Israel-China Arms Trade: Unfreezing Times

By P. R. Kumaraswamy | Professor - Jawaharlal Nehru University | Jul 16, 2012
Photo Credit: Omer Granot, Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Omer Granot, Wikimedia Commons
Israel-China Arms Trade: Unfreezing Times
Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilnai

The appointment of a political figure as ambassador often signals the level of importance attached to bilateral relations, more so if the person in question was a career military officer and current cabinet minister. This was the case in February 2012 when Israel named Matan Vilnai as its next ambassador to China. Beijing was more than happy to accept the appointment of then-Israeli Minister of Home Front Defense, seeing it as a signal for further improvement. Vilnai’s selection is attributed to Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s reading of the political future of his breakaway Ha'Atzma'ut [Independence] party, which according to some surveys would not make it to the next Knesset. Under similar circumstances in 1996, the Labor Party appointed Minister Ora Namir as ambassador to China in 1996. Otherwise, Israeli missions in Beijing have been headed by career diplomats since relations between the two countries were established in January 1992.

Vilnai is more than a career military officer; he led the southern command shortly after the outbreak of the 1987 intifada and in the 1990s went on to serve as Deputy chief of staff when Ehud Barak was the Chief of General Staff. Upon completing his military service, Vilnai followed Barak throughout his political journey. Hence, Vilani's appointment can partly be described as a reward for his personal loyalty and commitment to Barak. Thus in both countries, Vilnai’s appointment was viewed as positive as he is seen as someone who could use his long military and political career to enhance bilateral ties with China. Indications are that Vilnai would take up his position towards the end of this year after incumbent Amos Nadai completes his term.

Vilnai’s appointment, however, comes at a time when certain regional and international dynamics have forced Israel to re-examine its relationship with China, especially on the military front which remained frozen under repeated American pressures and diktats.

From Military to Political Ties

Despite disagreements over the extent of Sino-Israeli military relations, there is a general consensus among academics and within the intelligence community: military exports played an important role in paving the way for the normalization of relations. Although Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in January 1950, Israel was inhibited from responding to or reciprocating China’s overtures by perceived American opposition during the Korean War.[1] By the time Israel recognized the importance of the PRC and sought to act accordingly, the latter had politically discovered the Arabs at the Bandung Conference of Afro-Asian Conference in April 1955. Since then Israel has been unsuccessfully trying to normalize relations with China and intensified its efforts after the PRC joined the UN in 1971. That odyssey proved to be long and arduous.

The post-Mao Chinese leadership and its reform agenda provided Israel with an opening. The Chinese military's modernization program complemented the Israeli military's expertise and its willingness to exports arms and technology without political demands. Thus in the late 1970s, both countries began a series of military contacts that eventually paved the way for political relations in January 1992. Israeli military exports to China primarily consisted of technology and upgrading rather than hardware.[2] Israel's desire to use military exports to further its political interests in Beijing, combined with China's close ties with Arab and Islamic countries in the Middle East, meant that both countries preferred to keep the military ties under wrap.[3]

The US was a willing partner in the emerging Sino-Israeli military ties. On one hand, Washington remained committed to ending Israel’s political and diplomatic isolation and Israel’s military exports to China fit within its desire to promote Israeli’s diplomatic fortunes. On the other hand, during the Cold War China was a part of the American strategic preoccupation with containing the USSR. Therefore, despite US-led Western sanctions following the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the US remained indifferent to Sino-Israeli military ties. Countries like India[4] sought closer military ties with Israel after normalization, but in the case of China, the defense component had been in place for more than a decade when both countries moved closer on the diplomatic front.

Under normal circumstances, Sino-Israeli normalization in January 1992 should have expanded their military cooperation. This was the pattern of Israel’s relations with countries like India and Turkey where full political relations intensified military-security ties. China however, did not fall into this pattern. Even though both countries were keen to maintain closer military ties, they were prevented from doing so by the US and its new strategic worldview.[5] The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the USSR removed the strategic rationale for the US courtship of China. Not only had their shared threat disappeared, but the US also began to view China as the new competitor for global influence. China was no longer an ally to be befriended but rather was a potential adversary to be contained. This transformed erstwhile American indifference into new concerns over Sino-Israeli military ties. Thus, rather than expanding, Sino-Israeli military ties floundered beginning in 1992 under intense pressures from Washington. American officials accused Israel of illegally transferring American weapons and technology to China and providing access to sensitive American inventories.[6] Under the pretext of their potential threat to its military presence in the Pacific theater, the US eventually forced Prime Minister Barak to cancel the Phalcon AWACS deal in July 2000.[7] Writing on a similar controversy involving Harpy unmanned aerial vehicles, a leading Sinologist remarked: “While it is too soon to mourn the untimely death of Israeli arms sales to China, it is nonetheless becoming clear to all parties concerned that the controversial military transfers seem to have reached a dead end and have practically been suspended.”[8] However, the Phalcon cancellation announcement amidst crucial Israeli-Palestinian peace talks at Camp David effectively ended the decade-long wrangling between Israel and the US over arms supplies to China.

