats from Syria and elsewhere with the help of a Chinese defence system.
The declaration by Francis Ricciardone, the US ambassador in Ankara, is the latest sign of tensions between Turkey and its Nato allies and shows concern in western capitals about a growing distance from its traditional partners in Europe and the US.
Ankara said last month it would enter into talks with a Chinese corporation about co-production of a long-range air and missile defence system.
In doing so, Turkey turned down bids by companies from the US, Europe and Russia for the deal, valued at US$4 billion (Dh14.7bn) according to reports. The reports said the Chinese company won because it offered a competitive price and the possibility of a technology transfer during the joint production of the missile defence system known as FD-2000.
But Turkey’s preference to deal with the China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC) is threatening to create problems with the West.
“Yes, this is a commercial decision ... It’s Turkey’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about defence acquisitions or anything else,” said Mr Ricciardone. “There is no challenge, there’s no disagreement between us but we are seriously concerned about what this means for allied missile air defence.”
Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this week insisted that Turkey had a right to make procurement decisions based on its own national interests and without Nato interference.
“Nato statements or statements from any country are not determining [what Turkey will do] in this issue,” Mr Erdogan said. “No one has the right to throw a shadow over our understanding of independence.”
Mr Erdogan rejected warnings from Nato that Chinese weapons would be incompatible with the equipment of other alliance members.
Turkey has Nato’s second largest armed forces after the US military, but lacks a missile defence system of its own.
At Turkey’s request, Nato deployed US-made Patriot missile defence batteries from the US, Germany and the Netherlands along the Turkish border with Syria earlier this year as a shield against possible missile attacks.
In addition, Turkey hosts a US radar installation that is part of Nato’s missile shield and that can be used as an early warning system against possible threats against the West from Iran.
But Turkey, a rising regional power, is determined to build up its own military capabilities.
Nato’s 28 member states work under a principle of integrated weapons systems to ensure that troops from different members countries can work together smoothly in joint operations. Ankara’s decision to enter into talks with a Chinese company carries the risk of making Turkish weapons useless in a Nato context, alliance officials say.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s secretary general, said this week it was “of utmost importance that the systems nations plan to acquire can work and operate together with similar systems in other allied nations”.
US Gen Frederick Ben Hodges, commander of Nato land forces, told the CNN-Turk news channel that Nato would not allow a Chinese system to be integrated into its own weapons systems.
The Turkish government says it has not yet signed an agreement with the Chinese company, which is under sanctions from Washington for co-operating with Iran, North Korea and Syria. But Murad Bayar, undersecretary of defence industries at the Turkish defence ministry, said earlier this month that Ankara could finalise the deal with CPMIEC within six months.
Nilsu Goren, of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland in the US, said the Turkish decision was driven by a determination to make progress in the field of technological know-how.
“The procurement strategy suggests that Turkey’s top priority is technology transfer, rather than the rapid acquisition of an off-the-shelf system to immediately address Turkey’s security needs,” she wrote in a paper published this week for the Centre for Economic and Policy Studies, a think tank in Istanbul.
It is not the first time that the Erdogan government has been out of step with its western allies. In 2009, Mr Erdogan broke ranks with Turkey’s partners in the alliance when he opposed Mr Rasmussen’s candidacy for the post of Nato secretary general, although it accepted him. In 2010, Turkey, with Brazil, brokered a deal that was supposed to end the row over Iran’s nuclear programme but was rejected by the West.
Mustafa Sonmez, an economist and political commentator in Istanbul, said the Turkish government felt under pressure by the US because Washington was uneasy about Ankara’s ambitions to become an independent regional power in the Middle East.
In this situation, the Erdogan government was using the Chinese missile decision to signal to the West how important Turkey really was, Mr Sonmez said. “They show them the China and Iran card,” he said. “But they are only bluffing.”
Turkish news reports this week said Ankara was preparing to buy more than 100 US-made military helicopters for $3.5bn.
The concerns over the missile deal comes ahead of the resumption of talks next month on Turkey’s bid to join the European Union.
* With additional reporting by Reuters