Why is China’s Embassy in Tel Aviv So Big? Just Curious about Technology? Isn’t This Espionage?

by Yossi Melman in Tel Aviv

The People’s Republic of China dropped an old Communist taboo on official relations with Israel in 1992, when it agreed to exchange ambassadors: normalizing diplomatic ties between two nations rooted in centuries of tradition — China with its 1.3 billion people, and Israel now with almost 8 million.

That ratio is around 200 to 1, and there is no denying that size does matter in international relations.

Let’s consider the Chinese Embassy in Tel Aviv, located at 219 Ben Yehuda Street near the northern port district of the city. The four-story residential building, converted into offices, contains 50 accredited diplomats and dozens of other Chinese employees with non-diplomatic status. It is thus the fifth largest embassy among the 83 nations that have permanent diplomatic missions in Israel.

Given the state of Sino-Israeli relations, there is no apparent reason for China to have such a large presence. The relations between the two countries are reasonable and amicable, but nothing more than that.

The mutual trade volume stands at $8 billion dollars – two-thirds in favor of China’s exports. In the era of globalization, and in comparison to other countries, this balance is not impressive. Israel’s total trade with the US and the EU is more than $30 billion each, which means more than four times bigger than its trade with China. Efforts to boost Israeli exports were at the center of last month’s visit to Beijing by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the diplomatic arena, Israel has neither levers nor the ability to influence China’s foreign policy in general and its Middle East actions in particular. Chinese policies in the region are dictated by two words – stability and oil. China wants a stable Middle East, so as to ensure the supply of oil and other commodities vital to its expanding economy.

Iran is a case in point. Time after time, Israeli ministers, generals, and intelligence officials have failed to convince China to change its policy and instead support crippling sanctions against Iran. Netanyahu, during his trip, again tried to persuade the Chinese leadership that Tehran’s headlong rush toward building nuclear weapons must be stopped.

The situation is even worse when it comes to the security-military field. Once upon a time, things were good. In the mid-1970s, before diplomatic relations were established, Israel was the first Western nation to arm China with modern weapons. Brokered by the late businessman Shaul Eisenberg, most Israeli arms manufacturers — including Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel Military Industries, Tadiran, and Rafael — clinched lucrative deals worth billions of dollars.

But the bonanza came to end in the mid 1990s, with the United States shutting down the Chinese market for Israeli security exporters and contractors.

Two dramatic events sealed the fate of Israeli arms sales to China. One was IAI’s Phalcon project, designed to convert a Russian-made Ilyushin transport plane into an early warning spy-in-the-sky for the Chinese Air Force. The second deal, also involving IAI, was for the upgrading of the Harpy attack drones that it had previously sold to China.

President Bill Clinton’s administration, which perceived China as an emerging superpower adversary, set an ultimatum for Israel – to cancel the Phalcon project and not to upgrade the Harpies. Israel protested but gave in to the pressure of its strategic ally and financial benefactor.

As a result, Israel lost the expanding Chinese military market, brought upon itself the wrath of the Communist powerhouse, and had to compensate Beijing to the tune of half a billion dollars.

So why does China deploy such a vast array of diplomats and other employees at its embassy in Tel Aviv in a variety of guises – political and educational officers, economic and labor advisors, science and military attaches?

The answer can be summed up in one word – espionage; or to put it more gently – efforts to gather and collect information about Israel with an emphasis on its advanced technological capabilities.

There have been increasing reports in the international media about China’s spying activities in the U.S. A special report by the Pentagon, which was partly leaked to The Washington Post, revealed that Chinese espionage activities have reached the level of an unstoppable epidemic. Today, rather than age-old activities such as recruiting human sources as agents, China is focused more on cyber warfare.

The Chinese work at undetectably infiltrating databases and computers and stealing the stored secrets. China has been also involved in penetrating computer systems that operate strategic sites such as power stations and banks, apparently to practice its sabotage capabilities and to test America’s cyber defenses.

According to the report prepared by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board, China’s computer whiz kids managed to steal some of America’s most advanced weapon systems, including at least some of the secrets of the state-of-the-art F-35 fighter plane and the latest version of the anti-aircraft Patriot missile.

