US up in arms over Sino-Israel
ties By Sudha Ramachandran
BANGALORE - Israel's relationship with its
closest ally, the United States, seems to have hit a
rough patch, with Washington apparently upset with
Israel's clandestine dealings with China. The spat is
not new, however. It has its roots in a decade-old
issue. Old suspicions have returned. It is an explosion
into the public domain of a row that has been going on
for a few years.
The quarrel is over Israel's
alleged concealing from Washington of an upgrade of a
major weapons system it sold to China more than a decade
ago. The United States claims that by upgrading the
system, Israel violated its commitment not to transfer
US technology to China without Washington's permission.
Israel, however, insists that the upgrade was really
just routine maintenance of a system that had originally
been sold to China with US approval.
appears to have propelled this simmering tension into
the open is a clash of personalities. According to
reports in the media, US Under Secretary of Defense Doug
Feith believes that Israeli Defense Ministry director
general Amos Yaron misled him on the arms sale to China.
On Wednesday, Israeli media reported that Feith had
demanded Yaron's resignation (the Pentagon has
subsequently denied this).
This clash of
personalities is a minor matter and can be sorted out.
That is not the case with the underlying issue of
concern to the US - Sino-Israel military cooperation.
Israel is China's second-largest arms supplier
(the first being Russia). Although diplomatic relations
between Israel and China were established only in 1992,
military ties go back to the early 1980s. Until formal
diplomatic ties were established, the military
relationship was covert. Israel sold about US$4 billion
worth of arms to China during the covert courtship. In
the 1990s, the Sino-Israel military relationship grew
rapidly. In fact, arms sales contributed to the
strengthening of diplomatic engagement.
military relationship hit a trough in 2000, however,
when Israel came under pressure from the US to scrap a
$250 million deal to sell China the Phalcon, an airborne
radar system equipped with advanced Israeli-made
aeronautics on board a Russian-made plane. Washington's
argument was that providing Beijing access to the
technology would upset the military balance between
China and Taiwan and threaten US interests in the
region. When the US Congress threatened to cut the $2.8
billion it gives Israel annually if the deal went ahead,
Israel buckled and scrapped it.
For years, the
US government has expressed concerns over Israel
illegally transferring technology to China. During the
Gulf War, the US gave Israel Patriot missiles as
protection against Iraqi Scud missiles. In 1992, a US
intelligence report revealed that soon after the end of
the Gulf War, Israel had sold Patriot anti-missile data
to China. Israel denied the intelligence report.
Washington has also alleged on several occasions
that Israel violated agreements by exporting restricted
US technology it buys with yearly US subsidies. This was
the case with the largely US-funded Lavi fighter-plane
program. Israel, the Americans believe, passed on
technology to Beijing. China's F-10 fighter jet is
believed to be almost identical to the Lavi.
Washington has also expressed concern from time
to time that Israel's arms trade with China could result
in its military technology falling into the "wrong
hands" - such as Iran's, for instance. But this argument
rings rather hollow considering that the US itself
supplies Pakistan with high-tech weaponry, despite
Pakistan's "all-weather friendship" with China and
Islamabad's abysmal record on the issue of nuclear and
missile proliferation and its supply of military
technology and know-how to Washington's foes.
Israel's damaged reputation Unlike
previous occasions when suspicions were expressed more
quietly, with the Phalcon deal the issue erupted into
the open. The cancellation of the Phalcon deal damaged
Israel's image and interests to a considerable extent.
It eroded Israel's credibility as a weapons supplier in
the international arms market and it laid bare to the
world Israel's susceptibility to US pressure.
The cancellation of the Phalcon deal not
surprisingly led to a chill in Sino-Israel relations.
Israel subsequently forked out $350 million in
compensation to China, and there were no known arms
sales through 2003. Back in 2002, a deal for Israeli
communication satellites was signed. Early this year, an
Israeli delegation went to China for talks on rebuilding
military ties. Reports suggested that Israel and China
were even considering reopening the Phalcon
The military relationship is important for
both countries. China is keen to have access to Israel's
high-quality defense products and services, and the
relationship with Israel has enabled it to acquire
"dual-use technology" that the US and Europe have been
reluctant to provide.
Israel, which is among the
world's top exporters of arms, is keen on its military
ties with China for several reasons. According to Gerald
Steinberg, professor of political science at the Bar
Ilan University in Tel Aviv and consultant to the
Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National
Security Council, since Israel does not sell arms to the
Arab countries or Iran, it has fewer potential markets
than other major players in the high-tech arms market.
(However, a look at Israel's arms market over the past
several decades indicates that the country has sold arms
to regimes that other countries have been reluctant to
Unlike most other arms
manufacturers, Israel exports 75% of the total
production of its military industries. Israel's military
industry is dependent on exports for its survival. And
arms sales to China are among its most lucrative
businesses. Therefore, arms trade with China is very
important, providing contracts for jobs as well as
income to offset the high costs of maintaining Israel's
technology and industrial base. Military trade has also
paved the way for broader trade in other dual-use and
high-tech goods. China's immense value as a trade
partner for Israel's military industry is evident from
Israel's engagement with China and Taiwan. In the early
1990s, Israel passed up defense deals with Taiwan so as
not to damage its fledging relationship with China.
Eugene Kogan, a defense-industry analyst, writes
in the Jamestown Foundation's China Brief that while
Israel has rebuffed Taiwan's repeated attempts to revive
relations with it, "when it comes to contact with China,
the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MOD) promotes a
clear-cut policy. China is an extremely important trade
partner for the Israeli defense industry. As a result,
the MOD, which oversees the arms trade with China, has
ensured that Israel maintains a positive relationship
with the PRC [People's Republic of China], while
avoiding any contact with Taiwan which might disrupt
The Israel-China military
relationship also contributed to China softening its
anti-Israel stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
China's policy moved from its pro-Arab tilt to a more
nuanced appreciation of the Israeli position. (Chinese
criticism of Israel increased markedly after the
cancellation of the Phalcon deal.)
interesting about China's military relationship with
Israel is that Beijing has been able to increase
engagement with Israel without alienating the Arabs.
Even Iran hasn't protested Beijing's close military ties
Israel has much to lose by angering
the Chinese. But it has more to lose by angering the US.
The cost of not complying with Washington's demands
could result in a cutback on the nearly $2 billion in
foreign military assistance that the US provides Israel
annually. It could result in political and diplomatic
costs, too, for Israel. It will have to do a fine
balancing act if it wants to maintain its military ties
with China without provoking Washington's ire.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent
journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India.