Turkey Trot: Military Cooperation between Beijing and Ankara

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 8

Turkish General Hasan Aksay (L) and Chinese Deputy Chief of Staff General Ge Zhengfeng (R)

In the last week of March 2009, Ankara and Beijing may have taken another step toward upgrading their military cooperation. This has become evident during a visit from General Hasan Aksay, commander of the Turkish military academies, who spent three days in China, starting March 24. To be sure, this was not the first Turkish military visit. Since 1985, Turkey has sent 18 military delegations consisting of some 200 members while 14 Chinese military missions with about 330 representatives visited Turkey at the same time (Today’s Zaman, March 25). These are official figures; the real figures are most likely higher, though confidential. These numbers, however, do not tell the whole story of Sino-Turkish military relations.

Ostensibly, one should not have expected any significant breakthrough in the military relations between China and Turkey since the visitor, commander of military academies, does not rank high enough to initiate such a change or even to deliver such a message. Similarly, General Aksay was hosted by lower ranking Chinese military figures, the Deputy Chief of Staff General Ge Zhengfeng and the President (Commander) of the National Defense University, General Wang Xibing. Still, the visit may be significant, less because of the persons involved and much more because of the circumstances of the developing Sino-Turkish defense relations. Unlike some assertions, these relations by no mean "remain limited to the realm of military personnel exchanges" (China Brief, February 21, 2007). Mostly concealed from the public and the media, Beijing-Ankara military collaboration has been substantially expanded over the last fifteen years.

The Legacy of the Korean War

This is a significant change considering the fact that the two countries clashed in the Korean War in the early 1950s. Joining the U.N.-led alliance initiated by the United States, by late November 1950, over 5,000 Turkish troops had already engaged the Chinese "volunteer" forces in violent encounters several times. These clashes inflicted heavy casualties—on both sides. In the battle of Kunu Ri, one of the bloodiest of the entire war, Turkish troops bayoneted 900 Chinese. These initial clashes were followed by repeated violent confrontations up to the armistice on July 27, 1953. Throughout the war, Turkish brigades were pulled out and sent home, only to be replaced by fresh ones. Altogether, over 25,000 Turkish troops fought along U.N. forces in Korea. They suffered 3,277 casualties: 721 dead, 2,147 wounded, 175 missing and 234 captured [1]. General Tahsin Yazıcı, commander of the First Turkish brigade in Korea, referred to the Chinese as "red dwarfs," cruel and barbaric (Hürriyet, December 9, 1951).

As anticipated, Turkey’s participation in the Korean War expedited and consolidated its integration into the Western security system and on October 22, 1951, Turkey was admitted into NATO, becoming an official member on February 18, 1952, while the Korean War was still going on. This confrontation, and Turkey’s admission to NATO, delayed Sino-Turkish relations by nearly twenty years, leaving sediments of mutual hostility for a long time, perhaps to this very day. "In contemporary Turkey, China is still portrayed much less favorably than other countries of East Asia. […] The Korean War was critical in shaping the long-term relations of China and Turkey" [2]. It had taken another twenty years, from the early 1970s (when diplomatic relations were at long last established) to the early 1990s, until Sino-Turkish relations started to improve.

The Dimensions of Military Relations

Sino-Turkish military explorations began in the first half of the 1990s after Ankara’s negotiations with Washington for the joint production and technology transfer of the M-270 MLRS (Multiple Launch Rocket System) failed. Washington criticized Ankara for using U.S.-supplied weapons for human rights abuses, subsequently restricting arms and military technology transfers to Turkey, and cutting off grants and loans earlier offered to Turkey for arms acquisitions from the United States. Occasionally, arms embargos and sanctions tend to be counter-productive as they encourage and force the affected countries to develop their military industry independently as well as to look elsewhere for arms and military technology. Turkey was no exception and China was ready [3].

