Turkey Finally Abandons Controversial Chinese Missile Deal
The long-running drama over Turkey's controversial decision to buy a Chinese missile system appears to have ended with a move to scrap the purchase altogether.
An unnamed Turkish official told Reuters on Sunday that the $3.4 billion program has been canceled. Daily Sabah, a pro-government newspaper, cited its own sources saying that Turkey would now pursue building the system by itself.
The program had been a geopolitical touchstone, with the original competition pitting four competitors from the U.S., Russia, China, and a European consortium. The announcement, in 2013, that Ankara was choosing the Chinese HQ-9 air defense system, set off a massive, twisting controversy. Ankara's original justification for choosing the Chinese system was that it was the cheapest, and also included the most generous offers of technology transfer, which would allow Turkey to acquire the blueprints for the system so that it could eventually build its own system.
But that decision angered Turkey's NATO partners, which objected that they couldn't integrate the Chinese system into NATO's larger air defense umbrella because it could compromise the security of NATO data. Many in China and Turkey complained that this was merely a pretext, and that Western governments were trying to bully Ankara into choosing a European system for commercial reasons.
Turkish officials, over the intervening two years, have issued a variety of statements suggesting that they were now leaning toward reversing the decision and choosing the European system, or that they were in fact committed to China. There was even a suggestion by several Turkish officials that the deal would be linked to a supplier country's non-recognition of the Armenian genocide. The deal was still alive as recently as August, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited China with the deal as part of the agenda. CNN Turk reported that the final stumbling block with China was actually the question of technology transfer, but it's not clear why the European variant is no longer being considered.
Meanwhile, one could argue that Turkey's air defense needs have become significantly more pressing since 2013, with the rise of Daesh and the escalating Syrian civil war on their border. In the last couple of months the situation has become even more urgent, after several run-ins with Russian aircraft in their airspace, and the U.S. and other NATO allies ending a temporary deployment of Patriot air defense batteries to Turkey's border with Syria.
So what now? Even the boosterish Daily Sabah acknowledged that "Turkish defense companies ... are not yet capable of producing long-range missile systems." Nevertheless, Ankara may have decided that the diplomatic trouble it would face for whatever decision it now took wasn't worth the trouble.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.