By Gabriel M. Scheinmann
Gabriel M. Scheinmann ’08 attends Harvard College and is a Government concentrator in Eliot House.
The People’s Republic of China has extended its footprint in the Middle East, even as the United States has grappled with myriad regional messes. Beijing is building political relationships with key oil-producing states in the region, based on its briskly growing need for energy, particularly crude oil and natural gas. Communist China has also become involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and UN peacekeeping, spheres that have traditionally been American territory.
Since 9/11, many Arab states, pressed by the U.S. for democratic reforms and human rights improvements, have warmed to the prag-matic and business-friendly Chinese approach that ignores the authoritarian nature of their regimes. Washington has been late in recognizing China’s new initiatives in the Middle East. Instead, the U.S. has been preoccupied with the chaos in Lebanon, Iraq, and Pakistan, as well as the threat from terrorist groups and Iran. The U.S. has also traditionally assumed that if conflict with China did erupt, it would be triggered by acknowledged flashpoints such as Taiwan or North Korea. As a result, the U.S. has neglected the possibility that a return to a bipolar world may actually arrive via the Middle East. Though direct military conflict is unlikely in the near future, recent economic trends, Chinese strategic decisions, and American preoccu-pations with short-term goals have signaled the beginning of the Cold War of the Twenty-First century.
China’s Middle East Policy
Beijing’s Middle East policy has four basic components. First, China has pursued extensive political ties in the region consistent with its energy needs. Second, China has reached out to isolated Middle East states in order to minimize criticism of its brutal repression of a rapidly growing, separatist-leaning, and violent Muslim population in its western autonomous region. Third, China has developed a series of naval bases, known as a “string of pearls”, across the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean as part of a gradual expansion of its naval capability. Finally, China has sought to gain geopolitical leverage by turning the Middle East into America’s renegade province, diverting U.S. energy and resources away from East Asia.
At this stage, China is unwilling and unable to directly challenge American primacy and is keenly aware of Washington’s red lines in the region. Thus China has been supportive of American and UN efforts to create an international tribunal to prosecute the (Syrian) killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and has paid lip service to American efforts to bar Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  Chinese Premier Wen Jibao has reiterated that “Resolution 1737 adopted unanimously by the UN Security Council members reflects the concerns of the international community about the Iranian nuclear issue.”  China is also keenly aware of and has avoided challenging the new U.S.-sponsored Sunni-Israeli regional realignment against Iran. It has demonstrated its commitment to greater stability in the region and has avoided opposing the American initiatives in Lebanon, Pakistan, or in the Palestinian territories.
The sole exception, Chinese opposition to the Iraq War, was rooted in China’s firm belief that national sovereignty is inviolable, an atti-tude that pleases its Arab trade partners and deflects international criticism of its own domestic policies. Additionally, Beijing was concerned that its growing energy interests would be supplanted by a stronger and more physical American presence in the region. Many Chinese strategists are suspicious of the U.S. military presence in the Gulf, believing that the invasion of Iraq and American threats to attack Iran are part of a plan to monopolize regional oil supplies. 
Meanwhile, China has begun flexing its own muscles. In early 2006, Beijing sent a 182-member engineering battalion to Lebanon under UNIFIL—its first peacekeeping contingent sent to the Middle East.  It has since increased its contribution to 354 soldiers following the end of the Second Lebanon War, and reports suggest it will double that number in the near future. Increased Chinese confidence in its ability to direct events in the Middle East led Beijing to appoint its first special envoy for Middle Eastern affairs in 2002.  Though both the first envoy, Wang Shijie, a veteran diplomat who had served as ambassa-dor to Bahrain, Jordan, and Iran, and his successor, Sun Bigan, have had little to show for their time and efforts, their appointments and Chinese troop deployments mark a volte-face from China’s previous ignorance of, abstention from, and powerlessness in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
China also currently enjoys far greater positive standing in the Middle East than the U.S. Unencumbered by historical records of colonialism or current accusations of imperialism that beset Europe and the U.S., China is seen as a benign power in the region. It has neither publicly laid out a specific vision or policy for the region, nor has it announced that it intends to transform the regimes and institu-tions of the region’s countries. Having never participated in large military or diplomatic endeavors in the region, Communist China is a relative unknown to many Arabs. Ruling elites in Iran and the Arab world appreciate China’s willingness to conduct business uncondi-tionally, disregarding their country’s record on human rights or democracy. In Egypt, a recent government poll showed that China was the most favorably viewed non-Arab country, with 73 percent of Egyptians seeing it as “friendly”. 
