Beijing Is No Friend

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“As for Israel, its Chinese customers are supplying Middle East dictators with missiles that can reach Israeli territory – if handshakes ever close into fists,” A.M. Rosenthal wrote in October 1993. Sadly, recent events in Lebanon seem to have proven the late columnist correct.

On July 14, the Israeli SAAR-5 class corvette Hanit suffered considerable damage and the loss of four crew members off the coast of Lebanon after being attacked by an anti-ship cruise missile, apparently fired by Hezbollah. According to the vice president of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, Richard Fisher, the attack wouldn’t have been possible without a C-802 anti-ship missile. The means to produce the missile were sold by China to Iran, a major supporter of the terrorist group, in the mid-1990s. “This highly capable anti-ship missile is probably only one of many systems, the transfers of which show how Beijing has opened a genuine Pandora’s Box of proliferation possibilities in the Middle East,” Mr. Fisher said.

Israeli arms sales to China have erupted off and on as a controversy in the past decade. Even though Mr. Rosenthal back then was defending Israel against charges of selling American weapons technology to China, he admitted that “the ice can get thinner” if both Israel-U.S. joint military enterprises and Israel-to-China military sales continue. He also warned that Israel’s sales to China could make it an American political target one day. Well, Mr. Rosenthal turned out to be right on both counts. America and Israel have gotten into two serious quarrels over the years related to Israeli arms sales to China.

A year ago, Israel, under tremendous American pressure, canceled the sale to China of drone aircraft capable of seeking out radar installations. Washington was worried that such advanced military technology would help the People’s Liberation Army in fighting against American forces if war breaks out in Taiwan Strait. The Israeli Ministry of Defense subsequently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Pentagon allowing the latter to review future arms sales to prevent such disputes. In 2000, Israel, also facing American opposition, was forced to suspend a $1 billion deal to sell Phalcon early warning radar planes to China.

You might think that, after such unpleasant experiences, Israel would have stopped arms sales to China altogether. Not quite. The director-general of the Israeli defense ministry, Ya’acov Toren, revealed to the Jerusalem Post last March that “the military industries have returned to working defense exports with China and other countries.” Why are the Israelis doing this? Defense deals, Mr. Toren said, were also a type of diplomacy that often preceded public relations between two countries. “When an Indian plane filled with Israeli systems takes to the sky, then Sharon can go visit India,” he said referring to the visit in September 2003.

There are a few more reasons. First, foreign arms sales keep Israel’s defense industry going. To this argument, Mr. Rosenthal had a great response: “As my mother used to say, I will sit right down and cry my heart out for them.” Second, dealing with China might dissuade Beijing from selling more arms to Israel’s Middle East enemies. The use of Chinese weapons against the Hanit should now put an end to such notions. Third, money. Again, I can’t find a better rebuke than what Mr. Rosenthal wrote: “That always seems so sensible, until money comes whistling back as dictators’ bombs.”

“As an American friend of Israel and a lifetime anti-Communist and anti-Fascist, I believe Israel is in moral and political error in selling even a pistol to the keeper of a gulag that includes the entire nation of Tibet,” Mr. Rosenthal’s words still ring true to this Chinese friend of the Jewish state.

If Israel still needs further persuasion on why it should stop arming China, just look at what the Chinese have been saying about the current war against Hezbollah. In a story titled “Israel has gone too far,” China Daily claims that Israel’s bombing “has gone beyond the legitimate right of self-defense” and is “a breach of international law.” There’s “no justification” for the military response to Hezbollah, which is on “a wholly unacceptable scale,” the Communist government-controlled newspaper said.

A research fellow from the Institute of America Studies affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Tao Wenzhao, accused Israel of starting the war unnecessarily.”Minor provocative acts are commonplace between Israel and Hezbollah and between Israel and Palestinian guerrillas,” Mr. Tao informed us in a China Daily commentary, implying that Israel has over-reacted this time.

Another well-known scholar, Yan Xuetong, the director of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, wrote in the Global Times that “there’s no difference in nature between the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and all other large nations invading small nations in history.” What’s more, the actions of both the Israeli army and Hezbollah are both examples of terrorism, he said.

Ultimately, Israel doesn’t want peace, we’re told. “From the 1967 war onward, Israel’s key strategic goal has been to avoid a political process at all costs,” China Daily said.The Beijing News editorialized that Israel in fact could have chosen other approaches to deal with the hostage incident but it believed it’s so powerful that it could bully the weak by invading another country.

Internet chat rooms in China, tightly controlled and condoned by the authorities, are filled with nasty comments critical of Israel which shouldn’t be repeated here. I don’t want you to have a wrong impression that the Chinese are worse than the Nazis.

Need I to repeat the old saying? With friends like these…

Mr. Liu, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association and general manager of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily, is a Washington-based columnist.

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