Silent Partner: China and the Lebanon Crisis

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 17

For many years, Lebanon, a small country with a population of nearly 3.9 million, has been of marginal interest to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Much of the association between the two countries centered on Dr. George Hatem, an American physician of Lebanese origin who had studied medicine at the American University in Beirut and had traveled to Shanghai in 1933. Known in Chinese as Ma Haide, he joined the communist movement and became one of Mao Zedong’s personal doctors and a lifelong associate. In 2003, fifteen years after his death, Beijing initiated the unveiling of his bronze statue in his parents’ hometown. Three years later, in July 2006, China found itself implicated in a Hezbollah provoked and orchestrated Israeli-Lebanese war, unwillingly, unintentionally and unknowingly.

The Smoking Missile

On July 14, just two days after the conflict erupted, an Anti-Ship Cruise Missile (ASCM) launched from the coast of Lebanon hit an Israeli Hanit (Spear) Sa’ar 5 corvette, an anti-aircraft warfare ship that is said to be the best in its class. Not fatally damaged, the vessel managed to return to active service after a couple of weeks of repairs, but four servicemen were killed in the fire caused by the hit. A second missile hit an Egyptian merchant ship. Positively identified by its electronic signature as a Chinese-made C-802, the existence of such a missile in Hezbollah’s arsenal had been unknown to Israeli intelligence. Designated in China as the YJ (Yingji)-8 (or 82), around 60 to 75 (some say 125) C-802s had been delivered to Iran by 1997. Several of them subsequently found their way into Hezbollah hands. In addition, Arab sources have reported that Iran had supplied Hezbollah with Chinese-made Houdong fast-attack crafts (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 29) as well as with Chinese-made multiple barrel rocket launchers, including the 12-tube Type 63 (also known as the Fajr-1) and the WS-1/WS-1B, which was redesigned by Iran as the Fajr-5 (Strategic Update, July).

Beijing has so far failed to officially deny the allegation that the ASCM was Chinese-made. Unofficially, however, Chinese internet comments flatly reject these claims, instead asserting that they are Western media inventions. They maintain that, given the implications of arms sales to the Middle East, Beijing had “confirmed that Iran would be the end user of the missiles systems in order to prevent their transfer to sensitive areas through a third party.” Moreover, they add that the missile that hit the Israeli vessel had been developed by Iran under the name “Noor” or “Light” (Nuoer in Chinese) since November 2002. “The so-called C-802 missiles which Hezbollah used are actually the Noor missiles made in Iran.” The Chinese bloggers continued by saying that therefore, “it is farfetched to say that these missiles have much in relation with China.” Yet, for one, Noor is an air-to-sea-and-surface missile with a range of 124 miles. For another, this missile, along with others, including a new surface-to-sea Kowsar missile, were tested for the first time in early April (People’s Daily Online, April 6). It is inconceivable that a new Iranian missile that had just been flight-tested and not yet mass-produced would have been delivered to Hezbollah.

Beijing may have been unaware of these particular deliveries, made not only contrary to Sino-Iranian understandings but also contrary to China’s Middle Eastern policy. There is no reason for China to associate itself with Hezbollah not only because it is listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, but also because an organization with a similar name, ideology and strategy, called the “Allah Party [Hezbollah] of East Turkestan” (Dongtu yisilan zhenzhudang), allegedly undermines Chinese interests in Xinjiang. Given China’s close relations with Tehran and Beirut, however, and because Beijing delivered the missiles not to the Iranian Army but to the more radical Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which strongly supports Hezbollah, China’s complete lack of knowledge is unlikely. All the more so because Liu Zhentang, the PRC’s ambassador to Iran since early 2003—and one of Beijing’s most seasoned diplomats in the Middle East—had been ambassador to Lebanon before his appointment to Iran (1999-2002). Moreover, China’s presence in the UN Peacekeeping Forces in Lebanon would have almost certainly provided for better intelligence—though also introducing unexpected risks.

