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India’s Israel relations, the Middle East and China

Comparable to Chinas links with Israel in the 1990s, it is today the Indian military that has the strongest and most appreciated link with Israel. However, whereas current relations with China have expanded significantly since 2011 into the arts, sciences and academia, India’s academic community and its artists, writers, film makers and musicians know little of Israel and have few relations with it. Many more Chinese scholars are busy with research and teaching about Israel and Judaism than Indian scholars. There are perhaps three or four in all of India. Indo-Israeli economic relations fall somewhere in-between. They are growing but small in comparison to India’s size and global trade. Indo-Israeli civilian trade has barely reached five billion Dollars, less than half Israel’s trade with China. In other words the Indo-Israeli relationship is not balanced. These two states claim to represent thousand year old civilizations with an immense religious and literary heritage. One would have expected that they would emphasize their cultural relations more than with other countries, but the turbulent history of the 20th century traced a different trajectory for both.

Indo-Israeli defense ties developed in the 1960’s, long before there were any political or economic ties. The Indian military’s interest in Israel’s defense experience and hardware was an opportunity Israel could not miss. It was at least one door to India that was opening, though it was a secret one. Until 1992 it was clear that the defense link would not mitigate India’s official political and diplomatic hostility to Israel. But Israel’s own interest in this defense relationship was geopolitical no less than commercial. As Israeli experience and weapons strengthened India against Muslim Pakistan they could also be seen as Israel’s pay-back for the support that Pakistan and other Muslim states were giving to Israel’s Arab enemies.

During the subsequent twenty five years, this defense relationship has grown into a major strategic asset for both countries, involving Israeli weapons sales of approximately one billion US Dollars annually, joint weapons research and development, intelligence sharing and more. Nevertheless, to speak of a strategic-military alliance between India and Israel would be an exaggeration as India has also military links with Israel’s enemies, including
Iran.

There are many similarities between the Indian-Israeli and former Chinese-Israeli defense relationships. Military links between China and Israel also preceded political and diplomatic links by many years. Like in India before 1992 they had little or no effect on China’s political hostility towards Israel. And again Israel’s important weapons sales to China in the late 1970s and 1980s had a geopolitical and not only commercial background; both countries were seriously threatened by a hostile Soviet Union. There is currently no defense relationship between China and Israel, for well-known reasons. Recently, some Chinese media attacked the Indian-Israeli defense relationship, with calls on Israel to stop its defense supplies to India. Such calls are ill-conceived. In our multi-polar world many countries, not least China and India too, have to cope with conflicting priorities. For example China has strong defense and friendship links with Russia but Russia too is selling weapons to India. Also, China assures Israel of its friendship but has military relations with Israel’s enemies, particularly Iran. Israel’s defense relations with India have deep roots. They are long standing, starting well before the current heightened tensions between China and India and are comprised of deals taking years to develop and finalize.

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