Sunday, January 02, 2005

Israel over a Chinese barrel

January 2 2005

Israel over a Chinese barrel

pv vivekanand
AN intense tug-of-war pitting three sides -- China, Israel and the US -- is being waged behind the scenes over Israel's sales of arms and related services to the Chinese.

It was always known that Israel's military links with China were a source of concern for the US, particularly that the Israelis always used technical loopholes in bilateral agreements to justify their arms deals with the Chinese. The main American concern stems from a fear that the Chinese would acquire Israeli-supplied weapons systems that could challenge American-supplied equipment deployed by Taiwan.

In expert opinion, the periodic tension between Israel and Washington about arms sales "are nothing to what might happen if American soldiers were killed by Israeli weapons" in a war between China and Taiwan.

In the latest spat, Israel is holding back, at American insistence, Israel-built Harpy unmanned aerial attack (UAV) vehicles sent back by China for overhaul and upgrade.

China is furious and Beijing's posture in the equation is clear. It has told Israel in clear terms that it would no longer tolerate any behaviour that does not acknowledge that China is a world power and that the Jewish state should not renege on signed contracts. Beijing has also ruled out accepting monetary compensation for the held-back vehicles as Israel did in 2000 in a deal involving the proposed sale of Phalcon surveillance aircraft. Israel called off the deal under American pressure and China collected $350 million in indemnity for the Israeli default on the deal.

"The Chinese government suspected Israel in 2000 -- and again now -- of being disingenuous in claiming its hands are held by Washington," says the Israeli intelligence web site "They see Israeli undertaking to supply the advanced technology to China, on the one hand, and, on the other, playing ball with the Americans to withhold it in default of a written contact."

Israel sold more than 40 Harpy UAVs to China in the late 90s and the vehicles were returned to Israel for an upgrade in 2004 because Beijing wanted it to be technologically equal to similar Israeli-made drones in Taiwan's possession. Taiwan bought the UAVs recently.

Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Tang Jiaxuan was in Israel in late December on a secret visit to demand the return of the UAVs after upgrade. He told the Israelis in unambiguous terms that China wants back the overhauled and upgraded Harpy attack vehicles as soon as possible and there could be no compromise over the deal. Tang told the Israelis that it is not a Chinese problem if they were facing pressure from the Americans.

He stated that as far as Beijing was concerned, the vehicles are Chinese property, having been bought and paid for by the Chinese government and holding them back amounted to illegal seizure and Israel would face serious reprisals if it did not honour the service contract. This could mean a set-back to Chinese-Israeli diplomatic relations and could prejudice to the interests of Israeli firms operating in China. Two-way trade is estimated at around $2 billion and Israel is harbouring ambitions to turn China as one of its key trading partners.

In Washington, the crisis over the Harpys has gone up through the ranks and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld himself is dealing with the file, and the problem is soon expected to raise its head in the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"For Israel, the implications are grave indeed," says the report. "The entire complex of US-Israel defence ties is now up for review in the light of Israel's compliance with or defiance of Washington's demand to withhold the Chinese UAVs. Putting the case before the Senate committee invites a review of US appropriations to Israel, including military aid, in the full realisation that delayed transfers would cause Israel severe financial damage. President George W. Bush thus signals that he would not be averse to a Senate committee reprimand of Israel and posts a hands-off sign to Israel's Capitol Hill lobbyists."

Apparently, the Harpy UAVs, which have an endurance of seven hours and a range of 550 kilometres, are central to Chinese military planning. China has been using them for several functions, including electronic warfare, airborne early warning (AEW) and ground attack roles, as well as reconnaissance and communications relay.

The Harpy UAVs are capable of patrolling the skies over a battle field or an enemy target and seeking out hostile radar by comparing its signal with the hostile emitters stored away in its computer system. Once it is verified, the drone attacks. Even if the targeted radar is switched off, they can abort the attack and hover in the area until it is reactivated and then return to the attack.

The vehicles are said to be a key element of an AEW electronic system that the Chinese have been building since the early 90s to match the US Global Hawk.

The Chinese are particularly angry because it sees the crisis over the UAVs as the direct result of Washington's "determination to deprive China of this vital system as part and parcel of its overall scheme to impair the airborne intelligence system the Chinese are building."

Without the vehicles, the Chinese programme to build what Beijing sees as the key in its military stand involving Taiwan would be set back by several years.

According to, it was Taiwan, which recently purchased the same type of drones from Israel, which informed the US that China had sent back the vehicles for overhaul and upgrade after Beijing found that the vehicles sold to Taipei were more advanced than the ones it received.

US officials say that Israel never asked permission or notified the administration about the UAV sale to China, but Israeli officials say that there was no need for such permission of notification because no American-developed technology is employed in the Harpy.

US-China conflict

The US has a long-running conflict with China and had several confrontations over its arms programmes, including the suspected transfer of advanced computer technology to China's military and accusations that China stole American nuclear secrets.

Caught between the US drive to maintain a ceiling on China's military powers and the Chinese determination to acquire advanced technology and weapons in preparation for any eventuality in the dispute with Taiwan, Israel proposed to send back the UAVs without upgrade.

However, China then threatened to take action against the operations of Israeli firms not only in mainland China but also in Hong Kong, and that warning was reaffirmed by Tang late last month.

"The tangle Israel has spun here is hard to explain -- even by the ambition to boost its defence exports," says "Because the Chinese were supplied first, their model is less advanced than the up-to-date version sold Taiwan and other recent clients. Beijing demanded an upgrade after discovering its drone lacked the more advanced instruments incorporated in the newer version for identifying target signals not only from its library but visually -- which enables the unmanned craft to strike targets after their radar is switched off. China demanded that its Harpy drones be brought level with the UARs supplied Taiwan."

"The United States, for its part, will not hear of the drones returning to China, overhauled or not," says "Now, Washington is watching to see how Israel picks its way out of the impasse, while at the same time preparing a bludgeon to bring down on its head. Israeli officials are frantically casting about for a way out of one of the most acute and damaging crises ever encountered by the Jewish state."

Israeli defence ministry official Amos Yaron briefed a parliamentary panel on the Harpy crisis last week, but, citing national security, he refused to provide details of the China deal. But he said he hoped the crisis would be resolved by March 2005.

More significantly and as a reflection of Israel's confidence that it would get away with anything while dealing with the US, Yaron told the Knesset committee that Washington had no business to interfere in Israeli affairs.

As a result, it was reported by sources in Washington, the Pentagon has placed a temporary lid on meetings between top defence officials from the two sides.

The last American comment on the crisis came from a Pentagon spokesman in the third week of December confirming that the US had indeed raised concerns about arms sales to China with Israel but had not demanded the resignation of any Israeli official over reported transfers of sensitive weapons or technology to Beijing.

That came in implicit response to a report by an Israeli television channel that Washington had demanded the dismissal of Yaron over the Harply deal.

According to the Pentagon, differences between the United States and Israel were "based on policy not personalities."

However, the department confirmed that it had raised longstanding US concerns about the sale and transfer of weapons systems or certain technologies to China.

However, there is no easy solution to the problem. For once, China has adopted a tough and uncompromising position that would have serious repercussions on Israel's trade and export ambitions. The US is equally adamant that Israel, which receives $3 billion in American military aid -- not to mention billions of dollars in other forms of assistance -- every year, should not be party to selling equipment to China that could challenge American interests in the dispute over Taiwan that is key to the US strategy in Asia.