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Looking to the East

February 1, 2011
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In the past, the primary outside influences in the Middle East came from the USA, Russia, and Europe, but Asia is making a significant mark on the region. With more of a shift towards the East, Israel has had to expand their focus and involvement beyond some of the traditional world powers. Some of that influence is good for Israel: New and powerful trade opportunities have emerged, and Israel has more potential partners in influencing the key aspects of their region, such as Iran’s nuclear program. However, the situation also has introduced more weapons and increased the potential for conflict in an already volatile neighborhood.

Growing Trade with China and India

China is ranked third among world economies in 2009. It also ranks as Israel’s fifth highest customer.

Perhaps Israel’s largest benefit from this expanding Asian influence is the economic trade potential it presents. While the West has traditionally been a key trading partner with Israel, Asian economic ties are leaving their mark. That China is making an impact may not seem such a surprise. As the world’s most populous country and a nuclear power that sits as a permanent member of the powerful United Nations Security Council, China is also an economic powerhouse. According to the CIA’s The World Factbook estimate of 2009’s economic output (as seen in gross domestic product or GDP), China easily came in third among the world’s economies, more than doubling Japan in fourth place. The European Union (as a single group) and the USA were the top two economic powers.

However, considering the significance of Israel’s relationship with the USA and Europe, China’s ascendance in export importance to the Jewish state looks dramatic. According to figures cited by Ynet from the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute (IEICI), China ranked as the fifth highest export destination for Israel during the first half of 2010. That’s a jump from 11th place in 2009. In terms of dollars, in the first half of 2010, those exports increased by 115% over the previous year. Yet, despite besting Germany in Israeli exports, China is not Israel’s largest export destination from Asia. It is India that ranks as Israel’s top Asian customer—and the second highest in the world, just behind the USA.

In the first half of 2010, Israel’s exports to India totaled almost US $1 billion, according to IEICI. The second-place ranking was a big jump from 2009, when India was eighth in exports from Israel.  While exports to the USA increased 8% the first half of 2010 from the year before, exports to India rose 102%.

India’s economy grew 7.4% in 2009-10. It also ranks as Israel’s top Asian customer.

India’s growing world power extends far beyond Israeli exports, however. One of the only nations in the world to acquire nuclear weapons in the last 20 years, India also was singled out by US President Barack Obama during his November visit to the country as a potential new permanent member on the UN Security Council. While The Wall Street Journal noted the complications to that becoming reality, India is more than just a growing diplomatic force. The nation has also become a rising economic power. According to The World Factbook estimate, India had the fifth largest economic output (as measured in GDP) in 2009, ahead of any single European state. The World Bank further noted that in the fiscal year 2009/10, India’s economy grew by 7.4%, exceeding expectations and signaling a recovery from a major slowdown the previous fiscal year. 

Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil •en.wikipedia.org/Kitkatcrazy

While Israel exports to India were noteworthy in the first half of 2010, they are set to grow even more in 2011. Ynet reported in November that Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced plans to sign a free trade agreement with India in early 2011 because of economic concerns about the West. India already ranks as a major purchaser of Israeli military products, and that figure is expected to grow due to an increase in the Indian defense budget, according to Ynet. Their report said Israel is India’s second-largest arms supplier in the world since 1991—for a total of US $8.5 billion in sales.

However, despite the growing economic potential, not all is good with Israel’s relations with India and China. In the case of India, Indian President Pratibha Devisingh Patil visited Syria, one of Israel’s strongest enemies, and highlighted their desire to increase economic ties between the two countries, according to the president’s Web site. Israel probably also wasn’t very happy when the president expressed support for the “legitimate right of Syria” on the Golan Heights, which was annexed by Israel following the 1967 Six-Day War.

China, meanwhile, has at times been an unreliable partner in isolating Iran and slow to accept sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program. Of course diplomatic troubles are nothing compared to the nightmarish influence being wielded in the Middle East by another Asian state—North Korea.

Growing Threats from North Korea

North Korean BM-25 missiles have a range of up to 2,000 miles (3,219km) and are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. • en.wikipedia.org/EPA

Easily the largest threat to Israel today is the Iranian axis, which includes Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and the military threats posed by Syria and Hizbullah. Those threats would be severe enough on their own, but it appears that, in recent years, North Korea has been responsible for significantly escalating the dangers. One of the most troubling reports on weapons transfers to Israel’s enemies came towards the end of 2010 when it became apparent that North Korea had sold advanced missiles to Iran capable of reaching Berlin, Germany.

