Israel Makes Case to China for Iran Sanctions

JERUSALEM — During the many months China has wavered over whether to join the American-led effort to impose sanctions on Iran, Israeli officials have been waging their own quiet campaign to convince the Chinese that Iran should be punished for its renegade nuclear program.

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But unlike the United States, which has played on China’s sense of responsibility as a member of the United Nations Security Council, Israeli officials have been making their case without diplomatic niceties.

In February, a high-level Israeli delegation traveled to Beijing to present alleged evidence of Iran’s atomic ambitions. Then they unveiled the ostensible purpose of their visit: to explain in sobering detail the economic impact to China from an Israeli strike on Iran — an attack Israel has suggested is all but inevitable should the international community fail to stop Iran from assembling a nuclear weapon.

“The Chinese didn’t seem too surprised by the evidence we showed them, but they really sat up in their chairs when we described what a pre-emptive attack would do to the region and on oil supplies they have come to depend on,” said an Israeli official with knowledge of the meeting and who asked for anonymity so as not to upset his Chinese counterparts.

Whether the Israeli show-and-tell persuaded Beijing to join the proposed sanctions announced by the White House late last month may never be known. But the episode demonstrates how Israel — a small country with limited influence on China — has found ways to engage an emerging superpower whose geopolitical heft is increasingly vital to the Jewish state.

Across the world, countries large and small have been seeking to gain the affections of China as its economic might and diplomatic swagger become harder to ignore. In recent years, Chad, Malawi and Costa Rica have switched their official allegiance to Beijing from China’s longtime rival Taiwan. France, Germany and the United Kingdom frequently vie with one another to win trade deals with China, undermining the negotiating power of the European Union. And last December, 20 Uighur refugees who had sought United Nations protection in Cambodia were deported to China. The United States and human rights groups howled in protest; a day later, the Chinese vice president arrived in Cambodia with $1.2 billion in economic aid.

Some countries have found they can engage China through gentle inducements. Norway has leveraged its influence as a bridge to NATO and though its seat on the Arctic Council, an international forum that China is eager to join. “As a small state, we’ve been quite successful in engaging the Chinese on a number of issues where we have some strength,” said Oystein Tunsjo, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies.

Ties between Israel and China are collegial but Israeli officials have been working hard to regain Beijing’s favor since a bungled arms deal in 2000 infuriated Chinese leaders. More recently, they have also had to compete against China’s growing thirst for Middle East oil, which makes up half the country’s petroleum imports. With its single-minded focus on securing the energy required for continued economic growth, Beijing has shifted some of its diplomatic ardor to the countries of the Middle East, some of which are Israel’s sworn enemies.

Alarmed by the shift, Israel has stepped up its soft-power diplomacy through academic, cultural and medical exchanges. “Israel is not a great supplier of the kinds of natural resources that China can find among some of our neighbors but we do have a lot to offer them, and there is a strong sense of mutual respect,” said Amos Nadai, the Israeli ambassador to Beijing.

Israeli officials cite some commonalities: their histories as ancient civilizations and the transformative economic growth that has defied conventional wisdom and a yearning for regional stability. Although as vividly demonstrated in the crisis over last week’s deadly commando raid on a flotilla of activists — not to speak of Iran’s nuclear program — Israel is not afraid to threaten that stability in the face of an existential threat.

When it comes to tangible goods, Israel sells China irrigation systems, high-tech products and telecommunications equipment. Trade between the two countries reached $4.5 billion last year, up from $3.8 billion in 2006, but three-fourths of that is Chinese exports to Israel.

The imbalance would be less pronounced if not for the two-decade-old American-led embargo on arms sales to China that has stymied Israel’s most lucrative export. In private, Israeli officials express frustration over the ban but they acknowledge that their relationship with Washington trumps the desire to do more business with China.

Oddly enough, the close ties between Israel and the United States have become something of an Achilles’ heel for the Jewish state. During the 1990s, when Beijing was diplomatically isolated after the violent crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, the Chinese sought closer relations with Israel because they thought it might bring them closer to the United States. “This was an illusory period during which China thought the Jewish and Israeli lobbies could open doors for them in Washington,” said Yoram Evron, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.

Israel’s outsized allure also stemmed from China’s regard for the country’s military prowess and a deeply held affection for Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, cornerstones of a Chinese fascination with Jews.

How much they value the relationship with the United States was underscored in 2000, when under American pressure Israel canceled a $1 billion arms deal, years in the making, to sell China an advanced airborne tracking system. Even though Israel later agreed to pay a $350 million penalty, the diplomatic damage was immense — and then compounded in 2005, when Washington blocked another Israeli arms deal with Beijing involving drone aircraft.

“After that, the Chinese realized the Jewish lobby does not control the White House and they started to treat us like a younger brother of the United States,” said Yitzhak Shichor, a professor of Asian Studies at Haifa University. “We have been cut down to size. We may make a lot of noise, but we’re the size of a medium-sized Chinese city.”

During the first decades after Mao’s Communist revolution, China’s interests in the Middle East were largely tethered to ideology. The Chinese government saw itself as a standard-bearer for the developing world — and a champion of the Palestinian cause. In the 1980s, when China began embracing economic reforms and a more pragmatic diplomatic strategy, China’s approach to the minefield of Middle East politics involved greater equanimity — and neutrality.

But oil and soaring trade with the Arab states have helped shift the calculus. Last year, China surpassed the United States in exports to the Arab world. And while not a dominant factor in its foreign policy decisions, it is worth noting that China is home to more than 20 million Muslims, including a restive population of Turkic-speaking Uighurs in Xinjiang, a region that borders five predominantly Islamic countries.

“Chinese Muslims working as translators play a constructive role in the Middle East, which adds an extra dimension to China’s relationship with the region,” said Ben Simpfendorfer, the chief China economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland in Hong Kong. “It’s difficult for anyone to sit on the fence when it comes to the Middle East, and this is a challenge that China will increasingly face in the future.”

Recent events provide some hint as to which way China might tilt. Last year, Beijing endorsed a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council that accused Israel of war crimes during its attack on the Gaza Strip. In recent months, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has repeatedly condemned Israeli construction in largely Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The vote and the condemnations are notable, given China’s often stated aversion to measures that involve another country’s internal affairs.

In an assessment echoed by several other government-affiliated academics, Yin Gang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Society Sciences in Beijing, said its interests in the Arab world would continue to drive Beijing’s foreign policy. “China will try to achieve a basic balance in the Middle East but Israel cannot give China much help on the international political stage,” he said. “The truth is, it is just a very small country.”

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