Reconciliation: Israel’s Prime Minister in Beijing

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 2

Three Israeli leaders have visited the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in their capacities as prime ministers since the establishment of full diplomatic relations between the two countries in January 1992. Rabin arrived in Beijing in October 1993, followed by Netanyahu who visited China twice, briefly in August 1997 and again in May 1998. Yet, it took nearly nine additional years until Beijing was willing to welcome the next Israeli prime minister. On January 11, 2007 Ehud Olmert ended his three-day official visit to China. His visit indicated that Beijing may now be willing to forgive (though probably not to forget) and turn to a new page in Sino-Israeli relations following over six years of a relative chill. Caused by Jerusalem’s July 2000 about-face regarding the Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) sale to China—just three months after President Jiang Zemin had been assured during his historical visit to Israel that the deal was on—the chill had strong affects on bilateral relations. Whereas Israel’s economic transactions with China have suffered only minor damages, diplomatic and political exchanges, not to mention military transfers, nearly grounded to a halt. This situation appeared to be further aggravated in 2005 when Washington displayed its displeasure with Israel’s readiness to upgrade the Harpy Lethal Anti-Radar Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) sold earlier to the PRC. Now, it seems, China and Israel appear to be starting all over again.

Should Washington be worried? Does Olmert’s visit indicate a resumption of Sino-Israeli military transactions? Indeed, after his meeting with PRC Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Olmert stated that “many joint security [or defense] and economic cooperation ventures were agreed on” (Israel Radio, January 11). Yet, his visit may also indicate that military transfers—once an impressive component in Sino-Israeli bilateral relations—are to remain marginal or even end altogether. Paradoxically, it was perhaps the 2005 Harpy imbroglio that has finally led to a mutual disillusionment regarding arms transfers. Beijing has finally realized that Israel, heavily dependent on the United States (now conveniently justified by the Chinese in traditional terms as a relationship between a “younger brother” and a “big brother), can no longer be relied upon as a supplier of military technology. In fact, only a day before the visit began, Yang Yi, director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at Beijing’s National Defense University (NDU), complained that “the U.S. and other European nations […] work to prevent Israel […] from selling military equipment to China […]” (People’s Daily, January 8). Jerusalem may have finally come to the same conclusion that it could by no means defy Washington on the issue of arms transfers to China. It is likely that these parallel realizations have paved the ground for Prime Minister Olmert’s visit.

If this is indeed the foundation of the Sino-Israeli reconciliation process, then Olmert’s visit is highly unlikely to trigger a resumption of Israeli military sales to China. To be sure, the loss of the PRC arms market under Washington’s pressure (and the available Russian substitute) has by no means seriously affected Israel’s overall military exports as some had been quick to predict. On the contrary, in 2006, arms exports agreements reached $4.4 billion—the highest ever—making Israel one of the world’s five leading defense exporters. The earlier peak of $4 billion was reached in 2002, shortly after the Phalcon blunder. It is this magnitude—and not solely unequivocal pressure from the United States—that has caused Israel to reconsider its military export policy.

Indeed, over the last few months Israel’s arms export policy has undergone some dramatic changes. In addition to overt as well as discreet messages, Washington’s role in these changes was demonstrated in a joint U.S.-Israel Defense Trade Controls Conference, held in Tel Aviv from December 5-6, 2006. Summing up the unprecedented meeting, a Defense Ministry spokeperson said that “[the] conference facilitated a frank and candid discussion on issues pertaining to effective implementation of defense export controls. Both Israel and the United States recognize that effective export control is needed to combat the proliferation of systems and technologies which can be used by adversaries to threaten the security of our countries” [1]. Both the contents and the timing of this statement are significant. Undoubtedly, these understandings will by necessity limit Israel’s arms sales options. Yet, they also apply—though perhaps not equally—to the United States. Washington will now have to reconsider supplying arms and military technology to Israel’s adversaries, and although Beijing is not a part of these understandings, they deliver a clear message concerning the supply of Chinese weapons to Middle Eastern countries, either directly or indirectly. It is not a coincidence that these understandings—as well as the related institutional and legal changes discussed below—have been concluded since last summer. The war in Lebanon, that exposed Chinese cruise missiles in the hands of Hezbollah, and its aftermath that has led the United Nations and other countries to try and terminate the flow of arms into Lebanon, forced Israel to join international arms control regimes and to comply with their regulations. In the final analysis, an effective and firm arms export control policy primarily serves Israel’s security interests—rather than those of the United States. Induced by Washington, it is this ultimate realization that had motivated structural and legal changes in Israel’s military export policy, long before the war in Lebanon.

These changes, that have apparently become more urgent following the war, thus have little or nothing to do with Olmert’s visit to China, but they did contribute to underlining and redefining Israel’s military export regulations, to avoid any misunderstanding in Beijing. Just a few of weeks before Olmert’s departure for China, the Israeli Government submitted a Ministry of Defense law proposal for approval by the Knesset (Parliament). Dated December 19, 2006, and titled “Law Proposal on Defense Export Control, 2006,” the document prescribes severe regulations and mechanisms that are more rigorous than ever before, regarding the control of military exports [2]. Once the law takes effect, it will become much more difficult to export arms, defense technology and military expertise to foreign countries—especially to the PRC, which is under close scrutiny.

