U.S. presses Israel not to sell AWACS-type aircraft to China

Deal likely to be cut to one radar airplane after threat to reduce aid

April 12, 2000|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Torn between its biggest ally and a valuable customer, Israel is expected to limit its sale of AWACS-style high-technology aircraft to China to a single plane and not fulfill options for three more.

The Israel-China deal has drawn strong opposition from the Clinton administration and a congressional threat to slash aid to Israel.

Opponents in the United States fear the aircraft might one day be used to help locate and target U.S. jets or ships dispatched to defend Taiwan.

Senior Israeli officials favor honoring their nation's contract for one of the $250 million plane, but not permitting China to buy additional aircraft.

"We have one signed contract on one single plane. This is a done deal which we can't violate," Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said last night.

"The rest are just options," he said. "There is no further contract under preparation."

Sneh added in an interview: "We will very seriously consider U.S. concerns about the supply of AWACS and continue a close and intimate dialogue with the U.S. about the whole issue."

This stance is likely to disappoint China, whose president, Jiang Zemin, arrives today on the first visit to Israel by a Chinese head of state.

Experts say China would need three or four such aircraft to provide total coverage of enemy movements and to aid repositioning of forces in wartime.

But the curtailed sale won't silence U.S. congressional critics, who see the plane as a major boost in China's strategic capability to hit neighboring Taiwan or American forces in the Pacific.

"If national security is compromised by the first sale, merely saying we won't sell any more doesn't necessarily get us out of the dilemma," said Jo Bonner, chief of staff to Rep. Sonny Callahan, a Republican from Alabama.

Callahan, chairman of the powerful appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, has threatened to cut aid to Israel for next year by $250 million unless the administration can certify that the sale doesn't threaten U.S. national security.

American opposition was less forceful when Israel and China negotiated the deal four years ago, as the Clinton administration was trying to forge a more cooperative relationship with Beijing.

"This is an election year and people use it," said Ori Orr, a retired Israeli major general and board chairman of Israel Aircraft Industries, which makes the radar systems to be used on the Russian-supplied aircraft.

"They [Americans] knew all the evidence, all the facts from the beginning," he said.

Israel's arms-sales relationship with China dates back almost two decades and has raised American hackles before, when U.S. officials suspected Israel of transferring U.S. technology. China's new jet fighter is widely believed to be based on the Lavi, an abandoned Israeli project that was based on American designs.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Israel has also supplied China with components and technology to manufacture air-to-air missiles.

But the Israeli early-warning radar plane, called the PHALCON, is perhaps in a class by itself. One U.S. congressional source describes it as superior to the American AWACS.

Able to see both air and ground targets, up to 100 at once, it is equipped to gather sophisticated electronic and communications intelligence.

It could get early warning of aircraft approaching the mainland from the far side of Taiwan, and if it patrols far out in the open sea, it could detect American vessels before they are in range of Chinese targets, said Siemon Wezeman, an arms-transfer specialist at the Stockholm Institute.

Israel says its relationship with China has brought more than profits for its aircraft and arms industry, which is a major domestic employer.

"We believe it engages China in the Middle East, making China a force for stability regarding the peace process and not putting it into the camp of rogue states," an official said.

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