The Chinese chief of staff’s visit to Israel on August 14 gave rise to speculation about the nature of the relationship between the two countries: its scope, limits, as well its impact on the Middle East region, particularly its effect on US-Israeli ties. The visit coincided with an increase in the frequency of visits by other Chinese military officials to Israel.
The Chinese chief of staff’s visit comes on the heels of another visit to Israel by the commander of the Chinese navy in May 2011, followed a month later by a visit from China’s Defense Minister. Prior to that, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak went to China on a historic visit in mid-June 2011, during which he affirmed military and commercial cooperation between the two countries and issued invitations for Chinese military officials to visit Israel. Barak told Chinese officials, “Israel is a small country, and our internal market is too small for our technology sector,” which, to Chinese ears, meant that Israel is willing to develop militarily ties with China despite US pressures.
This is a sign of improved Sino-Israeli ties after the relationship between the two countries was stymied for years by US opposition. It appears that the Chinese have not missed this opportunity to revive their military collaboration with Israel. The Israeli-Chinese relationship constitutes an interesting case study in politics, as it is almost impossible to determine which side is being more pragmatic, opportunistic, and cunning.
It is helpful to begin by outlining the role of China in the Middle East. Historically, the Chinese position, influenced by its communist ideology, was closer to that of the Arabs. When Chinese foreign policy began to shift in the 1970s, from an ideological to a pragmatic position, its politics became more realist, and it refrained from taking a clear position in favor of a specific party in the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the 1980s and 1990s, China’s policies towards the region were largely determined by its arms sales to countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, of which nuclear cooperation was a major part. Current Chinese interests in the region are not restricted to procuring energy resources, selling weapons, and buying high-tech weaponry from Israel.
Sino-Israeli relations have often revolved around military matters, while Sino-Arab and Sino-Iranian relations have largely involved oil. China benefits from the Israeli military industry’s advanced technology, especially in areas of control devices, air defense, and naval equipment. The Chinese are also interested in Israeli operational expertise, as China has not engaged in a military campaign since the 1970s. The international embargo on arms sales to China following the Tienanmen Square events in 1989 proved to be useful to Israel, which has become Beijing’s second largest arms supplier after Russia.The importance of Sino-Israeli military relations was such that their military cooperation, beginning in the early 1980s, preceded political normalization, which did not happen until the early 1990s. However, their partnership has faced numerous obstacles and crises, largely due to US opposition to Israeli arms sales to China, especially in the strategic high-tech weapons sector which affects the balance of power in the Pacific region. US pressure, which has repeatedly forced Israel to cancel signed agreements with China, has represented the biggest obstacle to Sino-Israeli military cooperation.
US-Israeli relations faced a serious challenge in 2000 because of Israel’s agreement to supply China with the Phalcon airborne early warning system. Washington suspended certain sensitive military programs with Israel, fearing they would be transferred to China, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. This forced Israel to cancel its agreement and pledge not to sell China weapons that could threaten US national security.
Many factors may prompt Israel to reassess its previous policy and revive its relations with China, or so the Chinese hope. In light of Israel’s economic crisis, military exports to China could help Israel’s economy, especially at a moment when China is interested in improving its military capabilities, demonstrated by the launching of its first aircraft carrier on August 10.
Meanwhile, China has gained more prominence in Middle Eastern affairs, especially in areas of interest to Israel, namely China’s relationship with Iran and arms sales to Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel wants to benefit from China’s rising global status at time when US influence is in decline.
Israel may also be interested in benefiting from China’s diplomatic power, in light of the Palestinian Authority’s September bid for Palestinian statehood at the UN. China could play a central role in the UN Security Council and in other international venues where Israel faces mounting accusations that they have violated human rights and international laws.
Additionally, Israel has used the issue of military exports to China as leverage with the US, particularly when it comes to the peace process and other Middle East issues. Reviving relations with China may also serve as a counterweight to pressures by the Obama administration. US policy will play a determining role in Israel’s relationship with China. In an essay entitled “Chinese Chief of Staff Visits Israel: Renewing Military Relations?” Yoram Evron from Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies writes, “Unlike the past, when it [Israel] ignored tensions between the US and China or alternately chose one side over the other, it will now have to find a way to maneuver between the two.”