Ex-envoy to China does about-face, says OK Chinese will manage Haifa port

“If they want to spy, they have other ways, they do not need the Haifa port,” said former Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilna'i.

A French warship Dixmude at Haifa port returning from five months at sea in the Far East (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A French warship Dixmude at Haifa port returning from five months at sea in the Far East
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
Three weeks after former ambassador to China Matan Vilna’i told The Jerusalem Post that Israel should rethink and reverse its decision to let a Chinese firm manage the new port in Haifa, Vilna’i did an about-face on the matter on Wednesday and said there is no harm in letting the Chinese manage the private port.
“If they want to spy, they have other ways, they do not need the Haifa port,” Vilna’i said at a briefing organized by Media Central.
The Chinese management of the port was one of the issues that US National Security adviser John Bolton reportedly discussed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit here earlier this month.
The new port is under construction near the existing port, which is a frequent dock for the US Sixth Fleet, and Washington is concerned China could use it to potentially gather intelligence on US interests.
And US Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette said during a visit earlier this month that Israel could be putting intelligence sharing with the US at risk if it did not take “aggressive steps” to check foreign investment in Israeli infrastructure projects.
Israel signed a 25-year agreement in 2015 with the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) – a company in which the Chinese government has a majority stake – to manage the port in Haifa when it begins operations in 2021.
Vilna’i said that when he first heard of plans to lease out management of the port to a Chinese firm, he was shocked and opposed.
He said, however, that he has since looked more thoroughly into the matter and discovered that the idea was given a great deal of thought in the prime minister’s office, the foreign ministry and the defense ministry, and it was decided that it was in Israel’s interest to sign the deal.
“I thought it happened by accident, but there was a real discussion at all the military levels, all the security levels in Israel – it was not a mistake. They thought deeply about it, and thought it would be better for Israel if the Chinese were there, than if they were not,” said Vilna’i, an ex-general and deputy defense minister who served as ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016.
Vilna’i said he visited the port last week to better understand the matter.
“I have thought a lot about this issue. The spying of today is not the spying of 100 years ago. Now you have cyber, and computers – you don’t have to be there to understand what is going on,” he said. “I realize that it is not important whether they are there or not. If they would like to spy, they can spy.”
Vilna’i said his original opposition had to do with concerns that as a result of the port being under Chinese management, the US navy would no longer dock in Haifa.
But then, he said, he realized that the Chinese are in many ports in the US, including in Seattle and the large port in Norfolk, which earlier this month received four massive cranes directly from China.
“So what are we talking about?” he asked.
At the same time, Vilna’i said Israel’s relationship with the US is the “cornerstone” of its survival, and that nothing should be done to harm that. Israel needs to carefully balance its relationship between the two superpowers, he said.
Alexander Pevzner, the director of the Chinese Media Center at the College of Management in Rishon Lezion, said the Chinese are also present at the port in Naples, where the US sixth fleet docks. He added that the issue of a Chinese presence at ports where the US fleet docks is not unique to Israel.
Vilani’s turn-around on the issue followed signals Jerusalem has received over the last few weeks that the Chinese were irritated at what they view as US meddling in legitimate bilateral commercial activity.
Asked about the matter last week at a press conference, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “The US side has been abusing ‘national security’ to smear and strike down normal business activities of Chinese enterprises. The US side has been consistently ignoring facts and seeing enemies wherever it looks.”
Vilna’i told the Post three weeks ago that the Haifa port deal was “crazy” and that Jerusalem needed “to rethink the whole deal and see how to go in reverse and move everything backwards.” He said at the time that Israel should not be putting a national security asset in the hands of a foreign government.