Israel tests an air defense system. Photo: Reuters
Israel tests an air defense system. Photo: Reuters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to boost connections with both China and India. Israel’s growing military and defense cooperation with Delhi, however, could make this simultaneous courting tricky.

The Indo-Pacific region is currently the world’s engine of development, and Netanyahu thinks that reaching out to it could serve Israel’s national interests, particularly its quest for new export markets.

On March 6, Netanyahu called for the creation of two separate bureaus for India and China at the Israeli Foreign Ministry. He will also make his second trip to China in four years this month and host Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the summer.

Modi’s visit to Israel will be the first to that country by an Indian prime minister and is designed to tighten ties between the two nations, which this year celebrate a quarter of century since the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

Indo-Israeli arms trade booming

Israeli exports to India and China have expanded considerably in recent years. They reached US$2.3 billion with India and $3.3 billion with China in 2015, according to Israel’s Bureau of Statistics. In this trading context, Israeli arms sales to India hold a special significance, given their quantity and quality and the impact they could have on the Sino-Indian strategic balance.

In fact, Israel delivered $1.3 billion worth of arms and defense equipment to India between 2012 and 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. India is now Israel’s largest arms client, while Israel is India’s third-largest weapons provider after Russia and the United States. India and Israel have concluded or are set to conclude new arms-transfer agreements principally focusing on air and missile defense.

Israel will reportedly jointly develop and produce with India a medium-range surface-to-air missile (MRSAM) system for the Indian Army in a program estimated to be worth $2.5 billion. The missile will have a range of 50 to 70 kilometers and the ability to neutralize aircraft and drones.

Israel and India have also co-developed MRSAM variants for the Indian Air Force and Navy; the aerial version will probably be inducted by the end of the year, while the naval variant is ready and initial deliveries started.

Further, the Indian Air Force is completing the deployment of the Israeli SPYDER air defense missile system on India’s western border. SPYDER is capable of shooting down aircraft, drones and cruise missiles 15km away.

The Indian Navy has also planned to purchase short-range surface-to-air missile (SRSAM) systems to replace its aging Israeli Barak-1 air defense platforms. Delhi intends to buy 10 SRSAM systems at a cost of $1.5 billion. Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems of Israel are among the foreign companies expected to make a bid.

Israel’s technology transfer to India

Air missile defense systems’ effectiveness is often questioned. Many are skeptical of their capabilities in blocking attacks by multiple rockets, and this also goes for the most advanced platforms. North Korea’s recent launch of four missiles in rapid succession toward the Sea of Japan, for instance, probably means that the Hermit Kingdom is experimenting with launches of this sort to pierce the US air and missile defense shield in East Asia.

In this sense, the sale of Israeli air and missile defense systems to India should not represent an immediate danger to China. Because of their limited strike range, then, these weapons appear designed to counter possible threats from Pakistan rather than from China.

However, China should be wary of the Indo-Israeli military cooperation under the “Make in India” framework, which commits overseas manufacturers to channel at least 30% of contract value into the Indian defense industry.

India is developing with Israeli support Swordfish radars to detect enemies’ ballistic missiles up to 800km away and direct interceptors to the target. The Swordfish radar will be part of India’s ballistic missile defense shield intended to protect the country against nuclear attacks.

The second successful test-firing of the Advanced Area Defence (AAD) interceptor missile on March 1 moved India closer to the ballistic defense standards of the US, China, Russia and Israel; now Delhi has a radar capable of tracking targets deep into western China.

Israel is basically engaging India for security and counterterrorism coordination and China for its economic might and prospective political influence in the Middle East. But cozying up to both Delhi and Beijing will be no easy task for the Israeli government if it continues to transfer sensitive defense technology to the Indian armed forces. “Bibi” Netanyahu may have to deal with this during his upcoming talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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