By Girish Linganna
China’s position on the Gaza conflict has left Israel disappointed. As Israeli forces have carried out airstrikes and ground operations in response to Hamas’ early October attack, Beijing has consistently accused Israel of exceeding the bounds of self-defence in its retaliation. Furthermore, China vetoed a U.S.-led United Nations resolution that reaffirmed the “inherent right of all states.”
However, this was not always the situation. Prior to the substantial impact of the U.S.-China rivalry, which altered the dynamics between these superpowers and their alliances, China and Israel had warm relations and military connections so intimate that Washington felt compelled to intervene.
In recent decades, that partnership has waned due to Israel’s increasing reliance on the United States and the inherent conflicts in China-U.S. relations, which have eroded the once-strong strategic bond between China and Israel. As the ongoing competition between China and the United States shows no signs of abating and may even escalate in the near future, experts suggest that additional tensions between China and Israel are likely inescapable.
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Gaza adds an extra layer of complexity to Israel’s relationship with Beijing. Israel’s foreign ministry expressed its profound disappointment with China’s failure to condemn Hamas. Israel’s envoy to the UN also expressed shock and criticized the veto by China and Russia of the American proposal at the UN Security Council.
As early as January 1950, Israel stood as the first Middle Eastern country to officially acknowledge the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, which had been founded just months earlier. This diplomatic recognition reciprocated the Chinese Communist Party’s positive reception of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. However, any efforts to establish contact were disrupted a few months later by the outbreak of the Korean War, as Beijing allied with North Korea in the conflict against UN forces led by the United States.
The rift between China and Israel deepened as China sided with Arab nations in Middle Eastern conflicts, while Israel aligned with the United States to counter communism during the Cold War. Nonetheless, both sides retained a degree of informal communication, such as exchanging letters at the level of prime minister between China’s Premier Zhou Enlai and Israel’s Levi Eshkol.
The relationship between China and Israel started to open up in the 1980s, a period when Beijing was improving its relations with Washington. During this time, Israel, alongside other U.S. allies, engaged in increased trade and arms deals with China. Notably, Israel began selling advanced weaponry to China even before the formal establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992.
One of the notable instances in the 1980s was the technology transfer involving Israel’s Python-3 air-to-air missiles. The People’s Liberation Army not only purchased these missiles for equipping its fighter jets but also acquired a license to domestically produce them. Over time, using the technology from the Python missiles, China developed the PL-8 missile family, which included ground-to-air and ship-to-air variants.
At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) imported multiple advanced Israeli radars, including the EL/M-2032 planar array radar system. This radar system was integrated into their J-7 fighters, which were Chinese-produced variants of the MiG-21. The inclusion of the multimode fire-control radar markedly enhanced the aircraft’s situational awareness and its capability to effectively engage aerial targets with air-to-air missiles.
There were allegations that Israel shared certain technology and design principles from its discontinued prototype fighter, the Lavi, which contributed to the development of China’s fourth-generation fighter aircraft, the Chengdu J-10.
Despite both parties denying direct collaboration, the J-10 exhibits noticeable similarities to the Lavi, including features like its delta wing, double canard setup, and air inlet design. Although classified as an indigenous Chinese design, there was a widely held belief that the J-10’s development was influenced by the knowledge and technology transfer associated with the Lavi project.
China’s favourable relationship with the Western world came to an abrupt halt following the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. The United States and the majority of its European allies announced their intentions to halt military technical cooperation projects with Beijing and later implemented a ban on arms sales to China.
However, Israel, similar to China, remained outside the Wassenaar Arrangement on weapon export controls established in 1996. Israel chose to keep its defence collaboration with China discreet and, at times, confidential. Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that arms exports from Israel to China remained within the range of $28 million to $38 million annually throughout the 1990s.
During that era, notable instances include the sale of Python-4 missiles and the initial transfer of Harpy anti-radiation drones. Some military experts from the United States and Russia also suggested that China’s vehicle-mounted HJ-9 anti-tank missiles might have been developed with similarities to Israeli Mapats (Man-Portable Anti-Tank System) missiles, as the two missile systems bore a striking resemblance, although no concrete evidence has been established to confirm this.
The connection between Israel and China was ultimately severed after multiple interventions by the United States. In 1996, Israel had agreed to provide China with four sets of advanced Phalcon airborne early warning and it control systems (AEWC) for a total of $1 billion, intended to be installed on Russian-made Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft. The initial installation on one of the planes was finished in early 2000, but the U.S. government cancelled the delivery.
