Israel between the Chinese dragon and the American elephant

While the Chinese involvement in Israeli infrastructure is insignificant, the current and potential added Israeli value to either the American or Chinese capabilities is important.

August 13, 2019 21:45
4 minute read.
Israel between the Chinese dragon and the American elephant

A Chinese-Israeli cooperative hi-tech demonstration park in Yangling, China. (photo credit: YONAH JEREMY BOB)

It is probably the most difficult period for the Chinese leadership. The demonstrators in Hong Kong are clearly determined to face Beijing’s warnings and threats. The Chinese option of quelling the protests by brute force does not appeal to Beijing and rightly so. At stake is much more than Hong Kong. It is the image that China wishes to develop and convey to the whole Asian continent and beyond and the influence it wants to gain as one of the instruments to achieve global parity with the other superpower, the United States.

Allowing the demonstrations and protests to continue may have long-term implications in the heart of China, not just in remote Hong Kong with its unique political history and relationship with Mother China. The absence of Chinese mass media coverage of the events in Hong Kong cannot be taken by Beijing as a guarantee that millions in China are not aware of what happens there.

On the external front China finds itself confronted by an American president who adopts a “hot and cold” diplomacy and who imposes sanctions and high tariffs left and right, shaking global markets and posing a dilemma for China’s rulers. Entering a long trade and currency war with the US is a colossal risk even for a strong economy like China’s. There are numerous indications that the Chinese economy may be slowing down and a trade war may have harmful implications. This is a tough double test for Beijing. The success or failure to meet these two challenges will certainly impact on China’s future in the coming decade.

Allies of the US like Israel cannot view these events as incidental bystanders. Israel depends heavily on the US for two major “existential” reasons-the supply of sophisticated weapons and the veto the US can impose on draft resolutions in the UN Security Council which could be putting Israel at risk. This has been an open book between Jerusalem and Beijing, certainly after the year 2000 when the US forced Israel to cancel a sale of an Airborne Warning and Control System, though it contained no American components or technology. Notwithstanding, China and Israel forged in the next 19 years a rich economic agenda based on the China’s quest for innovation and Israel’s expanding need for revamping its infrastructure and financial resources for R&D.

That partnership worked well until recently. In October 2018, the Joint Committee on Innovation met in Jerusalem under the chairmanship of the Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Several government ministers from both sides attended the meetings signaling the importance the governments attached to the cooperation.

IN RECENT months, however, Israel found itself caught in the crossfire between China and the US. Initially it was reported that Washington was concerned as a Chinese firm was commissioned to operate the new part of the Haifa Port. The alleged US concern arose three years after the concession to the Chinese firm was granted, and subsided once it became clear that the part of the Haifa Port frequented by the US Sixth Fleet is separated and not seen from the area where Chinese personnel will be working.

But the Haifa Port commotion has eventually unveiled the real and deeper US concern which has to do with cybercommunication, 5G and artificial intelligence. The furious war between China and the US on these two fronts already dwarfs the trade conflict. While the Chinese involvement in Israeli infrastructure is insignificant in terms of the US-China rivalry, the current and potential added Israeli value to either the American or Chinese capabilities is important. The US messages to its allies, among them Israel, became more frequent and firm, forcing reconsideration and review of policies and mechanisms.

The technical, economic, legal and political issues are enormously complicated and cannot be solved by Twitter diplomacy. Chinese telecommunication, cyber and construction companies are already entrenched all over the world and dislodging them is unrealistic. The boundaries between what is strategically vital and what is not are not clear or similarly defined and shared by those considered as US allies. The various US departments and agencies will do well to provide rather more nuanced policy guidelines that they can share with other governments. Whatever is presented to other governments can be imposed on them and should take into consideration the specific circumstances of allies.

The current trade-currency battle coinciding with the election season in Israel is a good opportunity for the current and next Israeli government to take a deep breath, and a good time to chart the best strategy. The cabinet has appropriately held in recent weeks several discussions searching for a strategy which safeguards continued US support, continued strong economic cooperation with China and the competitiveness of Israel as the Start-Up Nation. It is not easy to find an option other than “either-or.”

The writer is a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and former ambassador to Jordan and the European Union.

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