The United States has raised concern over Turkey’s proposal to build a missile-defense system with a Chinese firm under U.S. sanctions, and NATO fears that the system could undermine NATO-allied air defenses, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey said Thursday.
Francis Ricciardone said Washington had begun "expert" talks with Turkey to assess the impact of its plans to co-produce the long-range air- and missile-defense system with the Chinese firm.
While Washington sees Turkey as a key partner in the Middle East, with common interests from energy security to counter-terrorism, it is not the deferential ally it once was. Turkey has sought an increasingly independent role on the world stage since the election of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan 10 years ago.
"We are seriously concerned about what this means for allied missile and air defenses for us and for Turkey," Ricciardone said of the Chinese missile-defense deal.
"We have really just begun expert discussions with the government of Turkey. We will keep that very respectful. This will be done in official channels as between allies and friends," he told reporters in the capital Ankara.
Turkey, a member of the NATO military alliance, said in September it had chosen a missile-defense system from China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp (CPMIEC) over rival systems from Russian, U.S. and European firms.
CPMIEC was placed under U.S. sanctions in February for violations of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act. The U.S. alleges that the company previously sold arms to Iran.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has voiced concern about Turkey buying a system that is not compatible with those of other alliance members, potentially undermining a core principle of the 28-nation alliance.
But Turkish officials insist the move is not politically motivated and say China's offer met its primary demands on price and the ability to place much of the production in Turkey.
"We are taking a step towards the future, and our personnel will be involved in all of the laboratory work," Erdogan said Wednesday, adding that NATO's views on the matter were "not a determining factor".
"If NATO is so sensitive on this subject, many countries which are currently NATO members still have Russian weapons in their inventories," Erdogan told reporters.
Ricciardone said some NATO allies were former Warsaw Pact countries with legacy Soviet systems that were being phased out.
Ankara is seeking to bolster its air defenses and establish a stronger domestic defense industry, seeing a growing threat of spillover from the war in neighboring Syria, as well as wider turbulence in the Middle East.
China's foreign ministry has dismissed Western concerns about the plans, saying the United States and others were needlessly politicizing a commercial deal.
Turkey has said it is likely to sign the $3.4 billion deal with CPMIEC, but that its decision is not yet final.
The proposed China deal comes a week after a report in the Washington Post alleged that Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan had deliberately blown the cover of an Israeli spy ring working inside Iran in early 2012, dealing a significant blow to Israeli intelligence gathering.
Officials from Erdogan's ruling AK Party have said such accusations are part of a deliberate attempt to discredit both Fidan and Erdogan, and to undermine Turkey's role in the region.
Turkey's relationship with Israel, once a strong alliance, has deteriorated significantly over the last several years, reaching its apex during the 2010 Israeli raid of a Turkish ship carrying activists to the Gaza Strip. Nine people were killed in that raid, including an American citizen.
Despite its close ties with Israel, the Obama administration has kept its strong, albeit sometimes cautious, relationship with Turkey.
After last week’s Post revelations, Ricciardone emphasized the strength of the relationship.
"I have had the personal and official privilege of meeting Mr. Fidan many times and working with him substantively on issues of common concern," Ricciardone said, adding he had great respect for the Turkish spy chief.
"We have close cooperation with the government of Turkey dealing with the most sensitive problems of the region...It has been the case for a long time and our alliance is going to continue," said Ricciardone.
Al Jazeera and Reuters