Energy: Sine Qua Non
Chinese ambitions in the Middle East are primarily driven by the energy needs of its rapidly growing and industrializing economy. In addition to meeting the needs of its expanding power sector, Chinese energy imports are also needed to satisfy its transportation needs, which are primarily driven by the automobile market.  Some estimates suggest that China will have more cars on the road than the U.S. as early as 2030. Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once told the Chinese that “Israeli know-how is more valuable than Arab oil,” Chinese actions suggest otherwise. 
After becoming a net oil importer in 1993, China is now the second largest importer of crude oil after the U.S. and could surpass it by 2025. In April 2007, Beijing imported nearly 50 percent of its oil needs, quickly approaching the U.S. level of 61.9 percent.  In August 2006, Chinese oil imports from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Oman alone amounted to 43 percent of total oil imports.  Led by its three major state-owned energy companies, the China National Petroleum Corpo-ration (CNPC), the China National Petrochemical Corporation (Sinopec), and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), 75 percent of Beijing’s oil imports will be from the Middle East by 2015.  As Washington slowly diversifies its energy sources, Beijing is becoming increasingly dependent on the Persian Gulf. In 2005, trade between China and members of the Arab League totaled $51.3 billion. Estimates suggest that this could double by 2010. 
The Dragon’s Fire: A Minor Factor
China has never been a major player in the Middle East arms market, though it has been somewhat involved in the region’s weapons trade. In 1985, the Middle East was the recipient of all Chinese arms sales, with Iran and Iraq absorbing 91 percent of these.  However, after 1988, that percentage dropped into the teens. Even at its peak in 1987, Chinese arm transfers amounted only to 12 percent of total arms sales to the region. The Chinese delivered around 60 to 75 anti-ship missiles known as C-802s (designated Yingji-8 in China) to Iran by 1997. China also sought to sell M-9 ballistic missiles to Libya and Syria before shelving the deal due to American pressure.  Overall, however, China has remained a marginal player in the Middle Eastern arms market since the end of the Cold War.
That may change. In the recent past, China has sold Saudi Arabia CSS-2 “East Wind” intermediate range ballistic missiles.  Sudan, currently murdering civilians in Darfur and potentially engaged in a reignited civil war, is the greatest recipient of Chinese arms, including small arms, anti-personnel mines, howitzers, tanks, helicopters, and ammunition. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah fired a C-802, at an Israeli anti-aircraft warfare ship, killing four Israeli soldiers.  Recent reports suggest that China has agreed to sell two dozen J-10 fighter planes, a jet based on Israeli components and technology, to Iran at a time when Iran is facing a third round of international sanctions over its nuclear program. 
Axis of Cooperation
Beijing has established warmer ties with Syria, Iran, and Sudan, all declared American enemies. Syrian President Bashar Assad was quoted in 2004 as saying that “China is now a superpower and is very important after the absence of the Soviet Union.”  Trade between China and Syria surged 55 percent to $1.4 billion in 2006.  By the end of last year, Chinese companies had signed project contracts in Syria worth $819 million. CNPC will begin construction on a $1 billion refinery in Deir al-Zor, the same site of a purported Israeli air attack on possible nuclear installations in September, in 2008. 
Beijing has also sought to fill the void created by American and European sanctions against Iran and Syria, undermining American efforts to isolate both regimes. The new Sino-Syrian relationship was summarized by Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Abdallah al-Dardari: “Our strategy is to stop exporting crude in three years and refine every drop of oil Syria produces. . . . Syria has had strong and historic political ties with China and it is natural for the economic relationship to strengthen.” 
