Turkey is looking beyond NATO for long-range anti-missiles and air defence systems, and it is gazing towards China. While the Turks reserve the right to choose their own air defence, NATO officials sounded their surprise over the matter, emphasising that the Chinese weaponry lacks inter-operatability with existing NATO architecture. Ignoring NATO’s discontent motivation behind Ankara’s recent spin towards China remains to be seen.
Other than China’s Precision Machinery Export-Import Corp.’s HQ-9, contenders for Turkish purchase include a US Patriot Air Defence System, Russia’s Rosoboronexport’s S-300 and Italian-French Eurosam’s SAMP/T Aster 30. Two of which are from NATO members. For Turkey, the appeal of China’s proposal lies in its low cost figures and its potential for developing an independent Turkish air defence programme.
The Sino-Turkish deal, if carried out, would be a win-win scenario for both parties. China would break into an arms market monopolised perviously by the US and Russia. Yet, behind these overt mutual gains lies the real motivation for both countries. Turkey and China both share common geopolitical and economic interests.
Recently, Turkey has publically offered its support to China’s containment policy in the north-western Xinjiang autonomous region, where the majority Uyghur ethnic population seeks separation from Beijing. Turkey has since declared its backing for an intact and united China. This is aligned with former President Abdullah Gul’s and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s visit to China in 2009 and subsequently in 2010, where both openly declared opposition to Xinjiang independence
However, recent alignment does not straighten out past contentions. Previously, Uyghur riots were met with Turkish pro-independence backing and population protests. Such a contradicting stance is not surprising considering Turkey’s historical and ethnic ties with the Uyghurs who are a subset of the Turkic ethnic group with a large diasporas in Turkey.
During 2009 Uyghur riot in Xinxiang, Erdogan criticised the Chinese government, calling Uyghur crackdown an act of genocide. Subsequently, he urged Turks to boycott Chinese products.
This reaction was the result of Turkey’s not getting the better end of the bargain. Initially, Turkey sought out relations with China to gain its vote on the Cyprus issue, cheap arms and robust trade in return for Turkish support on Beijing’s separation problem. Instead, Turkey was left without China’s backing for Cyprus, little advances in military technology sharing and a heavy trade deficit. Turkey imports 22 billion in USD of goods annually from China, whereas China only imports 3 billion in USD from Turkey. Turkey invests mainly in Xinjiang’s regional economy, striking several birds with one stone.
By direct investment in Uyghur economy, Turkey generates profits for its nation; appeases the Uyghur population by investment and cooperation and fulfils its support for Chinese sovereignty.
Beijing needs Turkish support too in order to wipe out the alleged Uyghur separatists’ bases in Turkey. Recently, Beijing media outlets pointed out that Uyghur Muslim extremists have trained some elements of Syrian rebels. China is distancing itself from blame of spill over of domestic unrest to other countries.
Having said that, Turkey’s real dilemma is not one between China and NATO, but one between its economic ambitions and its ethnic solidarity with Uyghur people. Choosing the former is going to lock Turkey into a weapon-trading relation with China. However, all this weapon talk could prove to be a red herring. By considering the Chinese option, Turks are looking for a cheaper deal from other contenders. Perhaps, Turkey is not ‘betraying’ NATO; rather it is getting the best of the both worlds.