In 1997, Turkey for the first time signed an arms deal with China for the acquisition of 24 WS-1 302mm unguided rockets as well as 144 rockets for assembly in Turkey, to be supplied between 1998 and 2000. Based on Chinese technology, Turkey began to produce the TR-300 rockets (or T-302, upgraded from to the Chinese four-barrel WS-1B MLRS) under license, Turkish designation Kasırga (tornado). It is considered to be more advanced than the Chinese rocket. In late 1998, based on a similar contract signed with CPMIEC (China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation), the Turkish Army ordered some 15 of China’s most advanced short-range SSMs (surface-to-surface missiles), the B-611 and began to license the production of over 200 missiles for over $300 million. The first missiles were probably deployed as early as 2001. Covered by heavy secrecy and disinformation, the project was called J-600T and the missile, Turkish designation Yıldırım (thunderbolt), was reported by Turkey to the UN Register of Conventional Arms in March 2007 and was first displayed during a Victory Day parade in Ankara on August 30, 2007. The B-611 had been designed as a replacement of the Chinese DF-11 (M-7 or CSS-7) SRBM. Allegedly developed jointly by Turkey’s TÜBITAK (The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey), MKEK (Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation) and CASIC (China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation), it is a short-range, ground-based, solid-fuelled ballistic missile system. Its production is undertaken by the Turkish firm Roketsan (Roket Sanayii ve Ticaret, or Missiles [Rockets] Industries and Trade).

Nevertheless, the PRC is a marginal military supplier to Turkey. Excluding the B-611 yet unconfirmed $300 million deal, the value of the PRC arms transfers to Turkey between 1998 and 2007 is estimated at a meager $39 million, less than one percent of Turkey’s total arms acquisitions in that period, or about seven percent including the deal (SIPRI Arms Transfers Database). In addition, China’s HQ-9 air defense system is among the competitors in the Turkish bid for the supply of advanced surface-to-air missile systems, with potential capabilities against ballistic missiles [4]. It is possible that Roketsan may have received Chinese support in developing its air-to-surface missile Cirit (pronounced Jereed: javelin, spear), which derives from the NORINCO-made missile TY-90 (Tianyan: Heavenly Swallow) [5]. Yet, Beijing-Ankara military cooperation has not been limited to missiles. Another dimension of it emerged in 2005 when the two countries reportedly upgraded the FNSS ACV (Armored Combat Vehicle)-SW chassis by incorporating a BMP3 turret to it. The Turkish army operates a total of 2,500 upgraded Infantry Fighting Vehicles (or IFVs), which the FNSS firm intended to export (primarily to the United Arab Emirates) [6]. Needless to say, none of these transactions was ever reported to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, which does not indicate any military relations between Turkey and China.

Security and Intelligence Relations

In addition, Beijing has been urging Ankara to cooperate in the so-called fight against "terrorism," namely to restrict, monitor and prevent the activities of Uyghur national organizations and leaders in Turkey. Initially defying China’s pressure, Turkey began to submit to Beijing’s demands in the latter half of the 1990s. A first step in this direction was taken when the Turkish Army Deputy Chief of Staff signed a Sino-Turkish military training and cooperation protocol on May 28, 1999, during his visit to the PRC (Jane’s Defense Weekly, June 9, 1999, p. 13). Occasional Uyghur demonstrations and acts of violence against Chinese staying in Turkey had allegedly paved the ground for the first Sino-Turkish security co-operation agreement, signed on February 14, 2000. Among other things, it facilitated public security coordination between the two countries, stressing that hard measures would be taken against separatist activities targeting the territorial integrity of both Turkey (i.e. the Kurds and Cyprus) and the PRC (i.e. Xinjiang and Tibet).

The PRC has been watching its interests closely in Turkey through both military and "diplomatic" channels. The Third Bureau (military attachés) of the PLA General Staff Second Department (dealing with military intelligence) has been operating in Turkey as one of its most important, and presumably one of the most active, stations [7]. Beijing has been engaged not only in collecting political and military intelligence in Turkey, but also in infiltrating Uyghur organizations through moles and sleepers. One of the most serious problems Uyghur organizations face (and not just in Turkey) is how to expose collaborators with China. Uncertainty and suspicions about Uyghur activists—some high-ranking—often cause Eastern Turkestan organizations paralysis and passivity, exactly what Beijing wants.

Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur (and others’) activities abroad have been undertaken not only by its intelligence services but also by the Foreign Ministry in much the same way it monitors the overseas activities of Falun Gong—a spiritual-religious movement that Beijing has targeted since the late 1990s. This has been done through the 610 Office (an arm of the Ministry of State Security) that had operated under the Foreign Ministry’s General Office. Established on June 10, 1999 (hence its name), 610 Offices are an extra-legal police force formed to suppress Falun Gong practitioners not only at home but also abroad. Reacting to human rights critics, on July 6, 2004, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ 610 Office was renamed The Department of External Security Affairs (Shewai anquan shiwu si, or guanli si, literally the Department of Managing Foreign-Related Security). It "aimed at coping with increasing non-traditional security factors" (primarily terrorism) and the safety of Chinese abroad, as well as "dealing with Eastern Turkistan groups" [8].