Despite their disappointment, both sides recognized that the decision to end weapons sales was not a bilateral decision but rather one forced upon them by the US. Israel paid financial compensation to China, so the latter was not harsh towards Israel over the sudden breach of trust. There are indications, however, that three factors will compel both countries to re-examine the freezing of military-security cooperation.

Favorable Conditions

The post-Cold War euphoria of a unipolar world proved to be short-lived as America's unquestionable hegemony could not survive the September 11 attacks and their aftermath. The Cold War was a European construct, and its end, therefore, marked the end of the three-century-old European supremacy. While it is too early to script the political domination of Asia, its economic ascendance cannot be denied. Countries that did not fall into the Soviet model of military-might-sans-economic-power focused on the latter and in the process began consolidating their regional and global influence. Three of the world’s four largest economies are now located in Asia and their individual economic power is larger than that of many powerful countries in Europe. The global economic recession of 2007 reduced the political as well as economic influence of Europe. Thus, currently the US is not only the world’s largest economy but also its largest debtor. Even a spectacular economic recovery is unlikely to restore American economic power and preponderance in the world, as it is essentially a declining power. Whether it will be replaced by one or a constellation of powers would depend upon how China manages its competition with other powers. It is certain, however, that US hegemony is on the decline.

This declining influence of the US is more apparent in the Middle East, and despite its intentions and active engagements, the US has not been able to minimize let alone resolve some of the region's burning issues. For over three decades, Republicans and Democrats alike have been struggling to develop a policy towards the Islamic Republic of Iran. Far from being consistent, American policy has not even been effective, with the ongoing nuclear controversy serving as a manifestation of US indecisiveness. Recent intensification of economic sanctions has largely been the outcome of Israeli brinkmanship and its threats to pursue a military option against Iran.[9] Nearly a decade after Iran's refusal to comply with its commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the US and its non-proliferation allies are still struggling to secure a non-nuclear Iran.

Likewise, like many of his predecessors, President Barack Obama has made little progress with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. While his assertion that the June 1967 borders should serve as a basis for a Palestinian state made headlines,[10] Obama made little headway by antagonizing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The two-state solution remains as elusive as it was a decade ago.

The irrelevance of the US is most obvious in light of the Arab awakening, when the Obama administration managed to anger all sides. Protesters were upset over America's slow response to rally around democracy, freedom, good governance, and accountability. The region's rulers are equally upset with the Administration for abandoning them in their hour of need, despite their prolonged service in the effort to further American interests in the Middle East. More than the protestors in Tahrir Square, perceived American abandonment of the regime appeared to have forced the military to shift its loyalty away from President Husni Mubarak to the masses. The irritation of the rulers was more apparent in Saudi Arabia when the US expressed feeble support for protests in Bahrain. The fact that King Hamad is still the ruler of Bahrain not because of the benevolence of President Obama, but rather the determination of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Islamists who have come to power in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and those who are waiting in the wings in other countries, are equally upset with Washington due to its prolonged support for despised rulers in the region and its pro-Israeli policy. If past support angered America's enemies, the present shift has angered its friends; in short, the Middle East is proving to be a graveyard for American pre-eminence.

It would however, be too tempting to blame President Obama. In hindsight it is clear that his June 2009 Cairo speech,[11] whereby he sought to reach out to the Arab and Muslim worlds by changing the course of American foreign policy, exposed his naiveté. The significant decline of American influence in the Middle East occurred during his Administration and hence Obama cannot escape from criticism. However, what happened since January 2009 were the effects, not the cause, and President Obama was merely paying the price for the short-sighted policies pursued by his Republican predecessor. By undertaking two costly wars without clearly defining American interests, President George W Bush irrevocably damaged American fortunes in the Middle East. Unlike Vietnam, the US could not “declare” victory before pulling out its combat soldiers from Iraq in December 2011, and the situation would not be different in 2014, the scheduled timeframe for American pullout from Afghanistan. Identifying the root cause of America's decline in the region does not serve the interests of the Republicans in the US and their supporters in the Middle East.

