Security and Defense: The Chinese connection

Israeli-Sino military ties have entered a new period of warmth, although their content mostly remains a mystery.

IDF Chief of Staff with Chinese counterpart 390 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
IDF Chief of Staff with Chinese counterpart 390
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
In 2010, commander of the Israel Navy Adm. Eliezer Marom was invited to China. The invitation had special significance for Marom, whose German father and Chinese mother had met and lived in China until 1955.
The seventh of eight children, Marom was born just weeks after his family moved to Israel but quickly earned the nickname “Chiney” due to his Asiatic features.
When the invitation arrived at his office in the Kirya Military Headquarters in Tel Aviv, Marom understood what it was for and that the trip would need to be approved by the chief of staff and the defense minister.
After years of being locked out from the Israeli defense market, the Chinese were looking for someone inside Israel who could help advance their cause and get the ban on Israeli defense exports to China lifted. They thought Marom – the so-called “Chinese-Israeli admiral” would help out.
They were wrong.
While the ban on Israeli defense exports appears to still be in place, there is no question that Israeli-Sino military ties have entered a new period of warmth – although the content of those ties largely remains a mystery.
Just take a look at the frequency and level of state visits back and forth between Jerusalem and Beijing. In May, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz was in China for high-level talks with the Chinese defense establishment.
Last August, Gen. Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, visited Israel. It was the first time that a Chinese military chief visited the country.
Two months before Bingde’s trip, Ehud Barak traveled to China for the first visit of an Israeli defense minister in a decade.
Weeks before his trip, Barak had met with Adm. Wu Shengli, commander of the PLA Navy, during his visit to Israel.
In the summer of 2010, Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan, then head of the Home Front Command, headed an Israeli military delegation to China a few months after Amos Yadlin – then head of Military Intelligence – had flown to Beijing together with Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is now reportedly also planning a trip to Beijing and next month Matan Vilnai, the current Home Front Defense minister and former deputy chief of staff, will take up his new post as Israel’s new ambassador to China.
The increase in ties, which comes after nearly a decade of disconnect between the PLA and the IDF, has not gone unnoticed in Washington. There, a number of senior officials in the State Department and the Pentagon have raised eyebrows over the tightening of ties between China and Israel.
Israeli officials are quick to stress that all of the visits – whether to Israel or to China – are first cleared with the United States.
“We never outright request permission but we are sure to always call and update the Pentagon about the trips and the scheduled itineraries,” explained a former senior defense official who had worked closely with the US.
Historically, China’s connection to the Jewish people dates back hundreds of years. An ancient Jewish enclave still remains in Kaifeng, a cosmopolitan center on the Silk Road and an attraction for Sephardic Jews from India and Persia between the 10th and 12th centuries.
In the 1930s and ’40s, around 20,000 Jews fleeing from the Nazis escaped to China, establishing a large Jewish community in Shanghai. Both countries were also established within a year of one another – Israel in 1948 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But while Israel was quick to recognize chairman Mao Zedong’s regime, official diplomatic ties and Chinese recognition for the Jewish state would have to wait more than 40 years.
Military ties flourished in the 1980s and ’90s. The Chinese military was largely based on old Soviet platforms and Israeli defense firms were experts in modernizing tanks and combat aircraft.
One defense official, who has worked in China, explained that the interest in ties with Israel was based on three key elements: appreciation of a fellow ancient culture, a genuine belief that Jews are some of the smartest people in the world and interest in Israeli military tactics and technology that helped defeat its various Arab enemies.
But in the late 1990s everything changed with the finalization of a $1 billion deal for the sale of Phalcon early-warning aircraft and systems to the Chinese. It was around the same time that US-Sino relations began to deteriorate but Israel – first under Netanyahu as prime minister and then under Barak – thought it could convince the White House and Pentagon of the importance of the deal. They were both wrong, and in 2000 Barak had no choice but to cancel the deal.
