Present-day Israeli foreign policy is giving considerable attention to the Southeast Asian countries, namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Myanmar. In the past few years, there has been a heavy traffic of high-level defense-oriented visits from both sides; as a result, military cooperation has received greater importance.
The current state of political ties with the West has brought about this shift in Israel’s foreign policy toward the Asian region, particularly Southeast Asia. Defense relations with India and South Korea are visibly on the upswing, and economic relations with China are strong. As part of Israel’s “Look East” policy , equal importance is given towards strengthening ties with Japan. Although the extent to which both countries can advance their ties in the defense arena is uncertain, cyber security is one field where both countries see significant potential for cooperation. Several factors have led to this bonhomie.
What Has Facilitated Israel’s Entry into the Region?
Rising anti-Israel social movements (such as Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) in European countries including the United Kingdom, Austria, Sweden and Ireland, mainly over settlements and military activities, are partly responsible for this policy reorientation. Not all is well between the European Union and Israel, as they do not see eye-to-eye on issues, particularly related to the construction of settlements. While the EU considers its funding for some structures in Area C of the West Bank to be “ humanitarian assistance ,” Israel claims it is “a political step designed to help the Palestinians to establish facts on the ground.” From time to time, Israel has even demolished some of these structures and caused considerable anger in Europe. As a result, relations between the two are cold.
Simultaneously, the decline of political ties with the West, particularly with its largest benefactor—the United States—is attributable to Israel’s overtures towards Asia-Pacific countries. Washington’s growing posture towards Iran following the 2015 nuclear agreement irked its strongest ally in the Middle East. Moreover, during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Israel faced diplomatic setbacks as five Latin American countries—Ecuador, Brazil, Chile, Peru and El Salvador—recalled their ambassadors, and calls for boycotting Israeli arms exports found resonance in many countries the world over. This reflected poorly on Israel’s political standing. There have been certain developments within the Middle East, although the Arab countries continue to remain hostile (at least politically) to Israel. It is no secret that there is ongoing tacit security-related cooperation with Saudi Arabia over matters concerning Iran. A commonly shared threat perception vis-à-vis Iran has brought about this shift. But this does not guarantee an immediate improvement in political ties between the Arab countries and Israel. In Southeast Asia, however, barring a few protests (particularly in Malaysia and Indonesia) condemning the use of excessive force during past military operations and handling of the Palestinian issue in general, Southeast Asia is 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 tiny nations.
What Has Triggered Israeli Arms Sales to the Region?
Notwithstanding political and social issues, the reduction in European defense budgets, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the impending drawdown in Afghanistan posed challenges to Israel, according to an Israeli Defense Ministry official. Over the last few years, arms sales to Europe and North America have remained low, but the year 2015 witnessed an increase in Israeli exports, owing to the rise of terror-related activities. For that matter, the Asia-Pacific region has maintained equilibrium, becoming the largest importer of arms from this diminutive Middle Eastern country.
For Israel, arms exports, mainly for funding of its defense research and development (R&D) programs, remain preeminent. The government requires an uninterrupted flow of foreign earnings coming in to the country. It is at a juncture where, as observed by scholars like Aharon Klieman in his widely read 1985 book Israel’s Global Reach: Arms Sales as Diplomacy , “The military rationale for transferring Israeli weapons in effect served as the intermediate link between political and foreign policy incentives on the one hand, and economic motives, on the other.” Moreover, current military modernization and indigenization programs, territorial disputes and internal discords, and the rising phenomenon of radical extremism and related counterterrorism measures are some of the contributing factors for Israel’s arms exports to Southeast Asia. The problem of aging weapons systems in this region particularly led its countries to seek alternative means of both upgrades and imports. The military-technological advancements achieved by the Israeli defense industry in upgrading and manufacturing a wide range of sophisticated weapons systems caught the attention of defense planners in Southeast Asia. For example, in July 2015, six M113 armored personnel carriers, upgraded by Israel, were delivered to the Philippine Army . A year earlier, Israel’s Elbit System was awarded a contract worth $290 million to an unnamed Asia-Pacific customer to perform upgrades on tank, and another $85 million for upgrades on a country’s (most likely Singapore’s) F-5 avionics.