TEL AVIV - In yet another step toward revived Sino-Israeli defense ties, Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), concluded a four-day trip to Israel on Aug. 17, the first ever by a commander of the Chinese military.
The visit, hosted by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Chen's counterpart in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), followed Barak's mid-June trip to Beijing and a PLA Navy delegation hosted here in May.
Chen's visit included tours of several military installations and a series of high-level working meetings at IDF headquarters here, but did not involve substantive discussion of revived Israeli arms transfers to China, sources here said.
"There's no change in our export license policy to China due to continued American opposition. But as the string of recent visits indicates, we're working hard to find other ways to advance our mutual interest in strengthened [Sino-Israeli] defense cooperation," a government official here said.
The Israeli official said the Chinese still resent the U.S. pressure that forced Israel to terminate a $1.3 billion deal for early warning aircraft more than a decade ago, as well as the consultative process that gives Washington de-facto veto rights over any proposed trade with Beijing.
A U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks provided rare insight into the process in place since 2006 with respect to Israeli technology transfers to China. According to the July 2009 cable, authorized by Andrew Shapiro, U.S. assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, "As it now stands, the government of Israel must pursue any export to China through the bilateral statement of understanding with the United States. While the statement calls for expeditious resolution of any requests to export to China, it often takes up to 80 days to obtain approval."
Israeli sources say that since the crisis of confidence with Washington that triggered the bilateral consultative process, Washington has approved only a few, nonoffensive, homeland security-related sales to China.
"Compared to what we could have sold in that huge market, defense trade to China has been miniscule ... And the Chinese know that decisions of this nature are not taken in Jerusalem, but in Washington," the Israeli official said.
Beyond stymied defense trade, however, sources here say Israel can provide China valuable information on military tactics, assessments of regional threats, and insight into Israeli diplomatic and other initiatives that may impact neighboring countries and China's access to Mideast oil.
"As long as there is no change in Israel's arms export policy - and there is no evidence that such a change has occurred ... a strengthening of military ties could still prove beneficial to China," wrote Yoram Evron, senior researcher for the Institute for National Security Studies, based here.
In an Aug. 17 paper, Evron, a lecturer at the Department of Asian Studies at Haifa University, noted that China has not engaged in military operations since 1979, and therefore is interested not only in Israeli technology but in broader operational and tactical knowledge accrued in recent years by the IDF. Similarly, Evron said that information-sharing with Israel would support Beijing's desire to establish a gradual strategic presence in the region.
"Not only can Israel provide China an updated perspective on regional occurrences - for example, developments pertaining to the 'Arab spring' and trends in the field of terrorism - but strategic information-sharing with Israel could spare China surprises from Israeli actions" that impact the region, according to Evron. Israel's position as a key U.S. ally makes such channels with Israel all the more worthwhile, he said.
"Given the intensifying competition between the two powers, the strengthening of military ties with an American ally is a credit to China," Evron added.
The Israeli researcher concluded that as Israel continues to enhance its standing with a vital player in the region and on the world stage, it will have to tread carefully so as not to upset Washington, its pre-eminent ally and strategic patron.