Is China Building a Trojan Horse into NATO Through Turkey?

Then Chinese Vice President, and current President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey, Feb. 21, 2012.

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Then Chinese Vice President, and current President Xi Jinping, left, shakes hands with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey, Feb. 21, 2012.

Why is Turkey is buying China’s anti-missile system when it already has NATO’s Patriot system? Here’s why Ankara should beware Chinese defense corporations bearing gifts. By Aki Peritz & Mieke Eoyang

The People’s Republic of China may be building a new Trojan horse in the modern lands of ancient Troy — but this time it seems the mission is to penetrate not a walled city, but NATO’s security architecture.

Turkey currently is negotiating a contract with China’s missile builders, the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC), which beat competing bids from Raytheon/Lockheed Martin and a few other foreign firms. While it seems Turkey is saving money on the deal — the Chinese bid to sell the FD-2000 surface-to-air missile system came in at $3.44 billion, while the other bids were around $4 billion — Ankara’s behavior suggests it believes it can have its security cake and eat it too.

It’s unclear what is the Turkish word for chutzpah, but Turkey already has a missile defense system defending it in NATO’s Raytheon-built Patriot system, courtesy of Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States. Ankara requested it last year. As part of the NATO Air Defense Ground Environment, other countries have already picked up half of the tab of Turkish missile defense needs. This is because Ankara took advantage of the interoperable missile defense systems among NATO’s 28-country alliance. The civil war in neighboring Syria legitimately threatened Turkey and its allies quickly answered the call.

The Turks knows full well that if events ever go south — say, if Syria or Iran devolve into a shooting war that sucks them in— NATO will back them in a military conflict. If Turkey was serious about missile defense, it would have bought the American Patriot system that has a proven track record and avoided wasting money on an inferior Chinese program. It’s like buying a motorcycle when you really need an SUV. Instead, Turkey might be cutting itself off from the alliance if they now try to deploy the Chinese technology. And allowing Beijing spies into NATO’s backyard seems to be a secondary concern for the Turks.

[Read More: Are U.S-Turkey Relations Fraying?]

Of course, the Turkish government has been well-informed of the many pitfalls of purchasing this Chinese system. For example, President Barack Obama twice told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that there will be major interoperability issues between the Chinese and NATO systems. Despite a top Turkish Defense Ministry official brushing these problems aside, China’s system is copied heavily from the Russian model, so its technical architecture is completely different than the Western model. And just as China’s cartridges won’t fit into NATO’s rifles, Turkey will have to perform major technical surgery to synchronize the NATO and Chinese systems, reconfiguring sensors and radars to be able to operate on both systems. This of course, will cost a lot of money and may not work in the end.

Even if it’s technically possible, other NATO countries will balk at having a highly-advanced, potentially adversarial structure integrated into their top-secret missile system. According to one defense analyst, “[NATO] member nations will refuse any cooperation with Turkey for the integration of the Chinese system into the alliance’s assets deployed in Turkey.”  As another British defense analyst told the Financial Times, “This type of arrangement, which requires the transfer of design information, is not feasible for American military firms.” And not just Chinese technology, but Chinese cyber, military and missile personnel will theoretically be working next to NATO resources, providing Beijing an intelligence foothold in these critical national security fields.  

It remains unclear whether Turkey’s strategy for missile defense buys extends to other parts of the defense acquisition process, for there are ramifications with working with a sanctioned Chinese company that, since 2006, has been banned from working with American firms. U.S. companies now might think twice about selling Turkey fighter aircraft like F-16s or F-35s, or advanced radar systems, because Chinese technology will compromise their systems. It might even be illegal for U.S. corporations to work with Turkish businesses once the deal is complete.

All in all, Turkey might be thinking they worked out a great arrangement because it saved money and forged a deal with a growing economic powerhouse. But this will affect U.S. national security almost as much as Turkey’s because we too have interests in the region and in the cohesiveness of the NATO alliance. Every American and allied policymaker who interacts with his or her Turkish counterparts should underscore this fact.

The contract isn’t signed in stone; Erdoğan hinted that the deal may still be in play. Let’s hope the Turkish president has a change of heart; recall the Trojan War ended rather poorly for King Priam and his people because of a fatal, stupid, self-inflicted wound. Let’s hope Turkey’s modern-day leaders reflect upon the folly of the ancient Anatolians and remember to beware Chinese defense corporations bearing gifts.

Aki Peritz is a senior policy advisor and Mieke Eoyang is the director of the National Security Program at Third Way. They can be followed @AkiPeritz and @MiekeEoyang.

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