Turkey Looking Less And Less Likely To Finalize Controversial Chinese Air Defense Deal
Amid the continuing controversy over Turkey's selection of a Chinese company to build a sensitive air defense system, Turkey's top state defense industry official has been demoted and there are reports Ankara may be considering trying to build the whole thing itself.
Recall that the controversy began in September, when after a drawn-out competition, Turkey announced that it had chosen the Chinese HQ-9 air and missile defense system. The Chinese system was competing against ones from Russia, the U.S., and Europe, so the competition appeared to have -- rightly or wrongly -- a geopolitical component. Turkey's announcement resulted in a significant amount of U.S. and NATO pressure; Turkey's Western partners are concerned about the possibility that China could gain sensitive NATO data via the system.
Over the last month or so, there have been several indications that Turkey is rethinking its choice. Unnamed sources told the newspaper Hurriyet that the U.S. and European companies that lost out are considering changing their offer to give Turkey more of the sensitive technology involved in building the system (a key Turkish criterion for the program and one which the Chinese company, by all accounts, was best at). That also, though, would increase the price (and the Chinese system was already cheaper).
And there have been many indications that Western pressure on Turkey is having an effect. Hurriyet also reported that Aselsan, the Turkish company that would produce the system together with the Chinese company, was worried about possible problems related to U.S. sanctions on the Chinese company. And the state defense industry may be changing its mind, as well:
More importantly, Turkey’s procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM), may have distanced itself from the Chinese option in recent times. “We think that the SSM now has a more NATO-centric view over the competition, not just military,” a Turkish security official dealing with NATO said.
Most intriguingly, the long-time head of the SSM, Murad Bayar, lost his job at the end of March. He was reappointed to a new, lower-ranking position, and his demotion may have had to do with the botched procurement, according to Turkish defense analyst Lale Kemal. Her sources paint an interesting picture: that Bayar arranged the competition in such a way to make the Chinese firm more attractive to the ultimate decisionmaker, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Bayar's aim was to force the U.S. and European bidders to improve their terms, but it backfired, Kemal suggested. "Some have claimed that Bayar embarrassed Erdoğan by laying the groundwork to convince him to select China. Hence, Erdoğan is understood to have been angry over Bayar's alleged manipulation of the tender, which prompted him to favor China. Embarrassed and angry, Erdoğan might have removed Bayar from his position as top arms procurement official," she wrote.
Whatever the case, Bayar's exit appears to have slowed down the procurement process. While Turkey was supposed to make a final decision on the Chinese bid by April 30, that deadline is now impossible to meet, and the negotiations may be dragged out through the summer.
And one option being weighed is, apparently, none of the above, as Aselsan believes it may be able to produce the system without outside assistance, reports Hurriyet:
“The company is meticulously weighing the merits and demerits of local production,” one senior official said. “At this moment we do not know whether this is a technically and financially feasible. But we cannot rule that out.”
An Aselsan official confirmed the company is working to assess an indigenous solution for what would become Turkey’s first long-range air and anti-missile defense system. “We have [technologically] progressed remarkably over the past few years. We think that the work here may not be beyond our engineering capabilities.” But some defense industry sources say the work may be beyond Aselsan’s capabilities and take too long to finish. “No doubt, Aselsan’s recent work is impressive. But this program may be a little bit too tough. I fear the work may take much longer than planned, and prove to be very expensive if done locally,” said one London-based Turkey specialist.
Whatever happens, it's looking less and less likely that the Chinese deal is going to go through.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.