As criticism from NATO allies continues to pour in, Turkey appears to be reconsidering its decision to buy a Chinese air defense system. Last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who made the final call to buy the Chinese system over American, European and Russian competitors, suggested there were some conditions under which Turkey would change its mind:
Despite criticism from its NATO allies, Turkey would only give up co-producing a long-range air and missile defense system with a Chinese firm currently under US sanctions if the company were to decide to pull out of the deal, leading Turkey to talk to other bidders, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said...
"The Chinese system will be checked to see if it fits NATO standards,” Erdoğan said.
And on Tuesday, Reuters reported that Turkey has asked the American bidder, Raytheon, to not give up quite yet.
The sources familiar with the US proposal to supply a Raytheon-built Patriot missile defense system said Turkish officials had requested an extension of the pricing included in the bid while their talks continued with China.
"It's clear that they are trying to hedge their bets," said one of the sources.
At the same time, however, Erdogan's rhetoric -- with the exception of those statements above -- has been defiant in the face of NATO criticism. And the fact that he's digging in his heels may make it politically more difficult to pull out later. "Nobody has the right to overshadow our understanding of independence,” Erdoğan said last week.
Lale Kemal, probably Turkey's top commentator on military affairs, says that Erdogan appears to be convinced that there will not be any serious repercussions from this move:
At this point it is important to recall that Erdoğan has been cautious and held back from making statements in the wake of the Turkish decision to opt for the Chinese system. Erdoğan made the comments quoted above nearly a month after the decision was made. He took a rather cautious stance because he was taking the pulse of Turkey's allies -- i.e., NATO members and the US -- and waiting to see how they would respond to Turkey's decision.
In the interim, Erdoğan -- who, after all, made the final decision to go with the Chinese system -- must have become convinced that the move would not seriously endanger Turkey's relations with NATO and the US. Only then did Erdoğan begin making statements on the issue.
It's not clear how he would have gotten that idea, however. The crux of the issue is whether or not this Chinese system can be integrated with NATO joint air defense systems. While some statements by Turkish officials suggest that they think it can be made interoperable, NATO member defense officials have apparently been quite explicit that it can't. From Jane's Defence Weekly (via the Atlantic Council's NATO Source blog):
Noting that "the whole alliance is in conversation with Turkey" over its Chinese air defence dossier, the senior diplomat said: "We are going to get quite explicit and specific about the technical definition of 'interoperable'. Turkey must understand that this is not just a fuzzy concept that we talk about within the NAC, but one that has a specific technical meaning - one that Turks must understand, so that when they make their final down-select they know exactly what they are doing."
The diplomat added that if the Chinese system cannot be made interoperable with NATO's air command and control system, "it's going to become very political very fast. If this system cannot be plugged into our system, which works with the other 27 allies, that will be an issue."