The Asian connections

Print edition : February 28, 2003

ISRAEL's thrust into Asia began nearly four and a half decades ago despite Non-Aligned Movement leaders like Sri Lanka - and India - publicly putting Tel Aviv on their banned list in the 1970s/80s and forbidding their citizens from visiting the country. But both secretly established deals with Tel Aviv on intelligence gathering, defence equipment and military training.

At the time, only four Asian countries openly embraced Israel - Burma, Thailand, Singapore and Nepal. Intelligence officials claim that it was often through Israeli embassies and consulates in these countries that secret deals were forged. India's Special Protection Group commandos, for instance, were trained by Israel in the mid-1980s.

Today, China is Israel's second biggest market in Asia after Turkey, while Tel Aviv has also been active in providing weapons and training to the Sri Lankan armed forces fighting the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. Israel established an embassy in Colombo over a year ago, principally to facilitate military sales, such as the eight Kfir multi-role fighter aircraft it sold to Sri Lanka for $24 million.

South Korea recently negotiated a $100 million deal for Israeli UAVs and electronic jamming devices while the defence relationship between Burma and Tel Aviv, forged by the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Burma's Premier U Nu, is perhaps its oldest in Asia.

Israel's defence dealings with Singapore are significant, worth over $1 billion in outstanding deals. Israel has helped equip, train and establish Singapore's police and armed forces and the two have recently agreed to developed jointly reconnaissance satellites for intelligence gathering. Israeli software firms, specialising in security technology based in Singapore operate across Asia.

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