Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Israel’s proxies in the South China Sea

Israel is now one of the largest arms suppliers to countries in the Southeast Asian region, raising a variety of interrelated concerns, writes Ferooze Ali in Kuala Lumpur

Al-Ahram Weekly

The arms race among countries claiming an enhanced role for themselves in the South China Sea is seeing an increase.

A report by IHS Analytics, a research group, estimates that coastal nations’ collective defence spending could jump from US$435 billion in 2015 to around US$533 billion by 2020. China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea has largely sparked this increase, as other countries need to develop the capabilities that will allow them at least to defend their territorial claims in the region.

The source of the arms imports varies. Though the US may be the leading provider in the region, there are other emerging arms suppliers.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has reported that Russia may account for 93 per cent of arms deliveries to Southeast Asian nations, including eight combat aircraft, four fast-attack craft and four submarines armed with land-attack missiles.

Archived Web reports from 2008 to 2016 suggest that Israel may also have joined the list of major arms suppliers to the region.

In 2014, the Philippines news outlet PhilStar Global reported an agreement by the Philippines government to purchase three ELTA air radar systems from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) worth PH 2.6 billion. These would be used to monitor naval activities in the South China Sea. In November 2015, Israel reported that the EXTRA (Extended Range Artillery Rocket) missile system had been purchased by the Philippines navy in early 2015.

Manufactured by Israel Military Industries (IMI Systems), the rockets are reported to be highly accurate within a 150 km range. The system has been deployed within the contested waters of the South China Sea.

In February 2016, SIPRI reported the purchase of 20 Israeli EXTRA rockets by Vietnam. The system, reported Reuters in August 2016, has been moved to five bases on Vietnam’s Spratley Islands.

It is worth noting that Israel is China’s second-largest foreign supplier of arms after Russia and that China has purchased a broad array of military equipment and technology from Israel, including communications satellites.

One of the prime outcomes of Israel-China defence relations has been China’s fighter jet the Chengdu J10 (Vigorous Dragon). The J-10 was reverse engineered from an Israeli Lavi jet fighter with the help of Israeli IAI engineers. The fighter jets share many similar elements. With nearly 240 J-10 aircraft in active service, the aircraft has been used extensively in the South China Sea.

For the record, IAI is owned by the Israeli government through the ministry of defence. Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president, founded the company in 1953. The same holds for IMI Systems, which is fully owned by the Israeli government through the ministry of defence. The production of military equipment is channeled largely through the Israeli Defence Force.

This proxy involvement of the Israeli government in the South China Sea through military sales raises various areas of concern. First and foremost is the provision of weapons by Israel, which has been criticised for its military activities in the Middle East. Israel has for decades flouted international condemnation and demands to cease its land-grabbing policies in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Secondly, Israel provides weapons to the biggest country in the region, China, which has ignored international norms and escalated conflicts. China has benefited from IAI’s Lavi to J-10 technology transfer and has been operating the aircraft actively in the South China Sea. In June this year, two J-10s were involved in air manoeuvres with a US RC-135 reconnaissance plane over the East China Sea, Reuters reported.

The third factor is moral and humanitarian. What is the moral stand of the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries towards Israel’s indiscriminate use of military technology in the Middle East? The Israeli military technology used by certain ASEAN member states might have been used against innocent women and children in Gaza, for example.

The ASEAN Secretariat through the group’s Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights needs to raise this issue with member states that have, or might plan, to purchase military technology from Israel.

The fourth factor is the reaction of Muslim countries in the Southeast Asia region. Malaysia and Indonesia have traditionally been among the two strongest critics of Israel because of the latter’s policies in the Middle East. What might the reaction be were Israel’s supply of military hardware to countries in the region to become common knowledge? Would the use of Israeli military-enhanced equipment by China further damage its reputation because of its perceived unfair demands in the South China Sea?

It may take years for the debate to emerge, however. Singapore has possessed Israeli military technology for decades, and the political reaction has been muted.

The reaction will largely depend on how grassroots leaders or think-tanks broach the issue and how they put it into public circulation. When it comes to the complex entwinement of Israel, the South China Sea, and human rights, diplomatic sensitivities should not be spared.

In 2012, former ASEAN secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan warned that the South China Sea risked becoming the “Palestine of Asia.” This statement is increasingly coming true, and it deserves renewed attention.

The writer is a Malaysia-based commentator.

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