After having established successful bilateral relationships with countries like China, Singapore, and India over the last two decades, Israel is making unrelenting efforts to expand its footprints in select Southeast Asian (particularly Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand) and East Asian countries (Japan and South Korea). The realpolitik and strategic interests of both sides have been instrumental in bringing the ties closer than ever before. The long-term goal for Israel is to translate its economic and gradually growing defense cooperation with these counties into political partnerships.
No longer do the anti-Israeli sentiments in some of these Southeast Asian countries, out of support for the Palestinian issue, remain an obstacle to promoting cooperation with Israel. The visit of an Indonesian trade delegation to Israel in early July this year (in the absence of official diplomatic relations), for instance, is a testimony to the growing bonhomie between Israel and the region. Even in the recent past, barring a few protests (particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia) condemning Israel’s excessive use of force during its military operations and handling of the Palestinian issue in general, Southeast Asia has been relatively silent, with negligible anti-Israel rhetoric. It is this lukewarm response that has created fertile ground for Israel to embolden its relations with these Asian nations.
Continuing Israel’s politico-diplomatic move to strengthen bilateral ties with the region, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited South Korea from July 14-18 of this year and discussed various facets of ties, including trade, education, healthcare, and regional security. While this visit was economic in nature, during which both sides called for the early signing of a free trade agreement, the Israeli president did not miss out on the opportunity to endorse Israel-made missile defense systems to the South Korean side.
Such high–level visits, including Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s arrival in Israel in early September 2018, have become a trend in recent times. Of all the discussions and agreements signed during such exchanges, the military component of their bilateral cooperation has attracted considerable attention. It increasingly appears that Israel has gradually emerged as one of Asia’s preferred sources for defense items.
Over the last few years, the military dimension of Israel-Southeast/East Asian ties has very become prominent. This is demonstrated by the fact that the Asia-Pacific region has remained the largest destination for Israel’s defense exports for the last six years. Of Israel’s total global arms exports in 2018 (worth $7.5 billion), 46 percent were purchased by Asia-Pacific countries. Further, the recent report by SIPRI not only mentioned Israel as the world’s eighth largest arms exporter but also indicated that Vietnam has become one of the three largest Israeli arms clients between 2014-2018 (along with Azerbaijan and India). This growing defense trade is crucial for Israel, mainly for funding its defense research and development (R&D) programs, but also for ensuring an uninterrupted flow of foreign earnings coming into the country.
Moreover, with a limited scope for the consumption of its own defense products internally, Israel is on a constant look-out for clients elsewhere, and Southeast Asia has become a lucrative market. Beside aircraft and related systems upgrades, missile and antimissile systems, border protection equipment, early-warning systems, intelligence equipment, and military aviation components are the most sought-after Israeli-made items. In 2018, missile and missile defense systems alone accounted for 24 percent of Israel’s total defense exports, UAVs and their radar systems for 15 percent, electronic warfare systems and radar 14 percent, communication and intelligence-related systems 6 percent.
Southeast Asia’s current military modernization and indigenization programs, territorial disputes and internal discord, and the rising phenomenon of radical extremism and militancy (for instance, the Mindanao crisis in May-October 2017), and related counterterrorism measures have facilitated the entry of Israel as an important arms exporter to the region. Added to this is the problem of aging weapons systems in Southeast Asia, which leads its countries to seek alternative means of both upgrades and imports. This is where the military-technological advancements achieved by various Israeli defense companies in upgrading and manufacturing a wide range of sophisticated weapons systems have caught the attention of defense planners, particularly in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Myanmar.
A few of the aforementioned Southeast Asian countries have openly made known their preference for Israeli-made weapons systems, particularly because of Israel’s “no-strings-attached” policy over its arms export activities, regardless of the nature of the ruling government or regime. Since the early 1950s, Israel has been implementing this policy, deploying its arms exports and military assistance program as tools to promote its foreign policy objectives, for both political and economic incentives. It is mainly for this reason that Israel has no qualms about agreeing to supply countries with major rights concerns, like the Philippines and Myanmar, with some of its weapons systems.
Duterte, during his 2018 Israel visit, even ordered his military to purchase defense items, including intelligence gathering equipment, only from Israel. And Israel is suspected to be continuing its arms trade with Myanmar as well, despite accusations of genocide against that country’s military. The visit of Myanmar’s military chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to Israel in September 2015, during which he toured the air force base in Palmachim and defense manufacturers such as Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elta and Elbit Systems, was considered as a sign of military collaboration. More recently, despite Israel’s claim that it has stopped arming Myanmar following a High Court ruling in September 2017, the presence of Myanmar’s military delegation at the Israel Defense and Homeland Security Expo held in Tel Aviv during early June 2019 further raised the suspicions of continuing Israeli arms exports to Myanmar. Given Israel’s past experiences of conducting arms trade in secrecy, it should not come as a surprise should such clandestine activities be found to be continuing with Myanmar.
Beyond the arms trade, Israel has entered the domain of counterterrorism cooperation (CT). Troops from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), for the first time, trained their Philippine counterparts (July 2019). With a commonality of threat perceptions in the respective regions, CT, intelligence and information sharing cooperation between the two countries can be expected to progress from now on.
As for East Asia, it remains to be seen how far both Israel and Japan could carry forward their cooperation in defense arenas, although they “affirmed the importance of bilateral defense cooperation and concurred on increasing the exchanges between the defense authorities of the two countries including exchanges at ministerial level” during the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Tokyo in May 2014. As nothing substantive has taken place on this front, one should not expect Japan to become a strong defense trade partner for Israel in the short term. It will be a time taking process for both countries to develop a relationship with regular arms trade and co-development of military weapons. That’s unlike the case of South Korea, which has increased its military-security cooperation with Israel, particularly since the onset of this millennium. However, the visit to Israel, for the first time, by General Koji Yamazaki, chief of staff of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, in late June 2019 could be an initial step toward establishing partnerships between the two militaries.
It is certain that military-security cooperation between Israel and these Asian countries will progress further. Increasing demand for defense items due to emerging security challenges, the quest for technological advancement in their defense industries, and Israel’s willingness to meet some of the requirements of these Southeast/East Asian countries will contribute to the expansion of their cooperation. Notwithstanding the importance of economic cooperation, the Israeli government will continue to encourage defense engagements as a means of diversifying its revenue sources, which could also further lead to the establishment of political ties with these countries.
From what has been achieved by Israel so far, it’s fair to say that Netanyahu’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy has begun to yield some dividends. Israel will continue to wield its foreign policy toward this region with craftsmanship.
Alvite Ningthoujam has a Ph.D. from the Center for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and served as Senior Research Associate at Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi from 2014-2017.