Though it has stood by EU and UN-led efforts to curb Iran’s nu-clear program, Beijing has gone out of its way to reach out to Amer-ica’s most serious adversary. In the months leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin and then-Premier Zhu Rongji visited Iran and Libya, labeling the two U.S.-defined state sponsors of terrorism as “friendly countries.”  President Jiang’s trip to Iran marked the first by a Chinese head of state since the founding of the Islamic Republic in 1979. In December 2002, when Iranian Majlis speaker Mehdi Karrubi visited Beijing, President Jiang declared that “both states share almost similar stances on most issues.” In return, Iran has come to expect support from Tehran. Alae’ddin Broujerdi, head of the Majlis National Security and Policy Committee, announced that Iran expects “Moscow and Beijing to show more strength, power and independence . . .We expect them to use their veto power as a show of their independence and political strength, as the U.S. invariably does in instances involving the Zionist regime.” 
Chinese trade with Iran was estimated at $10 billion in 2006.  In 1994, Tehran accounted for just 1 percent of Beijing’s oil imports; today the proportion is nearly 13 percent.  At the end of 2004, Iran’s oil minister said that he expected China to eventually replace Japan as Iran’s largest oil market. Sinopec recently signed a $100 billion deal with Iran to import 10 million tons of liquefied natural gas over a 25-year period in exchange for a Chinese stake of 50 percent in the devel-opment of the Yadavaran oil field in Iran. 
China has also sold Iran anti-ship cruise missiles such as the Silkworm (HY-2), the C-801, and the aforementioned C-802.  In November 2003, the CIA issued a report stating that China was one of the leading providers of assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile programs.  China had planned to supply Tehran with a uranium conversion facility and nuclear power reactors, but public disclosure of the deal in 1995 and heavy American diplomatic pressure led to its cancellation.  In 1997, China pledged to stop selling cruise missiles to Iran, but in January 2005 the U.S. imposed penalties on eight Chinese companies for transferring ballistic missile technology to Iran. 
The same pattern has been repeated elsewhere. Since 1995, China, led by CNPC and Sinopec, has heavily invested in Sudan’s energy sector.  In addition to selling a variety of weapons and transport vehicles to the Sudanese regime, China has also established three arms factories in Sudan, leading to the proliferation of AK-47s across the country.  Today, Beijing is Khartoum’s leading oil partner, importing 64 percent of all Sudanese oil. Here, too, China has established energy and political relationships with a regime hostile to the U.S.
Operation Iraqi Freedom: A Chinese Boon
Anticipating American troubles in Iraq, China swiftly positioned itself to be one of Baghdad’s largest trading partners and political friends. The Chinese embassy in Baghdad opened less than two weeks after the transfer of authority from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim Iraqi government in June 2004. China also offered material assistance for the subsequent January 2005 elections and has provided fellowships for Iraqi students, technicians, and diplomats to travel to China and train in their respective fields. Last year, trade between China and Iraq topped $1.1 billion. 
A Chinese oil exploration and development contract has recently been the subject of two groundbreaking Iraqi gestures. First, the Iraqi government agreed to honor a CNPC deal signed with former leader Saddam Hussein in 1997 to develop the al-Ahdab oil field, valued at the time at $1.2 billion.  The field had an estimated pre-war capacity of 90,000 barrels/day and has been prioritized by the Iraqi government because of its proximity to new power stations and refineries. The deal was also the first to be offered to a foreign company by the new Iraqi government.  Additionally, China has cancelled $8 billion of Saddam-era debt, an important gesture of friendship and a symbol of closer political ties.  The Iraqi ambassador to China has remarked that friendship between China and Iraq dates back 2,000 years, blur-ring the historical truth but implying the intimacy of the new relationship.
