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Israel, China establishing diplomatic ties Beijing angles to join Mideast peace talks


BEIJING -- China and Israel established formal diplomatic ties today, a move that will open the way for Chinese participation in the next round of the Middle East peace talks next week in Moscow.

Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy signed a diplomatic protocol, capping a quiet, decadelong campaign by Israel to gain China's recognition.

"This is a moment we have awaited for a long time," Mr. Levy said upon arriving in Beijing.

Long a major champion of the Palestinian cause, China has rejected diplomatic relations with Israel for 40 years -- even though Israel was one of the first countries to recognize the Communist Chinese government in the early 1950s.

Nevertheless, the two nations' contacts have steadily warmed over the past decade, with Israel believed to have covertly exported billions of dollars' worth of arms and military technology to China.

The pace of the rapprochement noticeably stepped up last year after the beginning of the Middle East peace talks -- consultations that Israel reportedly would not let China join without it first establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Shortly after the peace talks began, China dropped its longtime demand that formal relations with Israel be contingent on the Israelis' returning confiscated Arab lands.

In November, Chinese Premier Li Peng, while stressing China's continued support for the Palestine Liberation Organization, said that "the sovereignty and security of Israel should be respected and guaranteed" in any Mideast settlement.

Israel reportedly is hoping that its diplomatic ties with China will yield political leverage to curtail Chinese arms sales to Israel's Arab foes. At the same time, Israel is expected to increase its own weapons sales to China.

This prospect was foreshadowed late last year by a secret visit to Beijing by Defense Minister Moshe Arens. An Israeli commercial delegation, including the head of a state-run arms maker, quickly followed.

But Mr. Levy told reporters yesterday that "there is a lot of exaggeration" in the reports of military ties.

For China, ideologically isolated in a world dominated by the United States and desperate to play an influential role in world affairs, the diplomatic move reflects an increasingly pragmatic strain in its foreign policies.

That pragmatism has led China over the last year to normalize relations with Vietnam, with which it fought a brief war in 1979, and to improve relations with India and Southeast Asian nations.

China also appears headed toward establishing relations with longtime ideological opponents South Korea and South Africa, where Foreign Minister Qian Qichen made a surprise visit earlier this week.

The Chinese search for international credibility will receive another boost next week when Premier Li, following a five-nation European tour, is to meet with President Bush during a summit meeting of the leaders of the five members of the U.N. Security Council.

Premier Li will be the first top Chinese leader to visit the United States since the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and his visit is expected to enhance his political standing in China.

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