Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Israel

By Gee, John | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 30, 2000 | Go to article overview

Islam and the Middle East in the Far East: Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Israel


Gee, John, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


ISLAM AND THE MIDDLE EAST IN THE FAR EAST: Chinese President Jiang Zemin in Israel

John Gee is a free-lance journalist based in Singapore and the author of Unequal Conflict: Israel and the Palestinians, available through the AET Book Club.

The transformation that has taken place over the past 20 years in China's attitude toward Israel was confirmed when President Jiang Zemin visited that one-time "base of imperialism" from April 12 to 18. No previous Chinese head of state had been there and the visit was rightly seen, in Israel and elsewhere, as a landmark in the development of Israel's ties with the rest of the world.

Diplomatic relations between the two states were established in January 1992. The expansion of high-level political contacts has gone on apace over the past two years. Yitzhak Mordechai visited China as Israel's defense minister in 1998 and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Chi Haotian, returned the visit a year later, in October 1999. Li Peng, chairman of the National People's Congress, went to Israel in November 1999. Jiang Zemin's recent visit follows Israeli President Ezer Weizman's trip to China last year.

The two presidents met on Jiang Zemin's first day in Israel. Jiang told Weizman that he was a great admirer of the Jews and that he esteemed the long line of intellectuals they had produced, starting with Albert Einstein. Significantly, he didn't trace that long line back to Karl Marx, the Jewish intellectual upon whose thinking the party of which Jiang is a prominent member still claims to base its own political principles.

It was a telling oversight and undoubtedly deliberate. China wants Israeli technology and Israel sees in China a large market for its products. This is what has brought them together, rather than any shared political outlook. For most of the past 20 years, China was chiefly interested in Israeli military technology and Israel became its second largest foreign source of arms. The latest military deal between the two states was the subject of much publicity during Jiang's visit.

The U.S. had already made known its objections to Israel's planned sale of a sophisticated airborne surveillance system to China (see Jan./Feb. 2000 Washington Report). The tenor and content of a number of U.S. and Israeli press reports suggested that the respective governments were playing out their dispute, in part, through friendly journalists, before and during Jiang's trip.

The U.S. wants Israel to cancel the deal, saying that the aircraft will strengthen China's ability to attack Taiwan. The Pentagon asserts that the surveillance system is based upon technology obtained from the U.S. Israel denies the U.S. claims. The Israeli government responds that, had Britain or France won the Chinese contract (for which both tendered), they would not have faced the same U.S. pressure, but because of the substantial military and economic aid that it provides to Israel, the U.S. has assumed that it has a right to scuttle Israeli military projects (such as the Lavi fighter) and arms deals it dislikes. Complain as Israel might, commentators think that it will have to accede to American wishes on this issue if the latter is absolutely insistent that it do so (which, incidentally, suggests what Washington could have done in support of the Palestinians' rights if the will had been there).

China wants Israeli technology and Israel sees in China a large market.

The issue was raised between Jiang Zemin and his Israeli hosts during the Chinese president's visit, but no indication was given at its end that they had agreed upon a new response to the U.S. Israel officially remained committed to delivering the first plane to China this summer and letting it exercise its option to order up to six more. However, some face-saving compromise will no doubt be found, if it hasn't been already. Ze'ev Schiff, the well-informed military correspondent of the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, wrote on April 12:

"Barak has come to an agreement with American Secretary of Defense William Cohen that his undersecretary for policy, Walter Slocombe, and the Israeli defense ministry's director-general, Amos Yaron, will try to find a formula that will draw Israel out of the Chinese quagmire. …

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