The GCC and China
Beijing has also sought to establish economic ties with Gulf Cooperation Council states. Trade between China and the GCC topped $32 billion in 2005 and a free trade agreement is due to be completed by the end of 2007.  The overseas construction arm of CNPC moved into the Kuwaiti market in 1983 and embarked on a major business expansion in 1995 when the group won an oil storage reconstruction project.  China initially developed oil relationships with Oman and Yemen, rather than Saudi Arabia, because they both produced a light, sweet crude oil that Chinese refineries could easily handle.  By 2001, China had signed almost 3,000 contracts with the six GCC states for labor services worth $2.7 billion.  In 2002, the GCC had no major investments in new company facilities in China, but by 2006 they had thirteen, seven of which were bankrolled by the UAE.  Bilateral trade between China and Yemen reached $3.2 billion in 2005 and, in 2006, China became Yemen’s largest trading partner.  In December 2006, OPEC and China jointly announced that they had established a future cooperation framework on energy issues, “in particular, the security of supply and demand, in order to enhance market stability.” 
A New Pillar? Beijing and Riyadh
The emerging Sino-Saudi special relationship is crucial to Beijing’s Middle East policy and perhaps its biggest coup in the region. Overcoming the deep-rooted ideological polarity between the birth-place of Islam and an atheist Chinese communism, Riyadh has partly embraced Beijing in order to offset new strains in the U.S.-Saudi relationship after 9/11. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said in 2004 that Saudi Arabia would reduce its dependence on U.S.-dominated security arrangements in the future. When King Abdullah made his first overseas trip as the new Saudi king in January 2006, he notoriously skipped Washington and became the first Saudi monarch ever to visit China.  In January 2007, a delegation from a Shanghai political think-tank was told in Dubai that a bigger Chinese role in the Gulf would be welcomed, especially if Beijing backed Arab positions in the UN Security Council.
Diplomats from both countries have worked furiously to construct a strategic energy relationship that will permanently ensconce a Sino-Saudi partnership. In 1999, then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Riyadh and inaugurated a “strategic oil partnership” between the two countries.  Saudi Arabian oil exports represent a greater share of Chinese oil imports (17 percent) than American oil imports (14 percent). 
Sinopec has partnered with Aramco to build oil refineries capable of handling Saudi high-sulfur crude oil in China’s Fujian and Qingdao provinces—a development that will ease and increase Saudi oil exports to China.  China has also been a major investor and partner in the Saudi oil industry. The China Petroleum Pipeline Bureau and the China Petroleum Engineering and Construction Group recently announced that they will lay down a 225-mile pipeline, as a section of the Abu Dhabi Pipeline, and will transmit oil from Saudi Arabia’s Habshan Oil Field to Fujairah, one of the seven emirates of the UAE.  Sinopec received a contract to explore and produce natural gas in the Rub al-Khali Basin, the first time Riyadh has opened the area up for investment in nearly 30 years.  In February 2007, Sinopec partnered with ExxonMobil and Saudi Aramco to set up an oil refining, chemical products, and finished oil marketing venture in China’s Fujian Province.  While many believe that the U.S.-Saudi strategic relationship is based on energy supplies, applying the same calculus to the rapidly emerging Sino-Saudi relationship would imply a similar conclusion.
Playing Both Sides: Arabs and Israelis
Beijing’s relationship with Israel, Washington’s greatest ally in the region, has been rather warm in order to avoid any discord with the U.S. Though Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize Communist China, the two did not exchange ambassadors until 1992.  Additionally, Israel is one of only a handful of countries to have never granted diplomatic recognition to Taiwan.  During Israeli Prime Minister Olmert’s January 2007 visit to Beijing, the band at the banquet in his honor played “Jerusalem of Gold”, a striking change from a time when Chinese diplomats refused to even mention the word “Jerusalem” in deference to Palestinian sensitivity. 
Chinese weapons purchases from Israel have often been a major irritant in U.S.-Israel relations. Israel remains China’s second largest arms provider, including of “Harpy” anti-radar drones and Python-3 air-to-air missiles.  Twice in recent times, Israel has been forced to cancel arms deals with China after heavy American pressure. Israel’s 1999 agreement with China to upgrade China’s Harpy Killer UAVs greatly angered the U.S. defense establishment.  In 2004, China tested the upgraded UAVs over the Taiwan Strait. In 2003, under heavy American pressure, Israel cancelled the sale of one $250 million Airborne Early Warning Command and Control radar system to China.  The U.S. is concerned that Israeli-supplied weapons could be used against the United States in the event conflict over Taiwan erupts.
