(CNSNews.com) - An Israeli decision to sell a sophisticated military radar system to China despite Washington's concerns may strain relations between the two allies, American commentators sympathetic to Israel have warned.
They say Israel may be jeopardizing its own security by helping the Chinese, who have military connections to some of the Jewish state's most dangerous enemies.
The radar sale, which could affect the delicate military balance between China and U.S. allies in the Far East, is expected to upset Israel's friends in Congress at a time when Israel is going to need maximum U.S. support as it tackles difficult "full status" negotiations with the Palestinians.
China has been secretive about the deal, even denying it outright last month. But Israel has announced it has fitted the Phalcon radar system to a Russian-built Inyushin-50 cargo plane for the Chinese air force.
The $250 million system will apparently enable its users to locate hard-to-detect stealth jet fighters and cruise missiles, according to a report in the current issue of Aviation Week and Space Technology.
The magazine said the U.S. government has asked Israel to cancel the sale. Other reports have also made this claim, although when he was asked about it after a recent meeting between President Clinton and Prime Minister Ehud Barak in Turkey, national security advisor Sandy Berger said he did not believe the two had discussed the matter.
The Israeli daily Ha'aretz reports Wednesday that a senior Chinese official, Li Peng, paid a quiet visit Tuesday to the Israel Military Industries (IMI) plant Tuesday to inspect the work.
The chairman of the communist National People's Congress is on an official visit to Israel, although the stopover at the military plant was added to his itinerary at the last minute.
Phalcon, which stands for "Phased-Array L-Band Conformal Radar," was designed by the Israelis for their own use, fitted to a Boeing 707 platform.
Built by an IMI subsidiary, Elta, the system can provide information on aircraft with a 225-mile, 360-degree range. It is also designed to coordinate forces during battle.
The American magazine says U.S. experts estimate that, with four planes fitted with the radar, the Chinese Airforce would have a 24-hour, year-round capability.
Some reports say Israel has offered the system to Turkey, South Korea and India, and has already fitted it to two aircraft for the South African military.
Taiwan in particular has expressed concerns about the sale to Beijing, fearing the enhanced capability may exacerbate the military threat posed by the mainland.
Israeli officials insist Jerusalem told the U.S. about the intended deal three years ago, and that no American technology had been used in the system. Furthermore, they say other U.S. allies have sold military equipment to the Chinese.
But Dov Zakheim, a former U.S. undersecretary of defense, says that's besides the point.
"The Phalcon is no mere piece of military equipment," he wrote in The Jerusalem Post recently. "It is a state-of-the-art system. When operated in conjunction with China's growing, increasingly modern long-range air force, the Phalcon could tilt the strategic balance not only between China and Taiwan, but more generally in East and Southeast Asia."
Zakheim, who is now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, questioned Israel's wisdom in alienating supporters on Capitol Hill "who cannot understand Israel's insensitivity to America's strategic concerns."
The Center for Security Policy, a pro-Israel Washington-based thinktank, has also raised concerns about the development. It noted in a statement this week that during his current visit to Israel, Li Peng had responded to his hosts' concerns about Chinese weapons sales to Iran by saying: "My country has normal ties with Iran."
"Is Israel selling communist China the rope with which her enemies will try to hang the Jewish state?" the center asked.
On November 16, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi denied Beijing was buying a radar system from the Israelis, saying in response to queries that "there is no defense cooperation between China and Israel."
It was reported earlier this week that the Pentagon has ordered an investigation to determine whether U.S. stealth aircraft have been rendered obsolete by a simple radar system being developed by the Chinese.
Rather than emit electro-magnetic pulses that bounce off aircraft and so reveal their size and location, the new system reportedly uses advanced computer programs to analyze commercial television and radio signals in the air. Aircraft, including stealth fighters, disturb and cause fluctuations in these signals.