Did Turkey Just Let a Chinese Trojan Horse into NATO?

Why buy Red missiles?

The Turkish government’s recent decision to award its high-altitude missile defense contract to China conjured images of the residents of Troy rejoicing the large, Greek-made wooden horse near the end of the Trojan Wars. That story did not have a pleasant end for the Trojans. It is not clear how this one will play out for Ankara and its NATO allies.

Turkey’s decision to choose the Chinese-made FD-2000 over the U.S.-made Patriot PAC-3, the Russian-made S-400, and the French-Italian EUROSAM SAMP/T may seem odd for a country that has been a member of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) since 1952. 22 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, commitment to NATO and good relations with Washington remain the cornerstones of Ankara’s foreign policy calculus. That calculation seems irreconcilable with the fact that the manufacturer of the FD-2000, CPMIEC (China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation), is under U.S. sanctions for doing business with Iran, Syria, and North Korea.

In fact, Turkey had signaled its intent to choose the Chinese system over the Western and Russian alternatives in July. At the time, many Western officials, including NATO defense attachés in Ankara, had expressed “shock” by the possibility that a U.S. ally would buy its missile shield from America’s next top rival.

But if we accept that military procurement, just like war, is a continuation of politics by other means, then Ankara’s decision makes sense.

When allegations emerged last August that the military forces of President Bashar al-Assad carried out chemical attacks outside Damascus, Turkish Prime Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu urged Washington to attack the Syrian regime. Instead, the United States and Russia agreed to dismantle Assad’s chemical weapons program, which infuriated Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. Then came the signs of a rapprochement between the United States and Iran, despite the latter’s continuing support for the Assad regime. Looking at that picture, the decision to purchase the FD-2000 can be read as a Turkish warning to its U.S. ally.

Rather than a kneejerk reaction to disappointment in the United States, Turkey’s decision may have been the result of its long-standing need for an independent missile-defense capability. Two years ago, Ankara went to great lengths to borrow Patriot batteries from NATO allies to defend its southern borders against Syria’s ballistic missiles. Just as it was the case on the eve of the Iraq War in 2002-3, NATO allies were reluctant to transfer Patriot batteries to Turkey.

But rather than boosting Turkish security, the Patriots seem to have undermined it. Even before the U.S., German, and Dutch-operated batteries were deployed in southern Turkey in early 2012, Iran criticized Ankara for hosting a missile defense “managed by America and the Zionists.” Some overzealous Iranian officials even threatened to attack Turkey. Looking at that picture, it would be wise of Turkey to obtain an independent missile-defense capability.

For Ankara, the FD-2000 comes with other bonuses. Together with Pakistan, China has been helping Turkey’s ballistic-missile program for over a decade. In the recent missile-defense tender, Beijing bent over backwards to accommodate Ankara’s requests for technology transfer and a price discount. According to Turkish press reports, the Chinese agreed to share know-how and to decrease the price of the FD-2000 from $4 billion to $3 billion. (Whether a 25 percent discount will mean a decrease in the quality of the final product is a different matter.)

But not everything about the Turkish decision makes sense. A missile-defense shield is essentially trying to shoot a bullet with another bullet. It is not clear whether the Chinese system could provide those things as effectively as America’s battle-tested Patriot or Russia’s well-reviewed S-400. The Istanbul-based legal scholar and defense expert Bleda Kurtdarcan agrees: “The ‘Made in China’ label, still associated with cheap but low-quality products in Turkish minds, works against the FD-2000.” “Add to that the rumors that the FD-2000 was reverse-engineered from the Russian S-300,” Kurtdarcan adds, “the Chinese system seems less appealing.”

Even more important is the question of whether a Chinese-made missile defense system can achieve interoperability with Turkey’s existing network of air-defense radars, a problem that could negate the FD-2000’s advantages. Turkish radars are part of NATO’s Integrated Air Defense System, which operate the “Identify Friend or Foe” (IFF) software. The IFF data is top secret and it is highly unlikely that Turkey’s NATO allies would upload that information on to a Chinese-made weapons platform, lest Beijing were to acquire them.

So why would Ankara buy a missile shield which won’t contribute to their existing air defense assets? And why would China even sell such a sophisticated weapon to Turkey and risk handing over its military secrets to a U.S. ally (and, by extension, the United States)?

The answers are not clear. Kurtdarcan suggests that the FD-2000, rather than acting as a Chinese Trojan horse in NATO, could be a “double Trojan horse” that works for both sides. The Turkish acquisition of the FD-2000 would give the U.S. military insight into China’s more advanced antimissile systems. Conversely, by selling Ankara the FD-2000, which is the export variant of its more advanced HQ-9 system, Beijing may be trying to fool the United States about its true capabilities. “During the Cold War,” Kurtdarcan reminds us, “the Soviet Union often modified its different weapon systems, especially the ones it exported to Third World allies such as Egypt and Syria, to confuse the United States.” “The Chinese may be doing the same thing today.”

Sun Tzu would have been proud that his descendants would use a scheme similar to the Trojan horse against their adversaries. However, there is always the possibility that Turkey could yield to its NATO allies’ pressures and cancel the tender or, after purchasing the FD-2000, it could let its NATO allies (read: the United States) have a close look at the new missile-defense system. At any rate, whether Beijing will gain much by selling the FD-2000 to Ankara and whether Turkey’s decision marks a clear shift in its foreign policy are not clear. At this time, it is too soon to tell if the story of the Trojan horse will repeat itself.

Barın Kayaoğlu is finishing his doctorate in history at the University of Virginia. He was recently a Smith Richardson Foundation fellow in International Security Studies at Yale University. You can follow him on www.barinkayaoglu.com, Twitter (@barinkayaoglu), and Facebook (Barın Kayaoğlu).

Image: Wikipedia/Jian Kang. CC BY 3.0.