It doesn’t take a lot to exacerbate the broiling political crisis in the Middle East, and Beijing’s international arm sales pour fuel on the Muslim-Jewish fire. During the Second Lebanon War, a Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile struck Israel’s INS Hanit off the Lebanon coast. Four Israeli sailors were killed in the incident - Yoni Hershkovitz from Haifa, Shai Atias from Rishon Letzion, Tal Amgar from Ashdod and Dov Shtienshos from Carmiel. The oldest was 37, the youngest just 19. All of them had families.
The casualties could have been much worse. The majority of the Hanit’s 80 crew members were sitting down to a “Sabbath eve dinner, an error of complacency that ironically in retrospect ended up saving lives.” Most of the crew was in the ship’s mess, a central location away from the spot where the missile struck.
There could have been a more direct hit on the vessel. The Hanit is a corvette (called a Saar 5 class ship by the Israeli navy), which is substantially smaller than an American frigate or destroyer. It’s about 1,200 tons loaded, built at the Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi. The Chinese C-802 anti-ship missile is a sea-skimmer, an advanced conventional weapon - not a ballistic missile - and carried a 400-pound time-delayed semi-armor-piercing high-explosive warhead that blew up near the fan tail of the ship. As it was, the explosion caused substantial damage, engulfing the aft section in flames and caving in the ship’s helicopter pad. But the Hanit didn’t sink. If the Chinese missile had struck amidships where most of the ship’s company was eating, or had impacted at the water line, many more crewmembers would have been killed or permanently injured, and it’s unlikely the ship would have survived.
Fortuitously for the Hanit, a second C-802 fired at the same time flew over the ship, zeroed in on a small freighter 40 miles away, and sank it. A ship the size of the Hanit could never have taken two missile hits.
There was never any doubt about who fired the missiles. The chief of the terrorist organization Hezbollah announced the attack first, declaring, “You wanted all-out war - and that is what you will get! You have no idea who you are dealing with!” Israeli officials believe Hezbollah may have had its hand on the lanyard, but Iranian specialists manned the firing batteries, and Lebanon’s military radars provided the guidance for the missile.
The Israeli Board of Inquiry determined that the Hanit suffered no technical malfunctions prior to the attack. Rather, it attributed the ship’s vulnerability to negligence by the commander and other crewmembers. Apparently, the sailors had such little apprehension of danger that a junior officer turned off the ship’s defensive systems, rendering the Hanit effectively blind to the threat. The ship’s captain lost his command and other officers were disciplined.
The Chinese missile attack on the Hanit came about primarily due to intelligence failures, but it highlighted a tragic blindness in the Israeli military: It simply refused to believe that Chinese authorities would put a dangerous missile system of this magnitude in the hands of a nonstate actor. At the Board of Inquiry, the Israeli navy commander explained that the prospect of Chinese advanced conventional missiles in the hands of Hezbollah seemed “unrealistic and imaginary.”
No one doubts that the Chinese have been and still are deeply engaged in illicit nuclear-weapons assistance to numerous countries. The bomb designs for the nuclear-weapon programs of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya and Pakistan were all Chinese. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is trading nuclear-weapons designs to Iran for oil and, through front companies, has funneled dual-use nuclear goods bought by North Korea to Syria. Specialists in the field widely agree that China also secretly trades in other types of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), ballistic missiles and advanced conventional weapons.
Israeli military officials knew it as well. But they didn’t understand what - advanced conventional weapons - China would sell to whom - nonstate actors. They knew the Chinese sell WMDs to rogue states like Iran or North Korea, but the Israelis, like national-security policymakers in most of the free world, assumed the PRC was just nasty, not crazy. Top Israeli security officials evidently thought, “Even the Chinese would not go so far as to arm terrorist groups with advanced conventional weapons.” They were wrong. To be fair to the Israelis, surprise attacks against America, like Pearl Harbor or Sept. 11, are reminders that the Jewish state is not the first to tragically underestimate its bloodthirsty opponents.
The C-802s fired by Hezbollah at the Israeli navy originated in China either as fully manufactured missiles or as kits assembled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. At any time, the PRC could have told the Iranians not to deliver them to any terrorist organization, but Beijing obviously issued no such instructions. The Chinese Communist Party simply thought the West and certainly the United Nations would never call out China - a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council - on its skullduggery.
The arming of Hezbollah, like most of the PRC’s illicit weapons trade, all boils down to money. Arms smuggling is highly profitable, and the Chinese Communist families that control Beijing’s end of the various arms-smuggling operations with the North Koreans, Iranians or the Syrians would have gotten their cut of whatever went down. As one expert recently noted, “Most remaining proliferation disputes don’t pertain to the actions of the government in Beijing, but to the practices of China’s state-owned defense industries. The country’s large state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are some of the world’s most prolific exporters of weapons and dual-use technologies.” These SOEs are dominated by the so-called Princelings, sons, daughters and grandchildren of high-ranking officials who founded and ran the Chinese Communist Party with Mao.
In a private briefing in Hong Kong, a Chinese arms dealer described the relationship between the Chinese Communist elite and Beijing’s arms-smuggling trade. According to him, this lucrative business was carefully divided so that each family received a share of the profits depending on where they are in the Communist Party pecking order. His account immediately brought to mind the mafia families in “The Godfather” movie dividing up the New York crime scene. In discussing the most important arms exporting firm in Beijing, “Polytechnologies Inc.,” the gunrunner noted that the company’s officers were in the same hierarchical relationship with one another as their sponsors (fathers, fathers-in-law, and the like) were within the Communist Party. He explained that this implied a deliberate division of the arms-smuggling pie based on Party rank order. At the time of the briefing, Polytechnologies was headed up by none other than the son-in-law of Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of China.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times and a former Hong Kong-based editor and writer for The Wall Street Journal. William C. Triplett II is former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and bestselling co-author of “Year of the Rat” (Regnery, 1998).
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