Israel will not be able to ignore these harsh realities, especially in light of its prolonged dependence on American politic-diplomatic support, economic largess, and military-technological backing.

Second, American decline has coincided with the rise of China and its international profile. Emboldened by its economic strength as the second-largest economy after the US, China has been increasingly assertive, especially with regard to the Middle East. Carefully moving away from its erstwhile indifference and marginal interests, Beijing has been active on a number of crisis situations in the region. The ability or inability of the international community to act on major Middle East-related issues rests on China. The failure of the UN Security Council (UNSC) to take action in Darfur can partly be blamed on China and its support for President Omar al-Bashir. Likewise, the need for Chinese support compelled the US to dilute the wording of UNSC resolutions on Iran's nuclear program. Beijing can take credit for both milder sanctions placed on Iran the delays in implementing them. Despite overwhelming support from the Arab League and African Union, China preferred to abstain during the UNSC votes on Libya. Its determination to veto both of the UNSC resolutions also torpedoed Western plans against Syria. The final decision of the Security Council to send UN observers to Syria to monitor the ceasefire plan was possible only because the West voted in favor of the Chinese (and also of the Russian) plan.

Hence, at least in the Middle Eastern context, an area of principal Israeli concern, China has emerged as a major player whose interests and calculations are becoming vital. The success of Western oil sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue likewise, rests upon the willingness of China to reduce its energy ties with Tehran. Moreover, during the Second Lebanese war in 2006, Israel realized the lethal role China can play in the region. On July 15, Hizbullah fired a Chinese-made, Iranian-supplied C-802 anti-ship missile that struck the INS Hanit off the coast of Beirut, resulting in the deaths of four Israeli sailors and severe damage to the corvette.[12] In short, paraphrasing David Ben-Gurion one could argue, “What matters is not what the West says but the Chinese do in the Middle East.”

The rise of China’s profile in the Middle East means that Israel would have to seek an understanding with it, and if possible try to influence China's position on a number of issues. In the past Israel could have used its perceived influence in Washington to further its interests vis-à-vis China. This was an effective tool during the Cold War when China was way behind the West. Since the mid-1990s, however, the equation has dramatically changed in favor of China. Moreover, Israel-US relations are not as cordial as they were before, especially under Obama.

Three, adjusting to the economic rise of Asia will not be easy for Israel as its trade with Asia has increased dramatically in recent years.[13] Its future lays more with Asia than with Europe, with whom it never enjoyed close ties with in the first place. Israel's bonhomie with France consecrated on the eve of the Suez war of 1956 did not last long, and since the early 1980s Europe has emerged as a hardened critic of Israel over the Palestinian issue. Israel needs allies and is unlikely to find them in Europe with its increasingly pro-Arab domestic constituency.

Asia, especially China, will not be easy for Israel either. Both countries do not forget to highlight the history of the Jewish and Chinese people, but modern political contacts and convergences have been limited especially in light of prolonged Chinese refusal to recognize and normalize relations with the Jewish State. The Judeo-Christian heritage and the horrors of the Holocaust have been the two principal planks upon which Israel’s relations with the West were explained and sustained. They are irrelevant in the Chinese context. During the Japanese occupation, China provided refuge to Jews who were fleeing Europe, a memory that evokes Jewish-Israeli gratitude, but not Chinese guilt, similar to one visible in Europe. China does not suffer from the historic baggage that prevents the German government, for example, from criticizing Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. In short, the historic treatment of the Jews in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust, resulting in Israel’s Never Again determination, is irrelevant in the Chinese context. Nor does Chinese society posses anything similar to Christian and, more recently Islamic, anti-Semitism.

The absence of historic baggage is the biggest challenge facing Israel in dealing with China as well as other countries in Asia. Israel’s ability to further its interests in China and other Asian countries thus rests on the convergence of present and future interests rather than past crimes, hatred or burden of history.

Declining US influence, the rise of China’s role in the Middle East, and its lack of historical baggage brings us to the single most effective instrument at Israel’s disposal: military sales.

