Too Big to Ignore

The Chinese economy is presently only second to that of the United States, and may very well pass it in the years to come. China has become the second superpower, economically and militarily. Its political influence in the world is growing.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on September 22, 2009.)

It is Napoleon who is supposed to have said “when China awakes, the world will tremble.” It took a long time, but for some years now China is fully awake, and the world is not trembling. On the contrary, it watches with amazement the spectacular progress being made by this great country. China’s continued growth during the present economic crisis is even credited with helping the rest of the world begin a recovery from the crisis. The Chinese economy is presently only second to that of the United States, and may very well pass it in the years to come. China has become the second superpower, economically and militarily. Its political influence in the world is growing.

Those following the comings and goings of Israeli politicians to Washington, London and Paris, might get the impression that the Israeli government is ignoring the giant in the Far East. Is the Chinese leadership being updated by Israel on the political developments in the Middle East, and on the American peace initiative? Is the Israeli government seeking Chinese support for its positions?

Not so long ago, Israel’s relations with China could have been likened to a love affair. The attention showered on Israeli leaders who visited Beijing in those days was most impressive. China loved and admired Israel, we were told.

The high point of this unusual relationship was the unprecedented seven-day visit of Jiang Zemin, China’s president, to Israel in April 2000.

The visit was an opportunity for him to receive a report on the development in Israel of the Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft being developed in Israel for China. The development was close to completion, a substantial part of the billion-dollar cost had already been prepaid by China, and Jiang left for home with the expectation that the aircraft would soon be delivered to China and a series of additional orders for this aircraft would follow.

But it was just at that time that the U.S. administration exerted pressure on Israel to cancel the aircraft’s delivery. Although aware of the Phalcon program since its inception, and that Israel was contractually committed to execute the program, the administration in Washington without prior warning, through then secretary of defense William Cohen, peremptorily insisted that Israel back out of its commitment to China. Upon learning of the American pressure on Israel, the Chinese foreign ministry issued the following statement: “The two sides have developed a relationship of friendship and cooperation in various areas which will not be affected by external factors.”

But despite this long-standing relationship, and in violation of its contractual obligations, Israel succumbed to American pressure and Jiang learned on returning to China from his visit to Israel that the contract had been unilaterally canceled. That kind of insult is not quickly forgotten in China.

It remains one of the sorriest chapters in Israel’s diplomatic history. Instead of insisting to our American friends that Israel could not back out of the contract at this late date, and that in any case the operation of this aircraft by China would not in any way affect the strategic balance between the United States and China, and that China could acquire a similar aircraft from other sources, the Israeli government, without advance warning to China, simply gave in. The result was a sudden deterioration in Israel’s relations with one of the world’s great powers, the loss of the Chinese market to Israel’s defense industry, and subsequently the acceptance by Israel of an American veto on all Israeli defense exports.

The crisis could have been an opportunity for Israel, having a special relationship with both countries, to help bring about a rapprochement between the United States and China, which both suffer from unjustified paranoia regarding the other. But no efforts were exerted by the Israeli government in that direction. It was an opportunity missed, and a net loss for Israel, from which it has not recovered to this day.

It is not too late to attempt to pick up the pieces and reestablish the close relationship between Israel and China that existed in the past. The first step must be the appointment of a leading Israeli personality as ambassador to Beijing, who will do what was done by Ora Namir during her tenure as ambassador there. She endeared herself to the Chinese leadership and the Chinese people. It can be done again, despite the damage done in past years.

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