In a clear sign that the Bush administration’s anger over Israeli-Chinese military ties is nearing a boiling point, the Pentagon is suspending information-sharing with Jerusalem on a key fighter-jet program.
The seriousness of the rift had been downplayed for months by both American and Israeli officials. Last week, however, the Pentagon announced that it was suspending information-sharing with Israel on the American-led, multinational effort to produce an all-purpose attack aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Washington still intends to sell the jet to Israel along with other American allies after its expected rollout in 2012, officials said. Still, several military observers said the Pentagon’s decision to block Israeli intelligence access should be understood as a serious step. The spat is playing out against the backdrop of a flurry of news reports citing increasing American concerns about China’s military buildup and the threat it poses to Taiwan, a key American ally in the region.
Israel is China’s second-largest arms supplier after Russia.
“It is very symbolic to tell the Israelis that our level of concern is such that ‘given the stakes, we’ll cut you off despite our normally very warm relations,’” said Derek Mitchell, who headed China affairs at the Pentagon in the second Clinton administration and is now a senior fellow at the Center for Security and Strategic Studies in Washington. “If Israel persists, this could get ugly. We are talking about real military capabilities that could put the U.S. at risk in the Taiwan Strait, a major flashpoint.”
In an e-mail message to the Forward, Pentagon spokesman Major Paul Swiergosz stated that America continues “to discuss our concerns about technology transfer issues with our allies, friends and partners and to look for them to take a responsible approach with regards to China.”
“Israel is a security cooperation partner in the Joint Strike Fighter program,” Swiergosz wrote. “But there are some types of technology and information that we are not comfortable sharing until we resolve the technology and security issues.”
Israeli officials are downplaying the rift over the F-35.
“We are in an ongoing dialogue to resolve the discrepancies,” Defense Ministry spokeswoman Rachel Niedak-Ashkenazi was quoted as saying by the Jerusalem Post. “We believe that the misunderstandings will be resolved in the coming months.”
The Pentagon’s decision to suspend information-sharing with Israel comes amid an ongoing dispute between Washington and Jerusalem over an unmanned attack drone, the Harpy, that Israel sold to China. After Beijing sent the unmanned planes back to Israel for upgrades, American officials demanded that Israel not return them to China. Israel says that it is merely repairing the drones as part of the original sales contract.
American officials say that the Israeli decision to work on the drones violated a joint-monitoring mechanism that was put in place in 2003, after an earlier American-Israeli crisis. That dispute concerned an Israeli sale to China of a plane equipped with its own airborne radar system, known as Phalcon. Following American protests, Israel canceled the contract. Jerusalem eventually agreed to pay China $350 million in compensation, but raw feelings lingered, prompting some Israelis to complain about American pressure.
Mitchell, the former Pentagon official, said the “theoretical concerns” first raised during the Phalcon dispute have now evolved into “a real sense of urgency.” As a result, he said, pressure on Israel has been ratcheted up and reached senior echelons of the administration.
An upcoming Pentagon report, described last month in the Boston Globe, is expected to claim that China will soon have the capacity to block American forces from defending Taiwan, partly thanks to its military cooperation with Israel, among other countries. The Pentagon document is expected to assert that China is on the verge of launching a new fighter jet built with Israeli technology and modeled on Israel’s Lavi warplane, according to the Globe.
The Lavi was a joint Israeli-American design, based upon the F-16, that was to be manufactured in Israel, financed mostly with American aid. The project was canceled in 1987 under furious pressure from the Reagan administration, following years of cost overruns and intense pressure in Washington for Israel to rely instead on the F-16.
The cancellation caused an uproar in the Israeli defense industry, reportedly resulting in pressure vernment to remarket the technology elsewhere. According to Pentagon officials quoted in the Boston Globe, much of the Lavi’s design appears to have found its way into the new Chinese fighter. In American eyes, that could amount to a violation of American exports regulations requiring American approval for such sales.
Concerns over China’s military prowess led to an intense, ultimately successful campaign by the Bush administration for preservation by the European Union of its 15-year-old arms embargo against China. In the current atmosphere, Israeli military sales to China appear particularly sensitive.
At the same time, Israel views China as an important ally, both for its diplomatic clout and its huge arms purchasing needs. Prime Minister Sharon is scheduled to visit China later this year.
Israel’s forays into the booming Chinese arms market reportedly have prompted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and outgoing Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith to complain to their respective Israeli counterparts, according to American and Israeli press reports.
During a March trip to Washington, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told reporters that the dispute over China was the primary reason for his visit. He added, however, that the “attempt to find a rift or a crisis [between Israel and America regarding Israel’s military relations with China] is wrong-headed.”
Upon his return to Israel, Mofaz told Israeli defense contractors that as part of his promise of full transparency to the Bush administration, they would be required to get clearance before any attempts to sell military or even civilian products to China.
In mid-December, Israel’s Channel 2 reported that Feith, one of Israel’s strongest supporters in the Bush administration, had demanded the resignation of the director general of the Israeli Defense Ministry, Amos Yaron. Feith reportedly complained that Yaron had concealed the ramifications of the Harpy deal from him.
Mofaz backed Yaron and said he had no intention of replacing him. However, Mofaz did not bring Yaron to Washington in March. He named a former air force commander, Major General Herzl Bodinger, to represent Israel in talks to settle the Harpy dispute.
While Jerusalem’s decision to bow to American pressure and cancel the Phalcon sale hurt the burgeoning Israeli-Chinese partnership for several years, the two countries have renewed their cooperation.
“China has always considered that the development of normal commercial and military cooperation between China and Israel is a matter for these two countries, in which others do not have the right to interfere,” said Quan Jing, a Chinese diplomat who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. “China’s economic and security ties with Israel will continue to exist and progress.”
China has doubled its military spending since the late 1990s. It recently enacted an anti-secession law, formalizing its decades-long assertion that Taiwan is a Chinese province that should be reunited with the mainland. The new Chinese policy reportedly reserves the right to respond militarily to any move towards Taiwanese independence.
The United States, which favors a peaceful reunification of the two Chinas, has provided Taiwan with billions of dollars of military equipment. Protecting Taiwan and stiffening America’s stance toward Beijing are traditionally high on the Republican political agenda.
The Bush administration initially seemed to embrace this position, rejecting the Clinton administration’s view of mainland China as a “strategic partner.” Early on, the Bush administration strengthened military ties to Taiwan. It also found itself embroiled in a nasty dispute in 2001 over a collision in Chinese air space between an American spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter.
The two have since mended fences. Beijing is now seen in Washington as an ally in the war on terrorism and a partner in pressuring North Korea to drop its nuclear arms program. But China’s new assertiveness has prompted new concerns in American military circles.
“There is a stronger concern in the U.S. that China poses a threat to American security,” Jing told the Forward, “particularly against the background of political and military confrontations across the Taiwan Strait.”