According to The New York Times, citing a classified diplomatic cable released by the controversial WikiLeaks, American intelligence believes that 19 complete advanced-intermediate-range-missiles were sent to Iran from North Korea. Iran is reportedly working to reverse-engineer the North Korean missiles to develop their own advanced missiles. The Timessaid rocket scientists believe the North Korean BM-25 missile has a range of up to 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers). Theoretically, the missile would enable Iran to hit Western Europe and Moscow. Iran’s current missile range is believed by experts to be around 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers), meaning the new missiles would significantly increase Iran’s capabilities.

Furthermore, the North Korean missile is capable of carrying nuclear weapons. While The Timesnoted that a number of experts do not think Iran is even close to developing the technology for a nuclear warhead to put on a missile, Iran is thought to have invested effort in that direction. If true, the missile transfer wouldn’t be the first time North Korea has dealt in potential Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in the Middle East.

Back in 2007, foreign media reported that Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor, and in 2008, the USA confirmed that North Korea had been involved in building the reactor. According to a report by ABC Newsin the USA, the American government released information on the reactor, including a photo of the head of the North Korean reactor fuel plant with the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission in Syria. In June 2010, Ynetreported that Israeli President Shimon Peres said, “This country [North Korea] has become a duty-free shop for nuclear resources.” 

“This country [North Korea] has become a duty-free shop for nuclear resources.” – Israeli President Shimon Peres. • Photo by Isranet

Dr. Kongdan “Katy” Oh, a specialist on East Asian affairs and nonresident senior fellow for the Brookings Institution in the USA, spoke with Bridges for Peace in an interview on North Korea. While expressing caution by limiting details to what is already publicly known regarding the types of weapons North Korea has been selling, she said that North Korea is primarily influenced by financial gain in arms deals. “First of all, the bottom line for North Korea—in terms of dealing with the global community—is basically when the price is right, when the demand is there, that North Korea always shows interest in being involved, because they are kind of short on cash,” said Katy. This dovetails nicely with Iran’s need for an arms dealer, as sanctions have cut Tehran off from the top-of-the-line weapons from the USA and Europe.

“There is some kind of alignment” between North Korea and Syria and Iran. – Dr. Kongdan “Katy” Oh

But North Korea’s involvement with rogue states such as Iran goes beyond supply and demand. Katy noted that “there is some kind of, either sympathy or maybe some kind of alignment” between North Korea and Syria and Iran, which are also closed societies seeking WMDs against the wishes of the West. “North Korea would like to have some friends, right?” said Katy. “You don’t want to be a totally left out, [as an] isolated, endangered species.” That being said, she repeatedly noted that economics is very important to North Korean involvement in the Middle East, as the nation is a “tough capitalist” in weapons deals. She said they aren’t going to give things away for free “just for the sake of friendship.”

North Korea itself is a militant dictatorial regime that Katy described as a “very abnormal and crazy country,” not exactly the type of nation that should have nuclear weapons. Yet, despite suffering from international isolation and economic issues, the North Koreans have a long history when it comes to building weapons. Katy points out the North Koreans were sponsored by the USSR and China during the Cold War, giving them access to weapons, knowledge, and other resources. Furthermore, she said that like South Koreans, North Koreans are “very math-oriented, engineering studies-oriented.”

North Korea also has been focused on having a strong military for a long time. Today, the Asian trouble-maker not only provides weapons to Israel’s enemies in the Middle East, but their success in pursuing nuclear weapons also gives Iran a wicked role model. While agreeing that Iran could be watching and drawing conclusions, Katy expressed some caution in comparing the two nations too much since they have their own approaches and different background and internal problems.

“Of course, we really think that North Korea is part of the axis of evil that includes North Korea, Iran, and Syria.” – Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman • Photo by Isranet

Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman linked North Korea and Iran directly. “Of course, we really think that North Korea is part of the axis of evil that includes North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Because of the close cooperation between these three countries, the proliferation of nuclear technology, the proliferation of missile technology, I think that North Korea is really, as we see, a threat not only to their part of the world but also for the Middle East and the entire world. Also, if the international community cannot stop and cannot suppress this crazy regime and resolve the nuclear problem of North Korea, how can the international community try to deal with the Iranian threat? I think it’s a bad message, and it’s necessary today, more than in the past, to stop and topple this crazy regime and to halt their proliferation and their provocations.”

Making Adjustments

As Asia has become more and more a player in the Middle East, Israel has made adjustments: This has ranged from increased trade to diplomatic discussions about Iran’s nuclear program, to even calling for the world to stop North Korea’s proliferation of weapons. In short, the international influence in the Middle East is no longer relegated to the USA, Russia, and Europe. Instead, impact is increasingly being felt from Asia, and Israel finds itself having to look in that direction. While it may be too early to say the sun is setting on Western influence in Israel’s region, the sun is definitely rising in the East.

Source: By Joshua Spurlock, BFP Israel Mosaic Radio

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