In late September–early October, China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)’s SU-27 fighters participated for the first time in the Turkish military’s aerial maneuvers. By including the PLAAF in these maneuvers (known as “Anatolian Eagle”) Ankara is signaling another shift in its geopolitical orientation, as well as the emergence of a new strategic partner besides Washington: Beijing. The U.S. policymakers should pay better attention to the ongoing tectonic shifts of the geopolitical plates.
The Chinese and Turkish air forces conducted joint military exercises in the Turkish- Anatolian region of Konya. The Turkish air force is NATO-integrated and equipped. The backbone the of Turkish air force are F-16s, while China uses Russian- and Chinese-built planes, including Sukhois.
Prior to the joint exercises, the Chinese Sukhoi fighters flew to Turkey via Iran and Pakistan, where they refueled. Although Iran is obviously not a friend of the U.S., Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly made gestures of friendship toward Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s allies Syria, Hezbollah, and the Islamic Palestinian movement HAMAS.
Transparency was the first victim of this latest geo-political shift. In the past, “Anatolian Eagle” exercises have always been open to the press, but this time the maneuvers were closed to journalists, who received little information after the exercises finished.
The joint Sino-Turkish aerial exercise may be another indication that Turkey, a NATO member and a venerable Western ally, is pursuing a multi-polar foreign policy designed by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Rapprochement with Syria and Iran is another such signal.
Turkey’s shift has been rapid. From 2001 until 2008, Turkey’s major partners in the annual “Anatolian Eagle” exercises were the USA and Israel. However, Turkey blocked Israel’s participation in the aerial maneuvers in October 2009, while simultaneously expanding its military partnership with Syria.
Moreover, Turkey (and Brazil) attempted to bust the latest round of anti-Iranian sanctions at the U.N. Security Council. These were measures which all the other NATO members and even permanent UNSC members Russia and China supported (although only after the sanctions were significantly weakened). Thus, Erdogan provided a diplomatic cover to Ahmadinejad that Presidents Hu and Medvedev did not.
Considering that China is close to Iran because of the energy imports, the first joint military exercise between China and the NATO member Turkey—conducted with Iranian support—is alarming.
Tehran, Beijing, and Ankara have common interests. Turkey is expanding a pipeline to import gas from Iran and is selling gasoline. China is planning to invest in dozens of energy projects worth tens of billions of dollars. And in the future, China may also want to extend oil and gas pipelines via central Asia to supply the Chinese market, possibly with Turkish participation.
Beijing is also supplying missiles and missile technology to the mullah regime. The anti-ship C-802, which Hezbollah used in the 2006 Second Lebanon War for the attack on the Israeli missile-carrying frigate HANIT, was manufactured in Iran using Chinese technology, while Turkey and China have developed a surface-to-surface missile.
In the future, China, a U.N. Security Council’s permanent member, may block the imposition of more severe sanctions against Iran, with Ankara’s support.
Turkey, the chairman of the Organization of Islamic Countries, is aspiring to be a dominant player in the Middle East and the Muslim world. Developing the military dimension of the China-Turkey relationship is unwelcome news in Washington and Brussels, and a signal to NATO and the EU that Ankara has other options. Robert Gates, U.S. Secretary of Defense, believes that the EU’s refusal to provide Ankara with a clear path to accession is partially to blame for Turkey’s drift eastward.
NATO allies and the U.S. should not accept Turkey’s current strategic drift. British Prime Minister David Cameron and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for boosting trade with Turkey and its role in NATO. The West should re-engage Turkey, instead of simply lambasting it.
Having the second largest standing military in NATO, Ankara could send more troops to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Today, Turkish forces in Afghanistan are conducting only civil missions. During his recent visit to Turkey, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen reached an agreement with the Turks to increase their support in Afghanistan, which is a step in the right direction.
Besides this, U.S. and NATO leaders need to send a clear signal to Ankara that the military games with China, as well as diplomatic and any other type of support for either Iran’s nuclear program or Syria and Hezbollah terrorists in their ongoing confrontation with Israel, weaken NATO-Turkey ties.
Turkey is most welcome as a staunch NATO ally. It should therefore behave as one.