ANKARA - As the West was busy debating whether Turkey was changing course in favor of an "eastern axis," China's Air Force made a sudden appearance in NATO's southern flank.
In mid-September, a fleet of Chinese Su-27 and Mig-29 fighter aircraft flew through Pakistan, refueled in Iran and reached Turkish airspace for joint military exercises with the Turkish Air Force.
It was the first time a NATO member has held joint drills with China. Analysts said this may just be the beginning of cooperation between the two militaries.
"The exercises did not intend to be a first and last of their kind. There is every indication to believe that the two militaries will engage in future cooperation wherever applicable," one Turkey specialist in London said. "The drills should be seen as a debut."
Until 2009, Turkey traditionally held the Anatolian Eagle exercises in the Central Anatolian province of Konya with two regular guests: the U.S. and Israeli air forces. Last year, Turkey expelled Israel from the maneuvers amid strained relations that followed the Israeli offensive in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. That expulsion prompted the U.S. Air Force to withdraw from the drills.
This year, Turkey disinvited the Israeli Air Force, and the U.S. Air Force again pulled out. Turkey's only guest for Anatolian Eagle was the Chinese Air Force.
The first-ever Turkish-Chinese exercise came as a prelude to Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's landmark visit here Oct. 8. Wen and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, signed eight major agreements on commerce, culture and transportation. They pledged to raise the bilateral trade level, now $17 billion per year, to $50 billion over the next five years. They also agreed to use their own national currencies, the lira and the yuan, in bilateral trade, shunning the U.S. dollar.
Turkish officials said the U.S. is unhappy about Turkey's growing military ties with China. One military official said Turkey used its older F-4E aircraft instead of its more advanced F-16s due to U.S. objections.
Deborah Guido, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy here, said Oct. 15, "As we understood, the government of Turkey answered they would abide with utmost care our requirement related to their possession of U.S. and NATO technology. And we understand that F-16s were not involved in the exercises."
A Turkish military official rejected claims that the military was seeking any eastern alliances.
"Each year, we are holding joint exercises with dozens of countries, and China is one of the nations with which we are developing cooperation," he said. "There is no need to seek hidden or deep motives behind this [joint exercise]."
The Turkish-Chinese air maneuvers came about a year after Turkey held land exercises with Syria, an adversary of Israel.
One Chinese source said that Beijing expects military cooperation with Ankara to progress in the future.
"We are hoping that the Chinese Air Force regularly trains in Turkey and the two countries successfully develop other areas of cooperation," the source said.
China also is willing to enter the Turkish defense market, seeking to win a multibillion-dollar contract for Turkey's program to buy a national missile defense system to protect strategic areas and installations from ground-to-ground ballistic missile strikes.
The China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corp. is offering its HQ-9 in competition against the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 systems of U.S. companies Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, Russia Rosoboronexport's S300 and Italian-French company Eurosam's Aster 30.
Turkey's military ties with China took off in the mid-1990s, when the two militaries agreed to launch a program for the joint manufacture of short-range ground-to-ground missiles.
But Turkey's ties with China sometimes were in trouble in recent years because of Beijing's heavy-handed approach to unrest in the western area of Xinjiang, home to the country's Muslim Turkic minority of Uighurs.