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Israel’s diplomatic dilemma
Op-ed: Before too long, Israel may have to make difficult choices between America and China

After the US raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden it has become transparent that he had been sheltered there, either by the army or the intelligence service. But in the immediate aftermath of the raid a number of signs have pointed to the larger context, in which Israel is unfortunately caught.

 

During the raid on bin Laden’s walled compound at Abbottabad a modified MH-60 Back Hawk helicopter clipped a wall or a power cable and crash landed. Navy SEALs destroyed the fuselage and sensitive electronics but in the days after the raid the tail rotor sat in the compound partially covered with a tarp and was extensively photographed. Aviation experts were divided over whether the unique features of the tail rotor indicated a heavily modified Black Hawk or an entirely new and unknown helicopter. All agreed the design gave the helicopter unique stealth capabilities that allowed it to traverse Pakistani airspace both quietly and apparently undetected by radar.

 

But rumors were then quickly circulated that Pakistani authorities, humiliated in all ways by the raid and exposure of bin Laden in the heart of their country, had given permission to China to examine the remains of the helicopter. China is undertaking an unprecedented military buildup that is gradually challenging US technological superiority, particularly in the Western Pacific. It also has a long history of seeking out US military technologies, such as the recovery of components of the single F-117 fighter-bomber shot down in 1999 in the former Yugoslavia. It has an even longer history of technical espionage within the US.

 

The Chinese nuclear program in particular made enormous leaps on the basis of stolen US computer software and warhead designs. The remains of a US stealth helicopter was an unexpected coup that Pakistan could offer to its other patron.

 

China was the original source for Pakistan’s nuclear program, which in turn through the semi-official A.Q. Khan network helped spawn those of post-revolutionary Iran and Syria, which have been integrated with that of North Korea, as well as the abortive programs of Algeria and Libya. China reportedly gave Pakistan the design for a warhead that dramatically cut development time, a heavy water reactor for plutonium production and other technical and material support. Later, Chinese and Pakistani expert have observed each others’ nuclear tests. China has also provided Pakistan, Iran and North Korean with ballistic missile technology.

 

Chinese proliferation activities were aimed primarily at India but also at the US. Though the US raised the proliferation issue repeatedly with China since the 1970s, it remains unwilling to jeopardize relations, even over China’s continued material support for North Korea. The nuclear issue was a major impediment to US-Pakistani relations and US economic assistance was cut off in 1979 until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1981 necessitated a revival. Today the US finds itself in the same position of having to look away from both Chinese and Pakistani misdeeds in the presumed interest of other foreign policy goals.

 

Confrontations on the horizon

US reactions to the discovery and killing of bin Laden in Pakistan have been stern, with Senators and Representatives voicing shock, dismay and raising questions whether American aid, which has totals approximately $20 billion since 2002, should be cut off. But with US influence collapsing throughout the Muslim world, and with Pakistan itself reeling internally in the wake of bin Laden, the Obama Administration seems anxious to smooth things over. The head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, has completed a visit to Pakistan and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will visit soon.

 

But Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani has begun a visit to China, nominally on the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Chinese weapons sales to Pakistan are increasing and it has signed agreements to invest up to $30 billion in Pakistan over the next five years. New reports also show that Pakistan is speeding production of four new nuclear reactors for plutonium production. When complete, it is estimated these will give Pakistan the ability to produce at least two dozen nuclear weapons per year.

 

The US appears willing to continue paying Pakistan out of fear of losing one of its few remaining Muslim “allies” and over the implicit threat of an unstable Pakistan losing control over its nuclear arsenal. It is unwilling to confront China, the largest owner of US government bonds, on virtually any issue, from trade to proliferation.

 

These circumstances put Israel in a difficult situation. Bilateral trade with China is climbing toward $10 billion annually and China is second only to the US as Israel’s leading trade partner. But Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern oil and determination to pursue foreign policy goals directed at India and the US, such as the relationships with Pakistan and Iran, put China and Israel at odds.

 

China remains unwilling to permit deeper international sanctions on Iran, a key oil supplier in which it also has immense financial investments, and it has voted to condemn Israel on the basis of alleged human rights allegations. As a Chinese academic noted in a 2010 interview “China will try to achieve a basic balance in the Middle East but Israel cannot give China much help on the international political stage. The truth is, it is just a very small country.” The bottom line is that China only has its own interests at heart, not those of trading partners or the international system.

 

The US relationship with Pakistan is deteriorating rapidly and China is the beneficiary. Expanding Chinese influence in Latin America and Africa, its military buildup, and human rights record have all been unopposed by successive American administrations, including the most recent, which is uniquely weak. But confrontations are on the horizon. Before too long, Israel may have to make difficult choices between its patron and its second largest major trading partner.

 

Alex Joffe is a New York based writer on history and international affairs. His web site is alexanderjoffe.net

 

 

 

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