The Chinese “War on Terror”
China has forged strong ties with Muslim states in order to quiet criticism over its ruthless tactics of suppression directed against a Muslim separatist movement in the Uighur region of its western, autonomous Xinjiang province. While estimates put the overall Mus-lim population in China around 20-30 million, the distinctly non-ethnically Chinese Uighurs concentrated in Xinjiang account for 7.2 million of that population.
China is a strong supporter of Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government, with which it shares a 20-mile border. It, moreover, backed U.S.-led efforts to eliminate the Taliban because the Taliban had supported the East Turkistan terrorist forces that threatened the stability of the Uighur region.  Between 1990 and 2001, East Turkistan terrorist forces staged more than 200 attacks in Xinjiang, killing 162 people and wounding many more. Then-Chinese Minister of Religious Affairs Zhou Guohai announced that harsh measures against Muslims were needed because the Chinese “deeply fear Islamic extremism” and “deeply distrust the Koran and what it teaches.” He also went on to declare, “We will make sure that Islam is practiced in a way that is in line with Chinese culture and tradition.”  In December 2002, in a concession to the Chinese, the State Department agreed to put one obscure Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Move-ment, on the list of global terrorist organizations. For Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, energy and diplomatic relations trump the plight of Chinese Muslims.
Patience and Protection
China’s unwillingness openly to confront the U.S. in the Middle East is due to its self-perceived Achilles’ heel: its inability to protect energy supplies in American-controlled seaways. At present, 60 percent of Chinese oil imports arrive on tankers through the Strait of Hormuz. Securing deliveries therefore means safeguarding sea lanes from piracy, terrorist attacks, and hostile powers. An American naval blockade of Chinese tankers in the Strait of Hormuz or the Straits of Malacca would paralyze the Chinese economy. That, in turn, could catalyze domestic popular uprisings, which is China’s biggest fear. In 2006, Chinese naval forces conducted exercises simulating the rescue of a threatened tanker, a clear symbol of defensive preparatory measures. 
China is also helping Pakistan build a new and major deep-water port and electronic eavesdropping station at Gwadar, a mere 100 miles from the Iranian border and along the direct path of oil imports. Though ostensibly for Pakistani commercial use, the level of Chinese investment and Gwadar’s lack of usefulness as a feeder port in the Baluchistan deserts suggest that Beijing also has strategic interests in the development.  The basing of a Chinese fleet, even a token force, would be a clear signal of Chinese intentions to defend its oil investments from superior naval powers.  A February 2007 visit by President Hu to the Seychelles also suggested that China may hope to take advantage of the archipelago’s strategic position to construct a naval base.  China has also finalized a deal to build a naval base in the Maldives, due to be operational by 2010, as well as a naval bunker facility on Sri Lanka, much to the displeasure of the Indian government.  By assembling a “String of Pearls”, an image describing China’s expanding geopolitical strategy of acquiring a chain of small naval bases along its most vulnerable oil routes, Beijing is investing in protecting its energy supplies from possible U.S. threats in the not-too-distant future. China’s willingness to upgrade Iran’s anti-ship cruise missile capability is another attempt to erode U.S. naval superiority. 
When the Time is Right
Careful not to invite conflict with the U.S. before it has adequately protected itself against a potentially crippling American naval blockade, China has also embraced regional American allies, such as Israel. By supporting Israel’s right to security—a position unthinkable ten years ago—and following the Western lead on sanctions for Tehran, Beijing has sought to portray itself as benign to American hegemony. As long as America still controls the game, China is willing to abide by the rules the U.S. establishes.
