The arms trade delivers to Lebanon

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 July, 2006, 12:00am

When a radar-guided cruise missile slammed into an Israeli naval gunboat helping to enforce Israel's blockade of Lebanon this month it came as a complete surprise and shock. Neither Israel nor its main ally, the United States, knew that Hezbollah had such a sophisticated weapon in its arsenal.

As a result, the Israeli vessel did not have its missile-defence system turned on. Even if it had, the system would probably not have stopped the sea-skimming cruise missile from hitting the ship, causing severe damage and killing several sailors. With the armed wing of Hezbollah threatening to strike ever deeper into Israel, it's worth asking how the C-802 anti-ship cruise missile got into their hands.

The supply trail runs from China to Iran and then into Lebanon via Syria. Iran and Syria are Hezbollah's allies of convenience against Israel and the US. The tale of the C-802 is a classic story about the dog-eat-dog global arms trade, and the destabilising impact of weapons that are not effectively controlled by national regulation or international treaties and agreements.

Both China and Iran watched with concern, in the 1991 Gulf war, as the US unleashed long-range, land-attack cruise missiles against Iraq with devastating effect. Beijing and Tehran decided that they had to develop similar missiles. Iran started by importing C-802 cruise missiles from China. It expected to buy 150, but had received only about half that number when Beijing suspended the deal in 1996, after strong objections from the US. Still, Iran was able to equip some of its warships and combat aircraft with the missiles, along with launch sites on its islands and coastline overlooking the Strait of Hormuz - which carries vital Gulf oil supplies to Asia and other parts of the world.

Tehran has threatened to shut the strait if it is attacked by the US or Israel for allegedly trying to develop nuclear weapons. If that happens, Beijing may find that some of the tankers that bring oil to China may be hit by derivatives of the C-802 anti-ship missiles it exported to Iran. Many of these tankers are not owned by Chinese companies and do not fly the Chinese flag. Tehran clearly feels it now has enough of the cruise missiles to send some to Hezbollah and provide the training needed to operate them.

The original C-802s carry a 165kg warhead and have a range of 120km. Their export was (and still is) perfectly legal. No international agreement bans transfers of anti-ship missiles. The C-802 is not covered by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary accord that includes Russia, the US and most advanced missile manufacturers but not Iran or North Korea. China is not an MTCR member but claims to adhere to its guidelines. These are intended to control exports of ballistic and cruise missiles that can carry 500kg conventional warheads at least 300km or deliver any type of weapon of mass destruction.

Not long after China halted the C-802 shipments to Iran, Britain and France were criticised by fellow MTCR members for selling Black Shaheen cruise missiles, which have a maximum capable range of 500km, to the United Arab Emirates. London and Paris argued that the sale did not violate the MTCR because the missiles' range was below 300km when flying at normal operating altitude, close to sea level. Such skating on thin ice by some players is hardly likely to induce restraint in others.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. This is a personal comment