Taiwan's security; US-Israeli relations
09 April 2002
By: Holmes Liao
(April 9) - Israel has reportedly agreed to pay China $300 million in compensation for canceling the sale of the Phalcon early warning aircraft in July 2000 after the United States demanded it rescind the agreement.
The US was concerned that China could use the warplane(s) against Taiwan's jet fighters in the event of a military conflict, into which the US could be drawn. A fleet of such Phalcon planes could adversely impact Taiwan's air superiority in the longer term. Chinese armed forces could also deploy similar Israeli technologies to control the islands and sea lanes of communication in the South and East China Seas - a paramount security concern for the US Pacific allies.
To many Americans and Asians alike, China appears bent on challenging the US and establishing a muscular new position across a broad swath of Asia. The differences between US and China cover a wide range of issues: missile defense, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, religious persecution, counter-terrorism, and Taiwan. Among these, the Taiwan issue remains the most likely potential flash point between the US and China.
Much like Israel, Taiwan's security is largely dependent on its relations with the United States - a country perceived by Beijing as being the primary obstacle to achieving its national objectives, especially the "sacred, historical mission" to unify Taiwan by force.
Since the end of the 1970s, Israel has developed close ties with China. In recent years, these ties have become particularly strong in the area of defense and US officials have repeatedly complained that Israel has not only shrugged off a welter of American criticism about its burgeoning defense relationship with China, but also missed the larger picture about potential conflict between Taiwan and China.
Israeli policymakers therefore should contemplate, from Washington's perspective, whether it would be shocking if an ally such as Israel were seeking profit from making China a more effective challenger of the US - both Taiwan's and Israel's leading patron.
Israel may not care about the strategic environment that Taiwan faces, but Israel's transfer of military technologies to China flies directly in the face of US security interests in the Asia-Pacific region. Israeli survival has one dependable guarantor, and the powerful US-Israeli alliance is not without its moral dimension. After all, Taiwan, like Israel, is a democracy with a vigorous economy.
If Israel tips the military balance in East Asia, the American public may ask why the US should continue to ensure Israel's security in the Middle East.
Israel is the world's sixth largest arms exporter; arms sales to China are among its most lucrative business. The military trade - amounting to more than $1.5 billion over the past decade - also paved the way for broader trade in other dual-use and hi-tech goods.
The financial gains from selling arms to China are not without risks, however. Israel is playing a dangerous game by opening a potential conduit for high-technology weaponry to find their way into the hands of its enemies. There have been reports that China has transferred missile technologies that can be used in developing weapons of mass destruction to countries such as Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Such arms transfers may therefore not only jeopardize Israel's efforts to win US support, but also put Israeli soldiers at risk should a regional conflict erupt.
The failed Phalcon deal is a hard lesson for Israel. The US is not without double standards when it comes to arms export. Israel can't simply persuade itself that since West European countries are transferring military technologies to China, Israel is likewise free to conduct intensive military trade. Therefore, when treading the delicate geopolitical environment in East Asia, Israel ought to caution itself not to misinterpret Washington's occasional equivocal messages and run ahead of the world from time to time.
(The writer is a research fellow at the Taiwan Research Institute.)