China’s Peacekeeping Operations in Lebanon

China officially began its peacekeeping operation in Lebanon on April 9, within the framework of UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) created in 1978. In addition to its three observers, Beijing’s 182-member engineering battalion—its first peacekeeping contingent sent to the Middle East—includes minesweeping, engineering and logistics companies and a field hospital (China Daily, July 27). On the night of July 25, one of these observers, 34-year old Lt. Colonel Du Zhaoyu, who had arrived in Lebanon just seven months earlier, was among four UN peacekeepers killed by an Israeli air strike that hit a clearly-marked UN outpost near al-Khiam in southern Lebanon. Under these unfortunate circumstances, the Chinese have once again become implicated in another war against their wish—and not for the first time.

Following the U.S. bombing of the PRC Embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999, Beijing has been on guard to detect and deter similar incidents. To be certain, the Chinese must have been aware that unarmed UN peacekeepers could be potentially caught in hostile crossfire. In fact, since China joined the UN forces in 1988, eight Chinese peacekeepers have been killed on duty. On July 21, four days before the fatal attack, another UN facility was severely damaged either by Israeli artillery or by Hezbollah-fired rockets. Hidden inside bomb shelters, none of the Ghanaian troops was injured. China’s Foreign Ministry immediately expressed concern over the safety of its peacekeepers (Xinhua, July 21). As for the al-Khiam outpost, Chinese sources claim that UN observers there telephoned the Israeli side at least 10 times before the incident, warning that its bombing was getting closer to their station (Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong], July 27). On the same day, China’s ambassador in Tel Aviv called the Israeli Foreign Ministry twice—the second time on behalf of President Hu Jintao—requesting caution regarding the UN positions in south Lebanon. Since then, there have been at least three other incidents involving UN personnel in Lebanon. In one of them, on August 6, according to a Xinhua report, three Chinese peacekeepers were slightly wounded when a Hezbollah-fired rocket landed near their post. All of these incidents received extensive Chinese attention and responses—by words much more than by deeds.

The View from Beijing

China’s behavior toward regional conflicts far from its frontiers has typically followed the same pattern. In an attempt to dissociate itself from the crisis, especially when the protagonists are its associates, Beijing advocates an early and peaceful settlement of the conflict by the parties concerned, preferably without external intervention. When possible, Beijing would exclude even the United Nations from intervening, not only because it offers what it believes is a stage for ulterior motives and interests but also, perhaps mainly, because it compels the Chinese to take a stand and thereby take sides. Above all, Beijing has always promoted the quickest restoration of stability so that its economic interests would not be seriously harmed. This conflict is no exception. From almost the beginning of the Israeli-Lebanon war, Beijing has interpreted the conflict on two levels: the local-particularistic micro-level, and the global-universalistic macro-level.

On the micro-level, China’s initial attempt to maintain a balanced approach—bearing in mind its diplomatic, economic and other relations with both Israel and Lebanon—has been gradually abandoned. Meeting with the chairman of the Israeli Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee who visited Beijing on July 13—a day after hostilities began—China’s Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing reportedly admitted that he “seriously disagrees with the kidnapping” of the two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah (Voice of Israel Network B, July 13). The next day, Liu Zhenmin, China’s Deputy Representative to the UN, condemned “the Israeli act of violating Lebanon’s sovereignty with force” and demanded that Israel halt its use of force and lift its armed blockade of Lebanon. “Meanwhile,” he added, “China opposes the action of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia in crossing the border to raid Israel and launching missile attacks on Israeli cities. China also urges Lebanon’s Hezbollah to release the captured Israeli soldiers as soon as possible” (Xinhua, July 14). This was the last time the Chinese criticized Hezbollah’s role in triggering and sustaining the conflict. Soon they began to interpret the war in a wider perspective, almost in Maoist style—ignoring the local and genuine origins of the conflict while underlining its broader external dimensions.