Even though Israel insisted that the Phalcon system did not incorporate American technology, Washington held apprehensions that China’s possession of this advanced airborne early warning and control system (AEWC), featuring a range of 400km and complete 360-degree coverage, could potentially erode U.S. military dominance in the Asia-Pacific area. This concern was particularly focused on China’s ability to gain an edge in a potential offensive action regarding Taiwan.
Under increasing pressure from the United States, Israel eventually terminated the Phalcon deal in July 2000. This decision strained Israel’s ties with China while also complicating its relationship with the U.S. Israel agreed to compensate China with $350 million and made efforts to rebuild its relations with the U.S.
A similar situation occurred in 2005 when China sent its Harpy drones back to Israel for upgrades. Despite the fact that the Harpy did not contain any U.S.-made components, the U.S. raised objections to the deal. The Israeli loitering munition is designed to target enemy radar systems, and the upgrade would have included a datalink and sensors for improved ground control. Eventually, the deal was cancelled, and defence exchanges between Israel and China came to a halt.
Liu Zhongmin, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Shanghai International Studies University, noted, “The United States has consistently been the primary obstacle limiting the development of China’s relations with Israel. Israel’s inability to free itself from U.S. influence sometimes requires sacrificing its relationship with China to preserve the special U.S.-Israel alliance.”
Following the incidents related to the Harpy and Phalcon, there has been a notable lack of information concerning arms trade and military technology exchanges between Israel and China. In 2011, Israel’s defence minister visited China, and the chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) visited Israel, marking a restart of military exchanges between the two countries.
The PLA fleet made its first port call to Israel in Haifa, and the exchanges primarily focused on non-traditional security areas like counterterrorism, anti-piracy efforts, humanitarian relief, and disaster prevention, according to Chinese military commentator Song Zhongping.
Song emphasized that cooperation between China and Israel has become exceedingly sensitive due to China being viewed as America’s main adversary and the target of containment and control. This sensitivity affects not only Israel’s arms sales and technology transfers to China but also the reverse aspect, involving Chinese military supplies to Israel. This is due to Israel’s significant receipt of U.S. military aid, and the use of such funds is subject to restrictions.
Israel has been the largest beneficiary of U.S. foreign aid since World War II, receiving over $260 billion from 1946 to 2023, as per inflation-adjusted figures from the USAID Data Service. Notably, U.S. aid, which was originally primarily for economic support, shifted increasingly toward military purposes from 1997, particularly at the start of this century. In 1999, the U.S. government committed to providing $2.67 billion in military aid annually to Israel for the next decade. This annual amount was raised to $3 billion in 2009, and for the third 10-year memorandum of understanding starting in 2019, it was increased to $3.8 billion per year.
At present, nearly all of the aid provided by the United States to Israel comes in the form of military assistance. In 2022, approximately 99.7 percent of U.S. aid was directed toward the Israeli military, and these annual grants accounted for roughly 16.5 percent of Israel’s overall defence budget, as reported in a U.S. Congressional research document.
In the Phalcon incident, the U.S. wielded its influence by threatening to withhold a portion of Israel’s annual aid if the deal with China proceeded. This influence extends beyond the military realm. Starting in 2015, Israel participated in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, granting construction and a 25-year management contract for a privately owned port in Haifa Bay to the Shanghai International Port Group, effective from 2021. However, after repeated warnings from the U.S. that China might use the port for espionage on U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet warships that could dock nearby, the original Haifa port was sold to an India-led consortium in 2022, following an I2U2 Group summit involving the United States, India, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This move was considered a success in U.S.-backed efforts to counter China’s strategic moves.
Additionally, the Israeli government blocked a joint bid by the China Railway Construction Corporation and an Israeli company for two Tel Aviv light rail lines after both the Trump and Biden administrations exerted pressure to exclude Chinese involvement. Israel’s staunch position on the Palestinian issue, staunchly supported by the United States, has consistently been a fundamental point of divergence between Israel and Beijing. China has traditionally been a proponent of Palestinian independence and advocates for the two-state solution, an approach that Israel often views as favouring Palestine.
Moreover, Israel is concerned about China’s expanding “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Iran. At the outset of the U.S.-China trade war, there was notable growth in trade, investment, and collaboration between China and Israel. Beijing placed a high value on Israel’s innovations and technologies.
However, as the trade war intensified, Washington heightened its pressure on Israel to restrict or prohibit cooperation with China in research and technology to address potential concerns. The U.S. consistently emphasized that a significant portion of Israel’s technologies, whether in the military or civilian sector, incorporated American technology, and it insisted on preventing such high-tech exchanges. (IPA Service)
(The author is a Defence, Aerospace & Political Analyst based in Bengaluru.)