A tumultuous week it has been, the one that just moved away. It began with United States president Barack Obama’s speech in the UN General Assembly last Monday signaling that the era of American dominance of the Middle East is ending. But the signal is already being acted upon before the week ended.
That is what the stunning announcement in Ankara on Thursday signifies – over the decision by the Turkish government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to select a Chinese defence firm, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp [CPMIEC], for a $3 billion contract to co-produce a long-range air and missile defence system for the country…
From a long term perspective it is a close call to decide which is going to be more fateful – the American-Iranian thaw that Obama visualized in his UN speech and kick-started immediately thereafter, or the appearance of a Chinese company that is allied to the People’s Liberation Army to undertake the highly sensitive task of building a missile defence ensemble for a country on Europe’s doorstep that also happens to be a key member country of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO].
The irony deepens when it is factored in that Turkey needs a missile defence system, in the first instance, to ward off a potential (or hypothetic) scuffle with Iran or Israel, the two countries in its neighborhood with a missile capability, but which also happen to be China’s close friend. It deepens still further if one recalls that components of the NATO’c missile defence system are already deployed on Turkish soil, manned by US military personnel, ostensibly to meet the threat from the «rogue state» of Iran.
Evidently, Turkey wants a missile defence system of its own, over which it has one hundred percent control. Period. Moreover, if it chooses, it should have the autonomy of thinking and action to even dispense with the NATO’s missile defence system deployed in the Anatolian region of Malatya. Strategic autonomy – that’s the buzz word of the Turkish agenda.
Of course, this is a massive breakthrough by China as an arms exporter. To be sure, Ankara’s decision becomes the stuff of big-time advertisement for Beijing’s military technology, which hitherto carried the opprobrium of being merely the product of «reverse engineering». China currently takes a mere 5% share of the world market for weapons exporters, but the established vendors in the global bazaar had better watch out – «The Chinese are coming».
The CPMIEC's FD-2000 system was chosen by the Turks in preference to the US offer of the Patriot, the Russian offer of its most advanced S-400 missile defence system and the French-Italian Eurosam Samp-T system. The Turks say the FD-2000 has advanced technology, but the clincher seems to be equally that the Chinese bid was by far competitive.
The NATO was supportive of the Patriot. In fact, the Patriots are currently deployed in Turkey. Whereas, FD-2000 system does not enjoy «inter-operability» with the NATO systems that Turkish armed forces use – mostly American equipment. The western allies have been warning Ankara openly in the recent months not to touch the Chinese system with a barge pole, but the Turks snubbed them.
Clearly, Ankara has taken a calculated decision that factors in geopolitical considerations. The decision is reflective of a steadily growing disenchantment felt in Turkey regarding the European Union, NATO and the US. Erdogan is unmistakably underscoring that his nation won’t take any more affronts by the West. The realization has dawned on Turkey that the EU is constantly shifting the goal post on Ankara’s membership drive. A senior minister said last week that Turkey will never be admitted into the EU. The Turks also are skeptical about the additionality that the partnership with the languishing European economies can bring to its own buoyant economy. In the NATO’s Libyan operation, France ignored Turkey in the planning stage and Ankara had to literally gatecrash into it. On Syria, NATO’s agenda is the western agenda – not Turkey’s – and an intervention can happen if the US decides within the framework of its regional strategies and not because Turkey seeks in its self-interest, howsoever competing that might be.
Curiously, CPIMEC has been sanctioned by the US in the past and Ankara’s decision to engage it nonetheless shows that the Turkish-American ties are already under stress. Prime Minister Erdogan’s policies have upset Washington on several fronts in regional politics. He virtually takes pride for having dumped Turkey's ties with Israel in the dustbin. Despite US advice and notwithstanding a mediatory mission by Obama personally, Erdogan remains disinterested in making up with Israel because that is what suits him on the «Arab Street». Again, Erdogan keeps contacts with Hamas and has been voicing interest in visiting Gaza despite US admonition.
He has been a robust exponent of the lead role of political Islam in the new Middle East and has been harshly critical of the junta in Egypt, which has enjoyed US tacit backing. Also, Washington is opposed to Ankara's direct energy trade with Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan but Erdogan ignored it and has antagonized Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Most important, Erdogan barely hides his sense of frustration about the Obama administration's zigzag on Syria. Erdogan is a stanch exponent of the regime change agenda in Syria and even argued for a full spectrum military intervention instead of a mere «limited action» that Obama contemplated over the chemical weapons issue. On its part, the Obama administration has cautioned the Islamist government in Ankara against the latter’s covert support of extremist Salafist groups in Syria, including such al-Qaeda affiliates as the ISIS and Nusra. But reports continue to surface from time to time that the covert nexus continues as part of Turkey’s proxy war against Syrian Kurds who are in league with the separatist organization PKK.
Then there are other irritants. Washington has ignored Turkey's warnings of Big Oil's involvement in Cyprus's offshore fields and, there is a lurking suspicion deep down in Erdogan's mind, which he might not articulate explicitly, that the anti-government agitation in Turkey enjoyed western backing. The Obama administration was harshly critical of the clampdown on the Istanbul protestors by the Turkish government.
Indeed, it is tempting to suggest Erdogan decided to have a dalliance with China out of spite towards the West. True, he has been under sustained western pressure lately and he is known to be a proud man. Erdogan is sensitive to criticism and the US critiques of his allegedly authoritarian style and his secretive hidden agenda of Islamization of «secular» Turkey have been harsh, especially by the Jewish-American writers and think tankers.
However, there is much more to this decision to add a highly strategic dimension to Turkish-Chinese ties. When Erdogan said in January that he discussed with President Vladimir Putin the idea of Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO] instead of the European Union, he was subjected to much ridicule in the US. In an acerbic attack in The National Interest, Ariel Cohen mocked at Erdogan:
«Unlike the European Union, Shanghai members will not press Erdoğan to liberalize. Indeed, they may encourage his dictatorial tendencies… Additionally, SCO fits Erdoğan’s Islamist impulse to defy the West and to dream of an alternative to it… Conversations with senior Turkish political operatives familiar with Ankara’s political culture and negotiating style suggest a three-part explanation: frustration with the long EU accession process, bluffing, and the need to draw attention.
«Now, Erdoğan is threatening to walk away from a snobbish store, which refuses to sell him the goods – and go to a store next door, which sells shoddier and cheaper merchandise».
But, what if Erdogan wasn't bluffing? His Islamism always had a strong undertone of Turkish nationalism, which partly explains the vehemence of his popular mandate. Turkey has been brooding over the continued wisdom of its western identity in a world where Asia is surging. The EU may be a «snobbish store» but its goods have passed the expiry date. Whereas, the store next door to the east has also begun stocking up lately with state of the art products.