The Chinese are also concerned about emerging manifestations (either real or virtual) of Pan-Turkism, a vision recently resuscitated not only in Beijing’s perceptions but also by some Turkish military and political figures. Paradoxically, some of those who promote Pan-Turkism—including a number of Turkish generals—consider China a possible substitute to the United States and the European Union and urge increased collaboration with the East. They represent the so-called "Eurasianist" faction in the armed forces and proclaim ultra-rightists views as well as anti-Islamic attitudes. Erdoğan’s religious government has forced some of them to retire [9]. While enjoying the support and backing of some politicians (among them ex-Maoists), it is nevertheless a marginal group. It seems highly unlikely that Turkey will turn to the PRC as a primary ally. Still, the Turkish "Eurasianists" presumably approve of, or are even instrumental in, forging defense collaboration with China.

Thus, General Hasan Aksay’s recent visit to China should be interpreted within the context of an already existing elaborate military and security cooperation. It is during this visit that China and Turkey agreed to intensify military cooperation that would enable joint military exercises and training and would underwrite defense industrial projects. Meeting his visitor, Deputy Chief of Staff of the PLA, Ge Zhenfeng hailed the smooth development of bilateral Sino-Turkish military relations and friendly exchanges and the "pragmatic cooperation" between the two militaries (PLA Daily, March 25).


1. Füsun Türkmen, "Turkey and the Korean War," Turkish Studies, 3:2 (Autumn 2002), pp. 161-180. See also: John M. Vander Lippe, "Forgotten Brigade of the Forgotten War: Turkey’s Participation in the Korean War," Middle Eastern Studies, 36:1 (January 2000), pp. 92-101.
2. Çağdaş Üngör, "Perceptions of China in the Turkish Korean War Narratives," Turkish Studies, 7:5 (September 2006), pp. 406, 416.
3. The following is based on: Turkish Armed Forces (Land Forces Equipment), https://wwwturkishworld.multiservers.com/equipment.html; Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems, https://www.janes.com/extracts/extract/jsws/jswsa002.html. See also: Utku Çakirözer, "’J’ Booster for the Army," Milliyet (Istanbul), January 14, 2002, in FBIS-CHI, March 14, 2002; "Chinese Missiles for Turkey," Milliyet, June 2, 2005; "China to Help Turkey Produce Missiles," Central News Agency (Taiwan), December 21, 1996, in BBC, SWB, FE/2802, G/1 (December 23, 1996); "Secret Cooperation with China," Star (Istanbul), April 6, 2005.  
4. Anatolia News Agency, August 10, 2008; Turkish Daily News, April 29, 2008; John C.K. Daly, "Turkey Ponders Russian Missile Offer," Eurasia Daily Monitor (The Jamestown Foundation), Vol. 5, Issue 140 (July 23, 2008); Andrew McGregor, Arming for Asymmetric Warfare: Turkey’s Arms Industry in the 21st Century (The Jamestown Foundation, June 2008), p. 17.
5. Prasun K. Sengupta, "Eastern Showcase," Force (New Delhi), May 16, 2008; Today’s Zaman, July 16, 2008.
6. "A New Birth of Chinese Version BMP3," Kanwa Defense Review (Hong Kong), May 12, 2005.
7. Nicholas Eftimiades, Chinese Intelligence Operations (Ilford: Frank Cass, 1994), p. 81. See also Ming Pao (Hong Kong), October 7, 1998, in Global Intelligence Update, October 8, 1998.
8. People’s Daily, July 6, 2004; See also the testimony of Chen Yonglin, former diplomat in China’s Consulate in Sydney, in: Falun Gong and China’s Continuing War on Human Rights, Joint Hearing, U.S. Congress, July 21, 2005 (Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 2005), pp. 34-36.
9. Ihsan Dagi, "Are the Eurasianists Being Purged?", Zaman, July 21, 2008. See also: Hoonman Peimani, "Turkey Hints at Shifting Alliance," Asia Times, June 19, 2002; Dr. Sait Başer, "The Strategic Importance of the Ascending East," East and West Studies, August 6, 2007. Most of the "Eurasianists", including the generals, have been implicated in the Ergenekon group, accused for trying to subvert the Muslim AKP government. On the Ergenekon affair, see: Daniel Steinvorth, "Erkenekon Plot: Massive Trial in Turkey Provides Look into ‘Deep State’." Spiegel Online, January 26, 2009.