Wednesday, December 21, 2005

China, Israel march in step again (An Article by Stephen Blank)

China and Israel are resuming a military relationship. From the 1970s until both sides established diplomatic relations with each other in 1992, Israel sold China an estimated US$4 billion worth of arms.
And once their political relations were normalized, their arms sales relationship become overt. Indeed, that relationship continued until 2000, when Israel attempted to sell China an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), only to run afoul of the United States, which blocked the deal, saying it would give Beijing a strategic edge in any Taiwan conflict. As a result, Israel ultimately had to pay China $350 million in compensation, and there were no known arms sales through 2003. However, now a top-level delegation led by the director general of the Israeli Defense Ministry, General Amos Yaron, Major General (Ret) Yossi Ben-Hanan, head of Sibat, the Foreign Defense and Assistance Export Organization, and Yehiel Horev, the ministry's chief security officer, visited Beijing this week. It was the first time the two nations held high-level military talks in three years. Although this meeting is described as a confidence-building measure to reopen the way to a lucrative defense relationship with Beijing, it has not happened out of the blue.
The meet follows hard on the heels of Israel's sale of the Phalcon AWACs system to India, with US approval, and the visible expansion of Indo-Israeli defense ties to the point where some observers believe Israel is now India's largest supplier. Given the high reputation enjoyed by Israeli defense products and services, as well as Israeli defense firms' needs for markets outside of Israel, it is not surprising that the Chinese government is eager to resume what had been a lucrative relationship, and that Israel is equally interested in finding a way to restore those military ties. But it should be noted that the Israelis have made it clear they will not cross Washington again and take the risk of offering a system to China that Washington regards as a threat to its strategic interests.

Thus there is reason to believe that there will be limits and restraints to whatever Israel is prepared to offer China. In this connection, Israel's earlier arms sales to China, especially the Lavi jet fighter, have aroused considerable unhappiness among American conservatives, who suspect Chinese military aims - with regard to Taiwan, considered its breakaway province. Some of these Israeli weapons are now turning up as Chinese systems, such as the new semi-stealth fighter, the Jian-10, which causes many difficulties to opposing air forces and air defenses. Nor is this the only such troubling - to Washington - sale. Any future sale that arouses US suspicions about how they could augment China's existing capabilities - again, especially with regard to Taiwan - will certainly affect Israel's ties to the US. There also is as yet no sign of what India's response to this meeting will be. Perhaps Delhi is waiting to see what happens. But it must strike at least some prominent Indian elites as strange that on the heels of Israel's greatest success in its bilateral defense ties with India, that it is turning to China, which many Indian elites consider New Delhi's main rival, to sell it weapons.
Certainly it will be interesting to see how the Israeli government and defense industry handle the complex situation involving Beijing, Washington, and New Delhi. But there is more to this story - arms sales to China - than the Israeli angle. Even as China's indigenous capabilities for producing relatively high-level defense systems grow, and its shipbuilding capabilities become much more impressive, it is conducting a vigorous campaign to broaden the base of its defense imports. Even though it now imports some $2 billion annually from Russia in defense sales, Russian reports confirm that most of what China buys is technology for its own indigenous arms industries - not finished weapons. This apparently coincides with renewed efforts to use foreign technology to develop an impressive and stable indigenous defense technological base. But this turn to technology in its defense relationship with Russia also coincides with a determined effort to break the blockades imposed on it by the West. France clearly wants to sell weapons to China, but the European Union imposed a blockade with American support in 1989 to protest the Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy protesters. France's desires to gain a market, once again thumbing its nose at the US, and to strengthen the global presence of the EU notwithstanding, the EU is obviously reluctant to terminate the sanctions on arms sales.

Doing so would obviously cast doubt on the seriousness of the EU's commitment to democracy and human rights abroad and to the stability of the cross-Taiwan Strait balance. Moreover, it would introduce another and unneeded source of tension into its relationship with the US over what is for it a peripheral issue - but a vital one for Washington. China's quest for superior Western technologies and weapons - from Israel - also suggests a growing disillusionment with Russian systems and unhappiness with Beijing's exclusion from the global arms market. There is little doubt that Western systems are generally of higher quality than are Russian weapons, that Western producers provide better services and after-sale repairs and possibly more value for the dollar than do Russian systems and services. Thus it is possible - if China is successful in eventually breaking the EU arms embargo and resuming military ties to Israel, that it can find alternatives to Russian producers. If current trends continue, Israel can end up inheriting or displacing much of the Russian market for the export of defense systems to India and China, Russia's main customers. That outcome would represent a disaster for the Russian defense industry and the Russian armed forces, which have few if any sources for developing new weapons, except for those sales.

Thus China's and Israel's efforts to resume their formerly profitable relationship lie at the intersection of some important trends in world affairs, and can have significant repercussions for international affairs that go far beyond the bilateral relationship. Only time will tell how far this rapprochement goes and what its consequences will be, not only for Israel and China, but for all those with an important interest in that relationship. But whatever happens, and however this relationship develops or does not mature, its consequences will most assuredly be profound, with repercussions that go far beyond Jerusalem and Beijing.

Stephen Blank is an analyst of international security affairs residing in Harrisburg, PA.


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