After months of hiatus, U.S.-Israel tension over China has returned. This time the dispute is over Israel’s desire to upgrade the Harpy assault drone that it had sold to China in the mid-1990s. The drones are capable of destroying radar stations and anti-aircraft batteries; the U.S. fears that they could upset the delicate strategic balance between China and Taiwan as well as upset its interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
What was initially described as “repairing” later turned out to be “upgrading,” thereby igniting a new controversy in bilateral relations. Citing a breach of trust and incomplete disclosure, the U.S. reacted strongly against Israel’s work on the drone. As the controversy continued, Chinese State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan visited Israel in December and invited Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to visit Beijing. This was the highest visit from China in nearly five years. There were even suggestions that contrary to American fears and misgivings, the deal would not only consolidate Sino-Israeli ties but also further American intelligence capabilities vis-à-vis China.
Israel, however, eventually bowed to American dictates. After weeks of wrangling, pressure tactics and behind the scene negotiations, the issue was resolved. While China was keen to upgrade the Harpy assault drone, the U.S. demanded Israel “confiscate” it. Israel settled for a compromise and, according to a senior Chinese official, returned the drone without upgrading.
This, however, was not the first occasion when U.S.-Israel relations floated into rough waters over China. Since the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, bilateral relations between the United States and Israel have been marked and marred by periodic controversies over Israel’s military relations with China.
Long before formal diplomatic relations were established in January 1992, both countries forged close military ties. Despite public acrimony and criticism over Israel’s policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians, China found Israel to be an important player in its drive for military modernization. The U.S.-led sanctions following the Tiananmen controversy merely enhanced Israel’s role as the proverbial “backdoor” to Western technology.
Likewise, Israel found China to be a prime customer, especially in the 1980s, when its lucrative arms markets in Latin America and South Africa were either drying up or becoming politically untenable. Strategically, the military sales to China smoothed the political differences between the countries and eventually paved the way for Sino-Israeli normalization in January 1992. Thus, both Israel and China benefited from increased military relations.
For its part, the U.S. was also an indirect player in the military saga. While demanding its European allies to continue military sanctions against China, it was indifferent toward the Sino-Israeli arms trade. Seeing the military route as a means of promoting the interests of the Jewish state, Washington was not concerned about Israel upgrading the Chinese military.
Post-Cold War Chinese Fever
The end of the Cold War, however, altered erstwhile American indifference toward Sino-Israeli ties. It no longer needed Beijing as a counterweight to Moscow, and Washington began to perceive Sino-Israeli relations, especially the military deals, as a threat to its interests in the Pacific region. The looming prospect of China emerging as a global player that could one day threaten American influence in Asia resulted in the U.S. becoming concerned over the entire development.
One could argue over the rationale or logic behind the new American obsession with the Chinese threat. Given its strong economic interests and involvement in China, one could even question its wisdom in provoking an emerging power. It is, however, undeniable that Beijing occupies a prime position in American global interests, especially its policy toward the Asia-Pacific region.
As a result, since the end of the Cold War, both Republicans and Democrats started viewing Sino-Israeli military ties with suspicion and periodically sought to slow down, contain and, if possible, scuttle any military deals between Israel and China. Unlike the past, mainstream American leadership, including those committed to strong U.S.-Israel relations, began to disapprove of Sino-Israeli military ties.
In early 1992, Israel was accused of the unauthorized transfer of American technology to China; the Washington Times argued that Israel had given China technological details on the Patriot anti-missile system that was deployed in Israel during the Kuwait crisis. Despite it being a strong ally, an official team was sent to Israel to verify the allegations. While the team was unable to confirm the allegations, the political damage was significant.
This was followed by charges that Israel had retransferred U.S. technology from the Lavi fighter program to China. The Lavi fighter plane that was to have been developed by Israel depended heavily upon American funding and technology. Having eventually canceled the project under intense American pressure, Israel was later accused of seeking to export the Lavi technology to China.
Then came the Phalcon controversy when Israel agreed to install the advanced early warning systems aboard a Russian platform. Under the deal, estimated at a billion dollars, Israel was to supply four such planes to China. This raised alarms in Washington, and Israel once again came under pressure. The Clinton administration, despite its friendliness toward Israel over the peace process, argued that the Phalcon would adversely affect American strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific. At one time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was even warned that annual American aid would be cut to express American anger and displeasure over his refusal to heed.
Eventually Barak buckled, and in July 2000, right in the middle of the Camp David talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israel canceled the deal, apologized to Beijing and agreed to pay huge financial compensation for reneging on its commitment. In response, the U.S. agreed to Israel’s decision to sell the Phalcon to India. For its part, Israel agreed to exercise caution and exhibit transparency in its military dealings with China.
Yet, Israel could not avoid using the time-tested military means to regain the trust and confidence of China. Its ability to restore Sino-Israeli relations, especially against the background of growing international criticism and isolation due to the al-Aqsa Intifada, entirely depended upon the military route. Over the years, the military dimension has become the indicator to measure Israel’s relations with the outside world. For example, military sales play a pivotal role in the close ties that Israel maintains with Turkey and India. Hence, the Harpy upgrading, to avoid American suspicion, was initially described as a “repair” rather than an “upgrade.”