Cover Story / The Jews of China
February 3, 1998 / 7 Shevat, 5758

US-China summit vital to Israeli security

By Douglas M. Bloomfield

CHINESE PRESIDENT JIANG ZEMIN'S recent Washington meetings with President Clinton were of great importance to Israel, which is watching closely to see whether he keeps promises made there that are considered vital to the security of the Jewish state.

The United States and Israel suspect China and Russia, whose President Boris Yeltsin is here this week, of helping Iran, Syria and others acquire weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles that could be tipped with chemical, biological and nuclear warheads.

Jiang promised Clinton to halt the transfer of nuclear weapons technology in exchange for an American agreement to sell civilian nuclear power equipment to China. The promise comes too late in the case of Pakistan, which western experts are convinced already has built the "Islamic bomb," but they don't believe Iran and Syria have reached the same level of development, although they don't really know how far those two regimes have progressed.

China also has agreed to stop the sale of anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran, something Washington demanded because of the threat those missiles could pose to American ships in the Persian Gulf, but it is not clear what agreements were reached on other forms of missile technology, which is of understandably great concern to Israel.

During a brief visit to Beijing this summer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reported receiving a commitment from Chinese authorities to halt nuclear weapons work with Iran, Syria and other enemies of Israel, but many Israelis, including well-placed China watchers, are skeptical about such promises -- particularly considering China's need for hard currency.

"They will do as they please," said a highly reliable source who did not wish to be identified. "I expect them to look for ways to circumvent their promises."

Israel obviously doesn't have the clout here to expect to be able to influence Chinese policy, so it must depend on Washington to do the heavy lifting for Jerusalem.

Clinton publicly warned Jiang against sharing dangerous technologies with "rogue states and terrorists... seeking to undermine peace, stability and democracy," particularly in the Middle East. He said he wants China to do a better job of observing international norms regarding chemical and biological weapons technology and missile systems.

Some Israeli policy makers also are concerned about their own country's military and defense technology trade with China,fearing that despite Chinese assurances, some is still finding its way into the wrong hands.

"Whatever we give them gets to Iran," despite repeated promises to the contrary, in the view of a well-placed Israeli source.

Beijing and Jerusalem established formal diplomatic relations in January 1992 following the Gulf War and the launching of the peace process at Madrid the previous year. But military contacts between the two began a decade earlier when Israel began selling China gun barrels for its Soviet-style tanks and providing other services.

It was a lucrative and important, albeit secret, market for Israel, which at the time was having trouble finding trading partners and often found itself drawn to unsavory regimes. At times that put it in conflict with American policy, and even its own policies.

Israel persisted in arms sales to apartheid South Africa at a time when it seriously endangered relations with the United States, and particularly Israel's power base on Capitol Hill, and to Iran where it got involved in the arms-for-hostages fiasco with the Reagan White House.

The most cynical episode, however, had to be in 1981 when the American Jewish community, with the encouragement of Prime Minister Menachem Begin, went all out to block the sale of early warning aircraft (AWACS) and F-15 enhancements to Saudi Arabia. At the same time the Israeli defense establishment was rooting for a Saudi victory because Israel Aircraft Industry was manufacturing some of those F-15 enhancements that today are part of the Royal Saudi Air Force inventory, complete with "made in USA" markings stamped at the factory outside Tel Aviv.

Once diplomatic relations were formalized, trade and other exchanges took off in all directions. The most important is agriculture; the ordinary Chinese this visitor has encountered on the streets here are aware of Israeli drip-irrigation technology being utilized by their country's farmers.

China is facing a serious drought, particularly in the north, where over 86 million acres are targeted for water-saving irrigation systems. Israeli agriculture officials, from Minister Rafael Eitan on down, have visited here frequently.

Israelis are being careful not to offend Chinese sensitivities, they insist, explaining, "We are here to share experiences, not to teach."

Israel also is selling technology, equipment and know-how in areas of health and medicine, telecommunications, machinery, software, chemicals, diamonds, and even automobile parts.

Israel's imports from China are about $100 million a year, and its exports are about $80 million and growing steadily. By comparison, some of the individual contracts signed last week during Jiang's visit with American corporations like Boeing, dwarf that sum.

China is the world's most populous country -- at least half a dozen cities each have more population than the entire state of Israel -- and has the world's most rapidly expanding economy. Its annual foreign trade is in the neighborhood of $300 billion.

Israel is trying to get a larger slice of that pie and is succeeding despite intense Arab pressure on China, especially from Egypt, to lower the level of relations with the Jewish state. China looks to the Arab world for oil to fuel its rapidly expanding industrial base and for markets for its goods.

Nonetheless, Israeli officials report China continues to be friendly with Israel, and trade and other relations continue to grow. The Chinese media present balanced and daily coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, although historically China has supported the Arab side.

Israel tries to keep a low profile in China but its presence is apparent. In the three weeks this reporter traveled the country, the Israeli ballet played to packed audiences, an Israeli guest conductor led the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra at the Beijing Concert Hall, Israeli films were exhibited in an international film festival, an international sculpture exhibit prominently featured Israeli artists, and a group of Israeli generals visited the country.

Some Israelis like to compare what the two countries have in common -- famous walls built about 2,000 years ago, a rich cultural history, and ancient civilizations celebrating the 50th anniversary of the present state. One could also point out similar tastes in food, chaotic road conditions and the fact that each scares the hell out of its neighbors.

But the differences are much greater than the similarities. They sit on opposite ends of the Asian continent geographically as well as politically. China expects to be a global superpower early in the next century, and that could once again put it in conflict with Israel's best and most important ally, the United States.

That is why it is so important to Israel and the United States that China abide by the agreements made in Washington last week to curb the development of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology by regimes like Iran and Syria. But both Washington and Jerusalem sacrifice leverage over China in this area when they put such an overwhelming emphasis on trade with the world's fastest growing economy.

Douglas M. Bloomfield is JWR's Washington correspondent.


© 1998, Douglas M. Bloomfield