The US doesn’t like at all the growing cooperation between its staunch ally and staunch rival
Economic ties between China and Israel have grown stronger in recent years. Israel has also been working hard to strengthen political and cultural interaction between the two nations. In its 72 years of existence, Israel has been a nation with few friends. Thus, its recent diplomatic outreach to different countries is one of Israel’s most important political triumphs.
This diplomatic outreach has befriended nations like India, which is now Israel’s largest defence customer. Gulf nations like the UAE and Bahrain are the newest additions. But the most important ally it has found is China.
China views Israel as a conduit for increasing its regional influence. It views Israel as an important link in its larger design to extend hegemonic influence through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which will control trade from the Far East to Europe. The BRI is a multi-billion-dollar strategy to bring nations in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa under Chinese influence through economic development and by saddling these nations with un-repayable debt. Beijing’s goal is to use that leverage to manipulate other nations’ foreign policy in its favour while gaining access to intelligence where there are military relations with the US.
The overtures between China and Israel are not just confined to economic or defence relations but extend even to people-to-people or societal links, which ultimately lead to political closeness. Avid China-watcher James M Dorsey, senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, is of the view that China’s international ventures are aimed at dominating the Eastern Mediterranean with six ports in four countries – Israel, Greece, Lebanon, and Syria – that would create an alternative to the Suez Canal. All that is missing are Turkish, Cypriot and Egyptian ports. Additionally, the Chinese military build-up threatens to complicate US and NATO’s ability to manoeuvre in the region. The Trump administration has already warned Israel that Chinese involvement in Haifa could jeopardise continued use of the port by the US fifth fleet.
China covets better relations with Israel due to its political interests. Israel is a top priority in China’s Middle Eastern policy. China, which has established good relations with Arab countries and Iran for many years, has diversified its Middle Eastern policies by making Israel an important station of the Maritime Silk Road Project. This high level of interaction has brought cultural and academic partnerships. Israel has also increased its investments in China, something it rarely does in other countries.
China’s strategic interest is based on the fact that Israel is one of the world’s foremost commercial, food and security technology powerhouses and it enjoys significant grassroots support in the United States. The bilateral trade between the two has increased fourfold in the last ten years, with China having become Israel’s third largest trade partner with $14 billion bilateral trade per year.
US view of Sino-Israel relations
The US views these ties as a potential threat, as it feels that this proximity will allow China to spy through Israel on US interests. The importance America places on Israeli-Chinese ties was highlighted by the trip by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Israel during the pandemic, for the express purpose of directly sharing the administration’s profound concern for Chinese involvement in Israel’s infrastructure and in research and development across many cutting-edge fields, coupled with a warning to Israel that America might need to rethink its security relationship if Israel doesn’t disengage from some of this activity.
American concerns with Israel include the Chinese operational control of the Haifa seaport by the Shanghai International Port Group for 25 years, where the US Mediterranean Sixth Fleet docks. This is seen as a direct threat to American security and intelligence gathering. America is worried that this port can become one of the stepping stones of China’s new “Silk Road” (One Belt One Road) programme that links more than 60 nations.
The most recent Israeli-Chinese commercial transaction under the microscope is the possible deal with a Hong Kong-based Chinese controlled company to build the world’s largest desalination plant (Sorek 2) at an Israeli kibbutz. Another bone of contention is China’s Railway Tunnel Group that is close to finalising a deal for Tel Aviv’s light rail transportation system; this, too, may be seen to have major security implications. China’s first infrastructure project in Israel was the Carmel Tunnels, a concern for America from the outset. The American fear is that China could gain unprecedented intelligence with the help of intelligence operatives implanted within Chinese companies, undermining both Israeli and American security interests.
If there is one thing Israel cannot afford, it is a rupture in its bonds with the United States. That is no truer than at a time in which the United States is the only power supportive of Israeli annexation plans on the West Bank.
It’s time for Israel to step back from the economically tempting involvements with China. Washington also needs Israel for its deep-water port in Haifa, its unrivalled intelligence, Israel’s R&D that advance American weapons systems and cyber capabilities, and joint operations and training of US troops in Israel. It’s not acceptable to the US that all these are spoiled by Chinese entrenchment into Israel’s infrastructure.
America is also worried about joint research and Chinese investment with Israeli technology companies that use cyber security, AI (Artificial Intelligence), and satellite telecommunications that could be used by Chinese companies like ZTE and Huawei. The question is whether Israel can develop a formula that convinces the United States that US interests will delineate Israeli dealings with China and reassure China that it can still benefit from Israeli assets within those boundaries.
“Right now, without taking the right steps, we are looking at being put in the situation in which the US is telling us that we need to cut or limit our relations with China. The problem is that Israel wants freedom of relations with China but is not showing it really understands US concerns. Sorek-2 was a good result. It shows the Americans, we get it,” said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) that seeks to advance Israeli-Chinese relations.
Although the effects of the pandemic have battered Israel economically, it must heed Washington’s warning, even if there is short-term financial loss. Bottom line: Israel must prioritise its long-term security relationship with the US.
—The writer is a commentator based in New Delhi. He was associated with BBC Urdu Service and Khaleej Times of Dubai. firstname.lastname@example.org