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Pentagon sees warning for China in Turkey's F-35 ouster

The Pentagon says the US decision to boot Turkey from the F-35 program for buying a Russian missile system could have implications for nations that invest in Chinese technologies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and China's President Xi Jinping inspect an honour guard during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, July 2, 2019. Picture taken July 2, 2019. Roman Pilipey/Pool via REUTERS - RC12EB6F5B40

The Donald Trump administration’s move to kick Turkey out of the F-35 fighter jet program for purchasing a Russian air defense system could have implications for Middle East nations that buy Chinese technology, according to a Pentagon statement.

As the US stock market sagged this week after China threatened to counter fresh US tariffs on Beijing’s exports, the Defense Department has continued a spate of warnings to American allies about buying foreign weapons.

“The United States remains committed to improving the capacity of its partners to fight terrorism, deter regional spoilers and promote stability in the Middle East,” said Mick Mulroy, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. “But — as seen in the department’s decision to cancel Turkey’s F-35 program — we are also prepared to make hard decisions to protect US technology.” 

Defense Secretary Mark Esper is fresh off of a tour of Asia-Pacific countries amid raising worries about China’s increasing global push for military access and basing. The Pentagon is seeking to round out the case to allies that tying themselves to Beijing economically could hamper US defense ties.

The message going forward will be simple, Mulroy told Al-Monitor. “It means that if the purchase of Russian or Chinese weapons threatens the operational security of our weapons, we will have no choice but to pull ours.”

It was not immediately clear whether the Pentagon had warned allies about buying specific Chinese arms platforms, though the agency’s annual “China Power” report said Beijing sold $10 billion worth of weapons to the Middle East between 2013 and 2017 and is actively looking to offload armed drones and precision-strike weapons.

Yet Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 system, which the Pentagon feared would be able to uncloak the F-35’s radar-busting technology, could provide a difficult test case for cutting off allies who invest in China.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to buy the air defense batteries has split Congress and Trump, who has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Turkey. Trump asserted in June that the Barack Obama administration had denied the rival Patriot system to Erdogan, though former US officials say Ankara’s demands for control of US technical secrets were too high.

Turkey had lobbied Congress to duck US sanctions that are automatically applied to large purchases of Russian weapons systems just weeks before accepting delivery of the S-400.

The Pentagon has repeatedly warned that China has soaked up a larger share of the Middle East arms market, especially for technology such as armed drones, which the United States is treaty-limited from selling to allies.

“The United States is not destined to be China’s adversary, but we do see Chinese leaders choosing to challenge the global order that is based on values shared by the United States and our partners and allies,” Mulroy said in the statement provided to Al-Monitor.

The Trump administration has struggled to come up with a cohesive response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to ensnare erstwhile US allies in lucrative investment deals, including long-term American partners such as Israel.

On Wednesday, US and Chinese officials met at the Pentagon to discuss China’s latest defense white paper, which describes Washington and Beijing as competing superpowers.

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