China rejected Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s claim that his actions had been aimed at supporting the Palestinians. Evidently aware of his backstage managers, Beijing said that he was possibly fighting for Iran and Syria, not for Hamas. “While Iran is utilizing Hezbollah to disturb the Middle East situation, the United States is backing up Israel to deal severe blows to Hezbollah so as to tell Iran in no uncertain terms that its road has a dead end” (People’s Daily Online, July 24). Beijing quoted an American source, which undoubtedly conformed to its own views: “Provocations by Hamas and Hezbollah have provided a ‘golden opportunity’ for Israel and the United States to alter the Middle East strategic arrangements” (People’s Daily Online, July 24). As the crisis persisted, a basic contradiction in Beijing’s attitude toward the United States became exposed, reflecting the complicated relations between the two countries.

On the one hand, China has blamed the United States for using the conflict to pressure Iran and Syria, to “export democracy” and to promote its “Greater Middle East” Project (People’s Daily Online, July 28). At the same time, Beijing points out, the conflict further demonstrates and underscores the limits of U.S. power: “The sudden outbreak of the Palestine and Lebanon-Israel clashes has made it difficult for the United States to handle so many complicated and difficult problems skillfully all at once. It is also obvious that the United States, despite being a superpower, still lacks the ability to go to the extreme in controlling the world” (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong], July 25). From this perspective, a weaker United States would better serve China’s interests, not only in the Middle East but also all over the world. Yet on the other hand, during the conflict, China called on the United States to abandon its “apathy” and “indifference,” occasionally almost begging Washington to step in and “make any move or take any mediatory actions” to stop the war (Xinhua, July 21). Beijing’s recognition of U.S. global influence also reveals the limited sway that China has over the Middle East region. Expectations that the PRC will become a “responsible stakeholder” are premature. For the time being, China is a “silent partner,” talking much but doing little.

While Beijing has officially and explicitly reiterated its interest in an immediate cease-fire, its defense establishment, primarily the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is likely to be unofficially and implicitly eager to watch the fighting continue. Like earlier confrontations in the Middle East, notably the Iraq wars of 1990-1991 and 2003, the current Israeli-Lebanese conflict—on land, in the air and at sea—provides a testing ground for military equipment, technologies and doctrines that are of immense value for China’s defense modernization. Extensively covered by the media, probably more than earlier conflicts, the war is undoubtedly closely monitored by the PLA; observations are being made from which general lessons (i.e. concerning the role of missiles and rockets in warfare or protection of the civilian population) as well as specific lessons (i.e. concerning the performance of weapons—both Western and especially Chinese weapons—under battlefield conditions) will be drawn. The C-802 ASCM is a case in point.

Considered one of the best ASCMs in the world, the C-802 carries a 165 kg time-delayed semi-armor-piercing high explosive warhead to a range of 120 km at Mach 0.9 speed and at an altitude of 5-7 meters above the sea. It has a 0.75 single-shot hit probability, and under ideal conditions, could have, according to some sources, 0.98. Conditions for hitting Israeli vessels opposite the Lebanese coast were more than ideal. On the night of July 14, when the soldiers where busy preparing for the Sabbath, the vessel’s CIWS (Close-in Weapon System) was most likely not set in auto-engage; given their lack of intelligence, as they were not expecting any ASCM attacks. Moreover, the vessel was located about 16 kilometers away from the coast, giving them, at Mach 0.9 speed, approximately 55 seconds to respond if the missile was immediately detected upon launch. In reality, however, because the C-802 flew at such a low altitude and because its radar was activated only close to the target, the crew had no more than 20 seconds to react. The first C-802 hit but failed to sink the vessel. The second missed another Israeli vessel and instead sank an Egyptian freighter. Three more C-802s were fired on August 1, China’s Army Day, against Israeli Navy vessels—all missed. A PLA study of the missile’s performance is probably already under way.