More than six decades after its founding, arms sales remains Israel’s most effective foreign policy instrument. Its close ties with countries are often measured by the depth of military-security ties. This was true for countries as diverse as Turkey, Singapore, South Korea, South Africa (during apartheid), and India since 1992. Despite being dependent on the US, Israel has emerged as a key player in the international arms market, especially in areas such as high-tech weaponry, upgrading, intelligence gathering, surveillance, and counter-terrorism. China still needs Israeli expertise and will benefit from it as it did before 1992. Arms sale would also enable Israel to influence China’s Middle East policy towards countries such as Iran. This would also mitigate Chinese anxiety over Israel’s growing military ties with India. Far from operating under American influence, Israel can directly influence China by restoring its military sales and cooperation. With the Uighur issue dominating its domestic security concerns, Israeli expertise would be immensely valuable to China.

Reviving military ties with China, however, will not be easy. Unlike in the past, the US would not accept, let alone endorse, Sino-Israeli military ties. Both countries would have to pursue military-security relations with greater secrecy than before. Earlier they were kept under wraps because of their potential negative impact on China’s relations with Arab and Islamic countries. However, this time around secrecy would be aimed at warding off American interference in the relationship.

Over the years, Israel has not hesitated to defy the US. While the withdrawal from Gaza in 1957 highlighted the power of American dictates, there have been other instances when Israeli leaders (both on the Left and Right) were able to overrule the US. Netanyahu’s continued defiance of Obama’s demands for settlement freeze is just the latest example. As and when necessary, Israeli leaders would not hesitate to defy US objections to its military ties with China, especially when Washington is proving to be ineffective in the Middle East. While commercial justifications for continued arms sales to China would not assuage US concerns, larger strategic arguments such as influencing Chinese behavior in the Middle East via arms sale would carry more weight.

Thus when it comes to the renewal of arms sale to China, the issue is not if but when and under what circumstances. While it is too soon to suggest that Vilnai’s goal is to revive Sino-Israeli military ties, Vilnai would play a significant role in Beijing if and when Israel moves in that direction.




[1] Yitzhak Shichor, “Hide-and-Seek: Sino-Israeli Relations in Perspective,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 2, Winter 1994, pp. 16–35; Aron Shai, Aron, Sino-Israeli relations: Current Reality and Future Prospects, Memorandum No. 100 (Tel Aviv; Institute for National Security Studies, 2006).

[2] Gerald Segal, “China and Israel: Pragmatic Politics,” SAIS Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Summer-Fall 1987), pp. 195–210

[3] P R Kumaraswamy, “The Military Dimension of Israel-China Relations,” China Report, Vol. 31, No. 2 (April–June 1995), pp. 235–249.

[4] Efraim Inbar and Alvite Singh Ningthoujam, “Indo-Israeli Defense Cooperation in the Twenty-first Century,” MERIA Journal (Herzliya, Israel), Vol. 15, No. 4 (December 2011), http://www.gloria-center.org/2011/12/indo-israeli-defense-cooperation-in....

[5] P R Kumaraswamy, ‘At What Cost Israel-China Ties?’, Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Spring 2006), pp. 37–44.

[6] Duncan Clarke, “Israel’s Unauthorized Arms Transfers,” Foreign Policy, No. 99 (Summer 1995), pp.89–109; and P R Kumaraswamy, “Israel, China and the United States: The Patriot controversy,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Winter 1996), pp. 12–33.

[7] P R Kumaraswamy, “Israel-China Relations and the Phalcon Controversy,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Summer 2005), pp. 93–103.

[8] Yitzhak Shichor, “Mountain out of Molehill: Arms Transfer in Sino-Middle Eastern Relations,” MERIA Journal, Vol. 4, No.2 (September 2000), http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2000/issue3/jv4n3a6.html.

[9] For example see, Natasha Mozgovaya, “Dennis Ross: Israeli Leaders Talk about Iran Nuclear Threat to Motivate the World to Act,” Ha‘aretz, May 7, 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/dennis-ross-israeli-leader....

[10] “Remarks by the President at the AIPAC Policy Conference 2011,” The White House, May 22, 2011, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/05/22/remarks-president-....

[11] “Remarks by the President on a New Beginning,” White House, June 4, 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/remarks-president-cairo-unive....

[12] Yitzhak Shichor, “Reconciliation: Israel’s Prime Minister in Beijing,” China Brief, Vol. 7, No. 2 (May 9, 2007), http://www.jamestown.org/programs/chinabrief/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=....

[13] “Asia Overtakes U.S. as Target Market for Israeli Exports,” Ha‘aretz, March 6, 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/business/asia-overtakes-u-s-as-target-market-for-....

when it comes to the renewal of arms sale to China, the issue is not if but when...