Israel-China Arms Trade and the US Factor

ISSSP Reflections No. 13, April 11, 2014

 Author: Mr. Alvite Singh Ningthoujam


ChinaUSIsrael_webAfter a decade of dormancy, Israel and China are attempting to revive their military cooperation which came to an abrupt end following the 2004-Harpy Drone controversy. Under intense pressure from the George W. Bush administration, Israel had agreed to cancel its arms sales to China, and even allowed the US to review its future weapons transactions. American intervention in the 1990s into the Phalcon AWACS and Patriot anti-missile system controversies hindered Sino-Israeli military relations. During these fiascos, the Congress’ threat to cancel the annual military and economic aid to Israel compelled the latter to halt its arms exports to Beijing.

For long, the US has played a rather ambivalent role in relation to Israeli arms exports. It has acted both as an advocate and obstacle. On one hand, in pursuit of its wider foreign policy and strategic objectives, the US was supportive of Israel’s arms exports to countries such as China. Cold War calculations and the resultant pre-occupation with its Soviet-containment policy resulted in the US strengthening Sino-Israeli military ties. However, with the demise of the USSR and end of the Cold War, the US emerged as a major spoiler in Israel-China military ties. Such US influence seems to have some relevance even today. 

Since late-2000s, Israel and China have been exploring means to revive their military cooperation. This is evident by mutual visits of defence officials from both countries. In May 2011, the commander of the Chinese Navy Adm. Wu Shengli visited Israel and met with Defence Minister Ehud Barak and his Israeli counterpart. The details of the meeting were not publicised. However, a source from Israeli Ministry of Defence insisted that there were “no changes in Israel’s marginal defence trade ties with Beijing”. The Israeli caution is most likely due to the fact that its defence trade had already been subject to an American veto. 

Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) paid a four-day visit to Israel in August 2011, the first ever by a Chinese military commander. Both countries discussed the issue of renewing defence cooperation. The Chinese leader toured Israel’s military installations but refrained from discussing arms transfers. During 2012 and 2013, Israel’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, and the head of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s visited Beijing, respectively. The Israeli chief did not promote arms exports to China despite an existing cooperation in the field of internal security between the Chinese police forces and elements of Israel’s police.

Israel has long desired to revive military cooperation with China but the fear of a backlash from the US has prevented it from making much headway. For instance, the appointment of Matan Vilnai as the new ambassador to China in 2013 was a very calculated move. Vilnai, a career military officer had also served as the Israeli Minister of Home Front Defence. Such a gesture points to Israel’s attempt at “unfreezing arms trade”. Additionally, it is likely that “Vilnai would play a significant role in Beijing if and when Israel moves in that direction”.  

Amid these developments, the US has resurfaced as the ‘elephant’ in the room. The recent resignation of Meir Shalit, an Israeli defence export official, is reminiscent of Amos Yaron’s resignation in 2005 over military sales to China. The US stymied Israel’s effort to expand ties with China as Shalit approved the sale of a defence product to France without restricting its resale, which reportedly ended up in China.

The US government places tight restrictions on the sale of defence and dual-use technology to China and other countries. Owing to increased difficulty in exporting arms, various Israeli defence industries lobbied the government to ease those restrictions to facilitate smooth trade with the Chinese defence market. For now, joint-ventures with China remain uncertain as Israel’s defence ministry continues to oppose any easing of restrictions. However, this might be changed as Israel’s defence ministry recently announced its decision to add more countries for which arms exporters would no longer require a “special license for marketing non-classified weaponry and defense equipment.”

The US is likely to impede any possible Israel-China arms trade. Currently, Washington is working to enhance military exchanges with China. As a result, the US could be worried of a potential competition from Israel in the Chinese defence market. Simultaneously for Israel, dwindling American influence in the region and their growing differences over the Iranian nuclear programme has led to thawed relations with China. Israel could perhaps use China’s expanding influence in the Middle East to ease tensions arising from Iran’s nuclear programme.

When it comes to renewal of arms trade, Israel would have to pursue military-security relations with China with greater secrecy than before to thwart American sabotage. At this juncture, when Asia-Pacific region accounts for a major portion of Israeli arms sales, tapping the Chinese defence would be of high interest for Israel. In 2012, out of Israel’s total arms exports estimated at US$7.5 billion, Asia-Pacific region alone accounted for business worth US$4 billion. Israeli sells arms without many political-strings attached. This is likely to be greatly preferred by China. Moreover, China experienced a robust arms trade equation with Israel from 1980s (well before they had established diplomatic relations) and continued till late-1990s.

A revived Israel-China military relation would be closely watched by other Asian countries, which also have close military cooperation with Israel. For instance, South East Asian countries such as Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, and South Korea are rapidly enhancing their military-security cooperation with Israel. Most of their engagements revolve around arms trade. A similar relation is desired by the Chinese. If Israel and China manage to renew their military ties successfully defying American concerns, the Jewish State will have to tread very carefully considering the delicate balance of power in the wider Asia-Pacific region. This is particularly considering the rivalries each of these countries have amongst themselves over territorial issues and South China Sea disputes. With the emerging developments, it is pertinent that a renewed military tie between Israel and China is only a matter of time.

About the Author

Alvite Singh Ningthoujam is a PhD researcher at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. He also served as a Fellow at the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Centre for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University, Israel (2010-2011). His research interests include Israeli arms exports, Indo-Israeli defence cooperation, Israel-South East Asian relations, and Indo-Iranian relations. He can be reached at

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