The war on terrorism and the preparations for an attack on Iraq have not meant that the United States has forgotten its strategic rivalry with China. The conservatives in the administration and Congress who hold much weight when it comes to shaping Washington's policies perceive an increasing danger in the Asian power and warn of China's growing strength and Beijing's threatening stance toward Taiwan.
A report published by the Pentagon last week warned that the Chinese were building up their forces to threaten Taiwan and force it to unite with the mainland, even without actually invading the island. Another report by a Congressional committee spoke of the Chinese economic threat. The conservatives' mouthpiece, The Washington Times, frequently reports on new weapons systems acquired by the Chinese and the latest efforts of their intelligence networks. The United States has pledged to protect Taiwan and the current administration has made it very clear that it will do "everything" to uphold this promise.
Israel has also been drawn into the American feud with China and will soon be forced to decide on the future of its defense ties with Beijing. Two years ago, Ehud Barak's government canceled a deal to sell planes equipped with the Phalcon sophisticated early-warning radar systems to China following heavy pressure from the American administration. This sullied relations between Israel and China, which subsequently downscaled its diplomatic and security ties with Jerusalem.
A few months ago, an agreement was signed to put an end to the affair: Israel agreed to pay $350 million in compensation and the plane departed for China without the radar system. The Chinese showed their satisfaction by sending their deputy foreign minister to Jerusalem and inviting a Knesset contingent to China. The Foreign Ministry believes that the only one who still feels sleighted is the Chinese leader, President Jiang Zemin, and Israel will still have to appease him.
Israel has not sold any weapons to China since the Phalcon affair and there are no negotiations over new deals taking place at present. There have been exchanges of visits by military officers and officials, but without much substance to the meetings, and the Foreign and Defense ministries are now pondering the question: "What next?" The official position holds that China is an important country for Israel, including in the security sphere. "We are now conducting an internal evaluation to understand what is possible and what isn't," said one defense establishment official.
The problem between Jerusalem and Beijing is located in Washington. Over there, they are not too thrilled about the sale of Israeli weapons to China and warn Israel about its possible implications. The last month has seen a string of warnings from America. The Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for Asia, Zvi Gabay, recently met with his American counterpart, James Kelly, who passed on the following message: Arms deals between Israel and China "are likely to cause a disagreement in the future," especially if those systems that could restrict the U.S. forces' operations in Asia are included.
Kelly explained that a war between China and Taiwan was not likely at this time, but that the dispute between the two could escalate. The Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for North America, Yoram Ben Ze'ev, held a recent round of talks with the U.S. administration and Congress and heard of their expectations for Israeli restraint in relations with China.
On July 2, The Washington Post reported that the Chinese army had deployed Israeli-made anti-radar "Harpy" drone systems. This is not a new weapons system, but Israel is once again being linked to China's encroaching power.
Some in Israel do not believe that the state should forgo future deals with China and that it is possible to reach an agreement with the United States. "Our stance toward China is different from that of the Americans, and we take their opinion into consideration," said one Israeli official, as though the matter at hand were an academic dispute. He and a few of his colleagues believe that Israel was also in the right during the entire Phalcon dispute.
But the question is not who is in the right; Israel is dependent on the United States, and not vice versa. The sale of weapons to China is not vital to Israel's existence and security, as American policy support and military assistance is, and Israel will have to do without such deals. A decade ago, Israel passed up defense agreements with Taiwan so as not to damage its fledgling relations with China. The U.S. deserves the same consideration, otherwise Israel will be inviting more disputes, such as the Phalcon, on itself.
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