Earlier, on July 2, 2006, a new Defense Export Control Division was instituted in the Defense Ministry, thereby separating the functions that relate to the promotion of the defense industry from those that control defense exports. While the former will be undertaken by SIBAT (the Foreign Defense Assistance and Defense Export Division), “the new division will be responsible for export control, issuing negotiation and export permits, and enforcement. It will also be responsible for outreach activity in order to make sure that all laws, regulations and instructions, pertaining to defense export controls, will be brought to the attention of individuals and companies involved in such activity.” [3] Headed by Eliezer (Eli) Pincu, a senior Ministry of Defense official who is intimately familiar with Israel’s military transfers to China, the new division will coordinate and centralize various control missions, which have been decentralized among several units and departments, through cooperation and consultation with the Ministry of Industry and Trade, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Customs Authority. This reform is a significant institutional improvement since these units—and especially the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—have had only very limited participation in the decision-making regarding Israel’s military transactions in the past, let alone those related to China.

It is, therefore, symbolic—though perhaps just a coincidence—that a few days before Olmert’s visit, China finally unveiled its new J-10 fighter-bomber whose development had begun in the 1980s in Chengdu with Israeli assistance. Yet Sino-Israeli military relations were not the primary item on Olmert’s agenda during his visit to China, if an item at all. His main concern was to convince Beijing—the last leg in the series of visits to all UN Security Council permanent member countries’ capitals—to oppose Tehran’s military nuclear program. In this respect, his visit—that otherwise appeared to promote routine bilateral relations—was perceived, though not necessarily accurately, as extremely successful. The earlier concern in Jerusalem that Beijing would categorically reject Israel’s appeal to oppose Iran’s nuclear program proved to be unjustified. After his January 10 meeting with PRC Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Olmert himself told journalists: “I was positively surprised by the things I heard. […] The meeting with the prime minister was surprising and encouraging. On the political issues, it certainly exceeded expectations. […] There was a special emphasis on Chinese opposition to a nuclear Iran and with nuclear military capabilities. […] China made it absolutely clear that it opposes a nuclear-armed Iran” (Israel Radio, January 11).

Had Olmert been properly briefed before his visit, he would not have been as excited and surprised. Yet, he failed to hold an orderly discussion with either the defense establishment or Foreign Ministry officials before he left Israel (Ma’ariv, January 9). Olmert would have known that China has never supported Iran’s military nuclear program and has no interest in the introduction of nuclear weapons to the already highly explosive and volatile Persian Gulf. The issue at hand—and this was publicly omitted by Olmert—is that China has never been willing to state that Iran’s nuclear program is military-oriented and might end in the production of nuclear weapons, something that Israel, the United States and other countries have argued as a likely result. Beijing accepts explicitly (though perhaps not implicitly) Iran’s claim that its nuclear program is peaceful. The bottom line is that Olmert—who may believe that he managed to convince the Chinese to oppose Iran’s nuclear program—did not obtain any new assurances. He failed to ask the right questions and therefore received the wrong answers. Still, Beijing expertly manipulated his presence to deliver a warning message to Tehran, just a few days after Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, had left China. President Hu Jintao told him: “The UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1737, which reflects the shared concerns of the international community over the Iranian issue, and we hope Iran will make a serious response to the resolution.” In case Ahmadinejad ignored, misunderstood or rebuffed the message, Wen Jiabao repeated precisely the same words in his meeting with Olmert, thereby underlining their validity and severity (Xinhua, January 10).

Apart from Iran, Olmert’s visit was also used to promote bilateral economic relations. New commercial and investment agreements were signed and the two sides agreed to form a joint research and development fund in computer-related fields, hydro-technology and pharmaceuticals (The Jerusalem Post, January 12). Israel was also given permission to open a third official office in Guangdong, China’s economic powerhouse and fastest growing province. With an embassy in Beijing and consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou (and Hong Kong), Israel’s diplomatic representation in the PRC is second only to its representation in the United States (AP, January 11). This is mainly justified by the rapidly expanding economic relations. In 2006, bilateral trade between the two countries exceeded $3 billion, including $2.4 billion in Chinese exports. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, bilateral Sino-Israeli trade has grown dramatically. China has become one of Israel’s leading trade partners, the third largest exporter (following the United States and Germany) as well as its largest trading partner in Asia (with 27 percent of the total turnover, one third of total imports and 18 percent of total exports). To this should be added Israel’s trade turnover with Hong Kong that reached $2.8 billion in 2005 (China Daily, November 9, 2006; China Statistical Yearbook 2006). Such growth is by no means an anomaly, but rather, an indication of even more extensive relations between the two countries. Indeed, upon his return, Prime Minister Olmert ordered his aides to draft a plan for even deeper relations with China (Yedioth Ahronot, January 14).

Notes

1. State of Israel, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Defense, December 7, 2006, available at: http://www.mod.gov.il/WordFiles/n30712066.doc.

2. Reshumot [Records], No. 274 (December 19, 2206), p. 186-205.

3. State of Israel, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Defense, June 27, 2006, available at: http://www.mod.gov.il/WordFiles/n32906065.doc.