Cold War with China does not involve Israel – best keep it that way

Middle Israel: Unlike the previous Cold War, this one does not involve Israel directly, and its task is to avoid getting drawn into it

THE SCENE outside the closed China Consulate-General in Houston on Wednesday.  (photo credit: ADREES LATIF/REUTERS)
THE SCENE outside the closed China Consulate-General in Houston on Wednesday.
(photo credit: ADREES LATIF/REUTERS)
‘If you see kingdoms provoking each other – expect the Messiah’s footprint,” said Talmudic sage Rabbi Elazar bar Avina (Bereshit Raba 42:4).
The subsequent 17 centuries taught us Jews that when superpowers spar – as China and the US now do – the last thing we can afford is to expect miracles. Instead, we should expect reality, in all its ugliness, and focus on avoiding such a duel’s sparks.
Reality, as this week’s events made plain, is an intensifying conflict between China and the US, a titanic collision whose ricochets reach everywhere, including the Middle East.
Washington’s order Tuesday to shut the Chinese consulate in Houston was no whim. The American charge, that Chinese envoys tried to steal scientific research, is part of the State Department’s accusation that China is conducting “massive illegal spying and influence operations,” and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s allegation that China is out to harm the American economy and workforce.
The escalating war of words, and the trade war that fuels it, were compounded last spring with an American travel ban on academics involved in the Chinese defense establishment.
Things are now set to escalate further, as Beijing is expected to close one of America’s consulates in China, while Washington reportedly weighs a travel ban on the Chinese Communist Party’s members, meaning the 270 million people who populate China’s every corridor of power.
In short, what began festively with Richard Nixon’s “ping pong diplomacy” has made way for a diplomacy of fencing, wrestling and boxing that pits Israel’s strategic patron against its most dynamic trade partner.
It is in this already daunting context that Israel’s Chinese predicament is now compounded by alarming reports of a possible alliance between Beijing and Tehran.
THE DEAL, according to a New York Times report, is about a $400 billion commitment to build over 25 years nearly 100 airports, seaports, metro systems, fast trains, and telecoms infrastructure, in return for which Iran would supply China with oil at discounted prices.
What, then, should Israel make of this, and how should it treat a China that, besides locking horns with America, might soon threaten Israeli interests, in broad daylight and directly?
Well, the first thing Israel must configure is the narrowness of its maneuver space between Washington and Beijing.
Yes, Israeli-Chinese trade is growing exponentially, so much so that between 2014 and 2019 alone it nearly doubled, from $8.8b. to $15.2b. And yes, China has been deeply and blessedly involved in Israeli infrastructure projects, from the Karmiel railway and the new Haifa seaport to the Tel Aviv subway, while Israel’s major universities established major academic centers in China.
Still, when Israel signed a deal to sell China strategic aircraft, America put its foot down, Israel canceled the deal, and China charged – and obtained – a $350 million cancellation fee, all of which added up to one of Israel’s worst-ever diplomatic fiascoes.
Though it’s been two decades since these events, they mean Israel is part of the Sino-American Cold War, as does America’s stated unhappiness with China’s investment in Haifa Bay.
The second thing to consider is that China’s commercial conduct is indeed problematic, and its attitude toward the Iranian problem is indeed frustrating, not only because of its apathy toward Iran’s violence and fanaticism, but because China can force Iran to change, as argued here in the past (“The other end of the Silk Road,” 24 April 2019).
Having said all this, Israel’s task is to stay away from this Cold War, much the way it avoids joining the West’s confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. That also goes for the Sino-Iranian tango.
FIRST OF ALL, China’s deal with Iran will doubtfully happen. The source of the “draft” about which The New York Times reported was not identified. Chances are good it came from China and was designed to blackmail Washington.
Second, there is no Chinese commitment in that document to arm Iran, an omission that makes sense: not because China has a moral problem selling Iran the modern fighter jets, tanks and battleships its military craves, but because Iran can’t pay their price, and China will sell only for cash, the way it did when it armed both sides during the Iran-Iraq War.
For now, the prospective deal is mainly civilian, and its military components – joint exercises and shared intelligence and R & D – do not transform the Iranian threat as seen from Israel.
Obviously, should China set out to arm Iran, Israel will have to respond. Otherwise, this deal should be seen as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and, by extension, as part of its broader Cold War with the US. And these things are much bigger than us Israelis.
Unlike the previous Cold War, where Israel had to be involved because Moscow armed Israel’s enemies and caged Soviet Jewry, this Cold War is not about us. We therefore can, and should, stay away from its cross fires.
Moreover, China’s shadow over this part of the world is thickening every day, while Uncle Sam’s shadow – ever since Barack Obama’s betrayal of Hosni Mubarak, retreat from Iraq and abandonment of Syria – steadily fades.
This is before comparing China’s economic drive and geopolitical assertiveness with America’s growing social restlessness and political unpredictability.
“The US and USSR will lead the world for only that long” and “will be followed by China and India,” an ever-prophetic David Ben-Gurion told the Knesset in 1959, after having decided already in January 1950 to ignore America’s protests and recognize Communist China.
Ben-Gurion saw, ahead of most others, China’s future of economic success and global sway, and their meaning for the Jewish state. Now that future is here, and Ben-Gurion’s Chinese legacy reads like a diplomatic will.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.