In late 2004, Israel again was caught in American crosshairs after it received for maintenance a number of Harpy drones it had sold to China several years earlier. The US accused Israel of upgrading the Chinese drones with American systems. Israel denied the accusations but saw an immediate downgrade in defense ties with Washington.
“The dispute between Israel and the US stemmed from their respective assessments regarding the nature of the Chinese military-strategic threat,” Uzi Eilam, former head of research and development at the Defense Ministry, wrote in a paper analyzing the crisis. “According to the American perception... China constitutes a significant strategic threat to the United States and its interests, particularly in eastern Asia. Israel did not perceive early enough the seriousness with which the US relates to the provision to China of weapon systems that it regards as strategic.”
Either way, the crisis finally ended in the summer of 2005 with an agreement according to which Israel granted the US veto rights over arms sales to select countries – like China – which Washington felt compromised its national security.
“Our policy remains the same today,” a senior defense official explained recently.
“We do not sell them anything that is defense related and that would jeopardize our ties with the US.” If that is the case then the question many are asking is about the content of the meetings that Gantz, Barak, Yadlin, Ya’alon, Marom, Golan and others are holding with their Chinese counterparts.
For the time being, this appears to be a case of mutual interests. Beijing’s interest in upgrading ties with Israel stems from a hope that one day Israeli technology will once again be available to China but also due to a desire to be involved in what is happening in the Middle East, particularly after it was caught by surprise with the ongoing upheavals in the region.
The main issue the Israel brings up with China is Iran and its continued pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Israel looks to China as a key player in stopping Iran’s nuclear program by cutting its dependency on Iranian oil and by stopping to supply the Islamic Republic with weapons and missile components.
There is also an Israeli interest in expanding its economic reach – particularly to an economic superpower like China – and to forge security and diplomatic ties that could be called on in dire times. On Tuesday, for example, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz was in Beijing to sign a historic cooperation deal with China to build a multi-billion dollar railway to Eilat.
Armed with dossiers with intelligence on Iran, including documents and satellite photos, the delegations that have traveled to Beijing make a number of arguments.
Firstly, the officials argue that Saudi Arabia could fill the gap in Chinese energy demands if it was willing to cut off its supply from Iran.
The Israelis have also tried to impress upon the Chinese what would happen to their economy if Israel goes ahead and attacks Iran. That is why, for example, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer joined one of the delegations a couple of years ago.
For the time being, the discussions with the Chinese focus mostly on regional issues but also on low-scale military cooperation.
The Chinese, for example, are concerned that their military might be rusty after not fighting a major war in several decades. Since Israel has, they are looking to the IDF for guidance on military doctrine, instruction and training.
This could explain why Maj.-Gen. Yossi Baidatz, commander of the National Defense College, accompanied Gantz to Beijing in May – probably to discuss military education and also possibly intelligence (Baidatz had previously served as head of Military Intelligence’s Research Directorate).
Israel is extremely sensitive to US concern over its ties with China. In 2010, the Chinese had initially invited Israel Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Ido Nehushtan to visit but the IDF decided that a visit of the IAF commander – a key post involved in operations and the development of technology – would not be perceived well in Washington. That is how Golan – then head of the Home Front Command – found himself on a flight to Beijing.
“Golan can talk about civil defense, preparations for an earthquake and medical issues,” a senior IDF officer explained at the time. “Humanitarian is okay. Operations is not.”
The increase in ties with China, though, particularly with Iran in the background, has some people wondering whether Israel might be planning to try to use its technology for diplomatic purposes. This happened in 2010 when Israel announced it was selling drones to Russia. Several months after the deal was signed, Moscow announced it was canceling the sale of the sophisticated S- 300 air defense system to Iran.
The government claims that such a deal is not in the works but, as one senior cabinet minister explained after a trip to China, “If we could sell them technology, they would buy everything we have to offer.”
For the time being Israel is committed to its alliance with the United States, but it will need to maneuver carefully so as not to make the same mistakes of the last decade as it moves forward in its relationship with China.