While the US is making its “pivot,” or rebalancing, from the Middle East to Southeast and East Asia, enhancing its economic, political and military presence there, a countermove is being made: China is increasing its presence in the Middle East. This is important for Taiwan.
As Washington lowers its presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding countries, Beijing is doing the opposite, filling the economic void left by the US. China’s primary purpose is energy: it needs vast amounts of oil, natural gas and other natural resources to fuel its burgeoning economy.
To sustain an increased presence in the region, China is following a two-pronged strategy:
First, it is embarking on a “New Silk Road” of infrastructure projects from western China into the Central Asian republics, which are designed to eventually link to Iran and Turkey. This will provide direct access to the Middle East, bypassing the cumbersome and vulnerable sea route through the Strait of Malacca.
Second, China is embarking on a naval modernization, shifting from its traditional coastal defense to a “far sea defense” designed to increase its ability to protect its overseas interests. The speed of this modernization was increased significantly after the fall of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi in the summer of 2011, when China had little means of influencing developments and was left to evacuate about 36,000 Chinese from Libya who were there working on state-sponsored development projects.
In the middle of all this, China is also doing something that might have a direct bearing on Taiwan: it is working hard to strengthen ties with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Beijing in May and was warmly welcomed in the Chinese capital. Strange bedfellows maybe, but each country has its own reasons.
Israel is, of course, a small nation surrounded by a set of hostile neighbors. It wants China’s help in the UN Security Council on issues related to Syria and Iran. Beijing may be willing to provide help, for a price. That price is Israeli defense technology.
China’s People’s Liberation Army is highly interested in acquiring key capabilities that it can use in possible conflicts with the US, Taiwan and Japan, such as stealth, surveillance, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones), missile electronics and guidance, and airborne warning and control system (AWACS). When they revived their military ties in 2011 and held bilateral discussions, Israel’s UAV technology was at the top of China’s military wish list.
It would not be wise for Israel to start to relying on China’s goodwill to resolve conflicts with its neighbors. China will only look out for its own interests and, in the end, drop Israel, its temporary ally, for what the larger parties like Iran can offer: oil and gas.
China will squeeze Israel for any piece of high-end technology it can lay its hands on, like when it tried to obtain the Phalcon AWACS system and the upgraded Harpy drone. Israel planned to sell the technologies to China in the early 2000s, but the deals were canceled at the insistence of the US. Defensive technology would be used by a repressive China against democratic allies, not only the US and Japan, but also against a small nation threatened by a large neighbor: Taiwan.
To avoid a potential “Phalcon/
Harpy debacle redux,” both the US and Taiwan would do well to reach out to Israel and convince its leaders that any transfer of such sensitive, often dual-use, technologies will undermine a small, free and democratic nation fighting for its survival. Hopefully, Israel’s leaders will recognize the situation.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 to 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.