ISTANBUL— Ankara is facing mounting pressure from its NATO allies over its announcement that a Chinese company is favored to win a contract to co-produce a Turkish missile defense system. NATO's secretary general has now added his voice to the growing chorus of concern.
On Monday, Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned Ankara that any arms procurement it makes must be compatible with its allies. That comment follows Turkey's announcement that a Chinese company is favored to win the multi-billion-dollar missile defense system contract. Other NATO member states have voiced similar concerns.
But Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Levent Gumrukcu says it’s up to Turkey decide which weapons its buys.
"It is definitely, it’s going to be national capability first and foremost, and it’s going to be a national decision. In the end, whatever our decision is to be, we will make it compatible with our own defense and NATO defense as well, so there is no problem there," said Gumrukcu.
Ankara insists no final decision has been made, but that it is likely to sign a deal with China’s Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation. The Chinese firm's bid was significantly cheaper than its European and U.S. competitors, and it also offered technology transfers as part of the deal. Experts say making the Chinese system compatible with NATO systems is technologically feasible.
However, Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, says NATO is unlikely to agree.
"NATO allies will not allow a Chinese system to be integrated in sensitive infrastructure. There is a number of risks attached to it. One is that the work of integration will certainly involve a number experts from China and therefore there is fear some of the sensitive information will be obtained by China. And secondly, there is also a fear of potential cyber attacks through the integration of a Chinese system in this NATO infrastructure," said Ulgen.
Adding to U.S. concerns, the Chinese company is on a sanctions list over its dealings with countries like North Korea and Iran.
Kadri Gursel, diplomatic columnist for the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, says Ankara was probably well aware of NATO’s concerns before it expressed interest in buying the Chinese weapons system. He says politics are behind Ankara’s inclination to award the contract to China.
"Every procurement is a political choice when it comes to arms and defense. And then this is a major political step and this move shows another step towards distancing Turkey from the Western alliance, and this is major concern for the Western alliance," said Gursel.
Observers say the Turkish government has been reaching out beyond its traditional allies in Europe and Washington. Ankara, however, argues that such moves are not incompatible with its commitment to NATO.
Still, pressure is building on the Turkish government. Last week, President Abdullah Gul stressed that no final decision had been made on the missile defense system, and he underlined the importance of NATO membership.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Gumrukcu says his government is aware of the concerns of its NATO allies.
"We have not yet made our final decision, and then we are at this stage of making a final decision. Of course we will take into account all the necessary considerations and necessary factors," he said.
But with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan unhappy with NATO allies over its failure to intervene militarily in Syria, and similarly disillusioned with Brussels over stalled talks on Turkey's EU membership bid, observers say Erdogan may be less sensitive than in the past to the concerns of his military alliance partners.