A German military truck carrying NATO's Patriot Missile Defense System to protect Turkey in case neighboring Syria launches an attack passes by a mosque as they leave the port in the Mediterranean city of Iskenderun, Turkey, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. The German Patriot Systems and troops were heading for Kahramanmaras to prepare to operate a defensive missile system close to the border with Syria.

Turkey's Tilt East

A deal with China comes as a particularly harsh blow for NATO.

A German military truck carrying NATO's Patriot Missile Defense System to protect Turkey in case neighboring Syria launches an attack passes by a mosque as they leave the port in the Mediterranean city of Iskenderun, Turkey, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013. The German Patriot Systems and troops were heading for Kahramanmaras to prepare to operate a defensive missile system close to the border with Syria.

Turkey traditional relationship with the West is unraveling.

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For decades, Turkey has served as a stalwart ally of the West and NATO's representative in the Middle East. But the times may be changing, as Turkey's exploration of new political and economic opportunities in Asia calls into question its traditional relationship with the West.

The latest sign of this tilt came this past fall, when Turkey announced its preliminary selection of a Chinese state-owned defense firm, the China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp, to provide it with $3.44 billion-worth of air defense equipment. The benefits for Turkey were clear; the Chinese system is relatively inexpensive, and allows for indigenous co-production — something long sought after by Turkish military planners. But China’s offering does not seem to be as comprehensive as comparable systems on offer from U.S., European and Russian companies, raising questions about Turkey’s procurement priorities and its larger strategic ones.

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The potential deal has come as a particularly harsh blow for fellow NATO states, who long have tried to persuade Turkey to invest in a NATO-compatible missile defense system. NATO members fear, with ample cause, that induction of the Chinese system will reduce Turkey’s interoperability with the Alliance missile defense shield slowly taking shape on the continent.

But the practical worries have been compounded by strategic concerns. The China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corp. is currently under U.S. sanctions for selling banned missile components to Iran. This fact has raised the specter of compromised network security and highlighted the risk that China, via this conduit, could gain access to sensitive Alliance systems and logistics.

The die, however, is not entirely cast. The U.S. contender for the missile defense system, a consortium made up of Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, has until April 30 to amend its bid for the project. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, meanwhile, said that "a final decision has not been taken," after meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry in November, underscoring what is perhaps indecisiveness in Ankara.

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But the larger trendline is unmistakable and worrying. The missile defense deal with China reflects an effort by Turkey to balance between West and East, and a growing penchant among Turkish policymakers to prefer the latter to the former. It is also of a piece with the overall eagerness of Turkey, once NATO’s lynchpin in the Middle East, to join other, decidedly less friendly security arrangements. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for example, has time and time again reiterated Ankara’s desire to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Central Asian security bloc headed by Moscow and Beijing, which holds significant clout in the "post-Soviet space." 

Turkey, in other words, is exploring its strategic options. Right now, the scales could easily tip one way or the other. That this is even possible to envisage is a testament to how profoundly the country that was once NATO’s Eurasian bulwark has changed.