Incidentally, by doing so, China may have jeopardized Israel’s military domination over its Arab neighbors and Iran — if China were to share what it knows with others. After all, Israel’s Air Force has already signed contracts to purchase the F-35 and occasionally deploys Patriot batteries to protect the northern fronts with Syria and Lebanon.

It was also reported that China penetrated Australia’s intelligence agencies and got its hands on some of its most sensitive data. Chinese spokespeople have categorically denied that they are involved in such malpractice but very few believe them.

In its race to become the greatest economic and military superpower, China’s leaders and military and intelligence officers are not selective. They are apt and willing to target any developed country that has sophisticated technology. Thus, they have employed the same measures and methods to spy on Israeli soil and in Israeli cyberspace and against Israeli corporations and military and scientific institutions.

For China, Israel has a double appeal. Israel is considered a high-tech superpower and has deep and friendly military-scientific and technological ties with the U.S.

In this sense, Chinese efforts to target Israel are reminiscent of Soviet attempts.

Soviet espionage operations against Israel from the 1960s through the 1980s, before the collapse of Communism, focused mainly on obtaining technological and military information and taking advantage of the close ties between Jerusalem and Washington. “In that sense, Israel for us was a launch pad to penetrate America,” General Vladimir Kryuchkov, the last director of the KGB before the notorious Soviet security apparatus was disintegrated and replaced by new agencies, told me in the mid-1990s.

“The Chinese operate endlessly in Israel,” I was told recently by a senior source who is familiar with the topic. “They operate with a variety of methods. They try to obtain data from open sources. They try to recruit and run agents in the most sensitive fields: military industries, the army and air force, the intelligence community, and high-tech companies.”

It is assumed that like other powers, China has installed espionage capabilities at its embassy in Tel Aviv.  219 Ben Yehuda Street houses electronic and other equipment that enables Chinese intelligence officers to bug Israeli communications and to decipher coded messages – an art known as signal intelligence, or sigint.

Recently, Prof. Yitzhak Ben Yisrael, one of Israel’s top experts on space, cyber and technology-related security, said that his country is facing hundreds of cyber-attacks on a daily basis. Ben Yisrael, a former major general in the army, was appointed two years ago by Netanyahu to create an authority to combat computerized terror. He did not specify who the attackers were. But a well-placed source said that among them were Chinese hackers, most probably military officers.

The overall responsibility to block espionage activities and to protect state secrets is in the hands of the Israel Security Agency (known usually by the Hebrew initials, Shin Bet). The agency has assigned two special units for these missions. One, technical in nature, provides guidelines to security officers and experts on how to protect computers and network systems at top-secret sites such as the Dimona nuclear reactor and at the security services and military industries.

The other unit operates in the more traditional role of spy-catcher. In the past, this unit was responsible primarily for targeting spies of the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc satellites. The unit’s officers shadowed the Communist diplomats, bugged their phones, and occasionally broke into their embassies.

But with the end of Communism in the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries, the Shin Bet shifted its attention. Russia, although it now liaises with Israel’s intelligence community, still remains a priority for Shin Bet’s counter-espionage mission. But no less important a target is China.

The issue of foiling espionage activities by operatives of states that are not hostile is very sensitive, especially when you are dealing with a huge and proud superpower. It’s no wonder that Shin Bet is very cautious in its dealings with the Chinese presence in Israel. However, the Chinese Embassy and some of its diplomats, as well as some Chinese businessman, are kept under surveillance.

It is difficult to obtain details about the full extent of Chinese espionage operations in Israel. It is not clear if any Chinese diplomats or businessmen have been uncovered and questioned, and whether Israeli national interests have been compromised.

“But what can be said with certainty,” the senior source said, “is the fact that the Chinese are very professional, well positioned and acquainted in the art of spying and the collection of intelligence. They have demonstrated this in the U.S. and other countries, and there is no reason not to believe that they may have been successful here, too.”

Both Shin Bet and a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy declined to comment.

China * Hong Kong * Surveillance * NSA * Israel * Middle East * Snowden * US-China * Espionage * Eavesdropping *
June 11, 2013

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