Nevertheless, China has reached deep into the Middle East, creat-ing robust economic and political relationships with American pariah states such as Syria, Iran, and Sudan. Furthermore, it has developed its own “special relationship” with Saudi Arabia, Washington’s other ally in the region. As Sino-Saudi trade, energy investment, and diplomatic cooperation continue to increase, the Saudi royal family will have to balance its various American and Chinese interests against each other.
Chinese leaders have been emboldened by what is perceived as an American retreat from strong positions in East Asia. U.S. troop deployments in South Korea and Japan have dropped by nearly 13,000 since 9/11.  The Bush Administration’s willingness to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program signals a softening in attitude on the Korean Peninsula. The War on Terror, the Iraq War, and the recent destabilization of several countries in the Middle East have shifted Washington’s attention away from the Asian rim—a development welcomed by Beijing. The Bush Administration has also exhibited a marked rhetorical shift on Taiwanese issues since 9/11. Initially announcing that the U.S. would do “whatever it takes” to defend the island, President Bush has explicitly opposed Taiwanese independence in recent statements in a major backtracking from his former position.  As China recognizes U.S. softening of its positions on and presence in Japan, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula, it has cautiously entered a traditional American sphere: the Middle East.
As Chinese dependence on Middle Eastern oil deepens, it can be expected that Beijing will vociferously back the interests of oil-producing Middle East states at the UN Security Council and in relations with the U.S. and EU. Forced to choose between a rising power that promises investment without conditions about democracy or human rights, and an established power whose stated goal is to democratize all authoritarian regimes, states will likely choose the former. The Middle East could easily become the Twenty-First Cen-tury’s Africa—a Cold War battlefield laden with natural resources but scarred by proxy wars and backward economic development. While careful to continue being a responsible stakeholder in the international system, China has begun to battle the U.S. for supremacy and re-sources in the opening stages of the next Cold War.
 This has also meant soothing the fears of America’s most important regional ally, Israel. Following his January 2007 trip to Beijing, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that he heard “many surprising and positive things” from Chinese Premier Wen and that Wen “made it absolutely clear” that Beijing opposed an “Iran with a nuclear bomb.” Haaretz, January 10, 2007.
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 Lyon, Ibid.
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 Lyon, Ibid.
 “Syria Open to More Chinese Investment in Energy, Infrastructure,” Xinhua News Agency, July 10, 2007.
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 Oweis, Ibid.
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 Bhadrakumar, Ibid.
 Bhadrakumar, Ibid.
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 Rubin, Ibid.
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 Calabrese, Ibid.
 Nicholas Kristof, “China and Sudan, Blood and Oil,” The New York Times, April 23, 2006.
 “China Welcome to Explore Iraqi Oil Resources,” China Daily, June 19, 2007.
 Frank Gaffney Jr., “China’s Double Standard,” The Washington Times, June 26, 2007.
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 “Beijing Cancels Part of $8 billion Iraq Owes,” International Herald Tribune, June 23, 2007.
 Emma Graham-Harrison and Chris Buckley, “Oil-hungry China Courts Saudi King,” Reuters, January 22, 2006.
 Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.
 Leverett, Ibid.
 Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.
 Jim Krane, “Warm Relations between China and the Gulf Arab Countries,” AP, April 11, 2007.
 “China, Yemen discuss Middle East, Gulf; Sign Eight Deals,” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, April 6, 2006.
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 Krane, Ibid.
 Leverett, Ibid.
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 “Big Deals in Gulf-China Trade Boom,” AP, April 11, 2007.
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 Calabrese, Ibid.
 “Sinopec in Talks with Companies from Middle East,” Sinocast China Business Daily News, May 29, 2007.
 Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.
 Bajpaee, Ibid.
 Bhadrakumar, Ibid.
 Bajpaee, Ibid.
 Migdalovitz, Carol, “Israel: Background and Relations with the United States,” CRS Report for Congress February 13, 2006.
 Mark, Clyde R. “Israeli-United States Relations.” CRS Report for Congress April 28, 2005.
 Jin Liangxiang, Ibid.
 Blumenthal, Ibid.
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 Blumenthal, Ibid.
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