EDITORIAL: China’s growing leverage on Israel

Tue, Dec 30, 2008 - Page 8

Beijing yesterday reacted with “shock” to Israel’s three-day bombing campaign in Gaza, in which as many as 300 Palestinians have been killed and close to 1,000 injured. While, like most, China believes Israel has a right to defend itself, Israel’s response to Hamas’ cross-border rocket attacks was anything but proportional and deserves international opprobrium.

As Israel readies to widen its campaign in Gaza, most countries have called for a halt to hostilities while putting the onus on Israel to restrain itself.

One country, however, has gone against the grain: the US, Israel’s longstanding backer, whose statements in the past few days indicated that the 150:1 death ratio in this latest Middle East flare-up was entirely Hamas’ fault.

As has happened countless times since the first Intifada, with full US backing, Israel feels no compunction in razing neighborhoods or killing innocent people in its efforts to defend itself.

All the UN Security Council can muster is “deep concern” about the situation, a feeble slap on the wrist rendered all the more painless by a US veto.

Aside from morally backing its Middle Eastern ally, the US remains its principal source of weapons. In August last year, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that the US’ defense memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Israel would increase by 25 percent over the next decade, amounting to US$30 billion over the next 10 years, compared with US$24 billion in the past decade. The first payout of US$2.55 billion was scheduled for October this year.

In the current economic climate, however, there are reasons to question the sustainability of the US’ security agreement with Israel, or even the ability to come to its assistance, given its operational requirements elsewhere. Late last week, for example, Japan intimated that it could abandon plans to purchase F-22s from the US because the administration of president-elect Barack Obama has said it could halt production of the expensive aircraft in light of shrinking tax revenue — a sign that the economic crisis is starting to affect the US defense establishment.

Should the downturn continue in the next few years, Israel could soon find itself dealing with a poorer and therefore far-less generous Washington, which could prompt it to look elsewhere for security guarantees.

That elsewhere could very well be China. While Beijing has historically sided with the Palestinians in the Middle East conflict, it has in recent years built up its relations with Israel, mostly in the purchase of military technology. As early as 2002, the Washington Post was reporting that Israel had sold “Harpy” anti-radar drones to China; other weapons transfers — possibly including US-made weapons technology — have occurred since. In 2006, Israel exported a record US$4.2 billion in military equipment, part of which is known to have gone to China. In light of China’s rapid modernization of its military, purchases from Israeli weapons vendors (ranking only second to Russia) can be expected to increase substantially, despite pressure from Washington.

Should an embattled US ever feel the need to change its MOU with Israel and decrease the amount of military assistance it gives, Israel could feel compelled to compensate by further tapping into its lucrative weapons exports sector, with China as its likely principal client.

Aside from the implications this would have for Taiwan’s security, the growing interdependence between China and Israel, combined with a weakened US, means that China’s leverage on Israel will likely grow, which could be the first good news Palestinians have had in decades.