Selling US Weapons to China

Israel is reexporting restricted US military technology to Beijing

The controversy over the Clinton administration's transfer of sensitive US technology to China has skirted a major issue: illegal Israeli retransfers of US technology to Beijing. The US government first went public about these illicit Israeli practices in 1992 when the State Department's inspector general reported the intelligence community had "overwhelming" evidence of a "systematic and growing pattern" of unauthorized Israeli re-exports of US-origin defense technology.

CIA Director James Woolsey stated flatly in 1993 that "the Chinese seek from Israel advanced military technologies that US and Western firms are unwilling to provide." Mr. Woolsey also said that Israel has been China's primary source of advanced defense technology since 1989.

The intelligence community continues to express acute concern about Israeli wrongdoing. For instance, the Office of Naval Intelligence reported in 1997 and 1996 that "United States technology has been acquired [by China] through Israel in the form of the Lavi fighter and possibly surface-to-air missile technology." A State Department official said last month: "This issue certainly has not gone away."

Military sales to China are lucrative for Israeli defense firms, but they are clearly violate the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). The AECA stipulates that sensitive US technology may not be re-exported to a third party without US consent. Nor may such re-exports be authorized when the US itself would not export the technology. Israel denies culpability, although some Israelis privately concede "mishandling" US technology. Two separate commissions composed exclusively of staunch US supporters of Israel chastised Israel for its misdeeds in 1993 and again in 1997.

Israel has employed US technology to assist China in developing its next-generation fighter aircraft - the J-10, airborne radar systems, tank programs, and a variety of missiles. Over vigorous Pentagon objections, Israel has apparently transferred to China the most lethal air-to-air missile in the world: the Python-4. This system employs an advanced helmet-mounted sight, developed together by American and Israeli firms. Also very disturbing is Israel's transfer to China of its STAR-1 cruise missile technology. The STAR-1 incorporates US stealth technology and is what one US official characterizes as "a growth version" of Israel's Delilah-2 missile, which contains US parts and technology.

There are two principal US concerns. Secretary of Defense William Cohen has warned Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai that the sale of advanced systems like the Python-4 threaten US forces in East Asia as well as regional stability. Another concern is China's record of providing sophisticated conventional weaponry and nuclear weapons-related technology to Pakistan and Iran. This could jeopardize US forces in the Persian Gulf and US allies (including Israel) in the Middle East.

The State Department's oversight of Israel's compliance with the AECA is loose at best. An August 1994 report by the State Department's inspector general faulted the executive branch oversight process. The report also noted that US Embassy staff in Israel were denied "routine on-site investigations" to verify proper use of US technology. Yet in 1995 Undersecretary of State Lynn Davis meekly acknowledged that her approach to this matter was "very low key" so as not to "cause problems with the relationship."

Much more sensitive US military and dual-use technology may be reaching China through Israel than through direct exports to Beijing. Indeed, Israeli scholar Yitzhak Shichor recently wrote: "When the customer is interested, it [is] difficult for the Ministry of Defense to abort or prevent an Israeli arms transfer to whatever country for whatever reason." Yet neither President Clinton nor Congress will confront Israel and its powerful American partisans on the issue.

In fact, Congress closes its eyes altogether. This is so even when the State Department, in compliance with the AECA, provides Congress with "substantial evidence" of Israel's violations of the law. In 1996, Congressman Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania did threaten to meet with Israeli officials to discuss "in a blunt manner" re-exports to China. He later reconsidered and the meeting never occurred. Customary congressional permissiveness toward Israel remains undisturbed.

* Duncan L. Clarke is a professor of international relations at American University, in Washingtong. He is the author of 'Send Guns and Money: Security Assistance and United States Foreign Policy' (Praeger, 1997).

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