How could the India-China standoff impact Israel?

GEOPOLITICAL AFFAIRS: India and China are key countries, and Israel wants a growing strategic partnership with India and amicable relations with China.

ACTIVISTS SHOUT slogans during a protest against China, in New Delhi on Wednesday. (photo credit: REUTERS/ANUSHREE FADNAVIS)
ACTIVISTS SHOUT slogans during a protest against China, in New Delhi on Wednesday.
A standoff between India and China over a disputed border region has seen at least 20 Indian soldiers killed. The dispute has potential regional and global implications because China and India are among the most populated countries on Earth, and they have nuclear weapons.
Even without an escalation, the issue is important because it brings into stark contrast the rising number of border disputes that threaten to spill over into conflict.
This matters to Israel. Israel has thrived economically and especially in the realm of defense technology in the last years. Israel has a strategic partnership with India, and Israel has been pressured in recent years by the US to reduce its warming relations with China.
The Israeli tendency to expand relations with India and China was brought about by the tectonic shifts that took place after the Cold War. Twenty-five years of relations with China were celebrated in 2017. Full relations with India were also established in 1992. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to Israel in 2017. China’s Vice President Wang Qishan came to Israel in 2018.
These relations are now part of the shifting global realities where economic power is rapidly shifting to Asia, and Western countries are becoming more chaotic and unstable. Israel’s key alliance is with the US, but Israel’s key relationships are also in Asia, and they will continue to be.
This is partly a historical reality as well. Israel’s relations with Middle Eastern states and Europe are often burdened by history. Some European countries see it as their duty to oppose Israel’s policies as part of an approach where they feel that having carried out the Holocaust, they now have to decide what is best for the Jewish people and therefore the Jewish state. This burden of history always looms in the background, sometimes for good or bad.
Israel’s relations with the Middle East are tied up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Muslim countries refuse to recognize Israel. Even those far away, such as Malaysia, have an obsession with Israel related solely to religious issues, not strategic reality.
Iran’s obsessive and constant threats to destroy Israel are applied to almost no other state. When Iran speaks with India or Russia, it speaks rationally, ignoring issues such as Kashmir or Syria. But when it speaks about Israel, it has a zealousness that cannot be avoided so long as the current regime is in power.
This is the reality of the neighborhood Israel is in, and although there are positive shifts in the Gulf and elsewhere, there is no rapid change.
However, India and China are key countries, and Israel wants a growing strategic partnership with India and amicable relations with China. The recent tensions inevitably raise the question of how they might impact Jerusalem.
FIRST OF all let’s look at the tensions. India and China have a border region that has many small disputes and where there is a gray zone regarding control. Much of this is extreme mountainous terrain, suited more to high-altitude mountaineering than to border patrols. Elaborate protocols have been put in place since clashes in 1975.
China has been expanding its military power for many years, growing in leaps and bounds. It has a massive array of new missiles, drones and other weapon systems. India, too, is modernizing its armed forces.
India has had recent disputes with Pakistan, and has many needs to advance its capabilities, especially in the realm of modern defense technology.
China, meanwhile, has become more assertive, changing its posture over the last decades from keeping capabilities quiet to wanting to show its power. This has led to tensions with the US and US posturing with aircraft carriers. It can also lead to border tensions with India.
Recent events in Ladakh on the India-China border show that while China sought to maintain the border, India also invested in better infrastructure to reach these inhospitable regions. That included better roads.
Murky and unclear details surround some of what led to the clash in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed. It appears that it took place near the Galwan River in an area of steep terrain and cliffs and ravines. According to accounts in Indian media, the standoff involved a misunderstanding that was supposed to de-escalate events. A commander named Col. Santosh Babu went to have a discussion with the Chinese side, Indian media say. Chinese personnel did not “move back,” and a scuffle happened. Neither side used firearms, but India says that its delegation was met by Chinese soldiers, and a battle, fought with “barbed wire and wooden logs with nails,” took place; hand-to-hand combat ensued. There was stone throwing and “use of rods.” While some Chinese were wounded, the Indian soldiers were pushed off the steep terrain into the river below. India’s media have widely reported the incident, while China is more circumspect.
There is apparently no interest in escalation on either side. This is a positive sign. But there are continued disputes along what is called the Line of Actual Control, not only at this location but also involving a lake and other areas.
In general, India has very good relations with countries that Israel has good relations with, including South Korea, Japan, Singapore and also Gulf states that Israel shares interests with, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Certainly, India’s enemies, including jihadist extremist groups that have used terrorism against India and militant voices in Pakistan, are also the same types of groups that have targeted Israel.
India and China will likely hold discussions, including the preliminary call that already took place between External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. China has said that Indian troops “violently attacked Chinese personnel who went there for consultation.” China says that India should not miscalculate the current situation. China seeks mutual respect and mutual support, according to a statement China has released. “However, mutual suspicions and frictions are the egregious paths that go against the fundamental wills of our people.”
ON THE Israeli end of this, there is increased pressure from the US for Israel to reduce warming relations with China. China is a constant US concern taken up with it allies, brought up at numerous meetings and always on the agenda. It appears on the agenda in disproportion to the actual reality of Israel’s relations with China.
There is nothing wrong with Israel’s commercial ties to China, and the recent COVID-19 crisis illustrated how important it is to have those relationships. Israel imported necessary protective equipment during the crisis from China using a unique airlift.
Yet US media seem to portray this relationship as almost nefarious, even while Europe and the US trade with China. Foreign Policy, for instance, had an article on June 17 arguing that while the US wages a trade war with China, “its ally Israel is widening the commercial relationship.” The US has put pressure on other allies, such as the UK, regarding relations with China, too.
Israel is in a complex spot now. Exacerbated by a port deal with China and a potential desalination plant deal, Israel must weigh Washington’s concerns. Israel decided not to go with a Chinese bid to help build the Sorek 2 desalination plant, amid US pressure.
China’s greater role in the region will increase in coming years. The Belt and Road concept of economic links between China and this region, as well as China’s potential investment from Lebanon to the Gulf, are all on the way.
At the same time, Israel’s continued integration into India’s economy, especially joint venture defense deals and working with the “Make in India” approach of defense manufacturing there, requires local firms to produce many weapons systems and upgrades. Israeli defense companies, such as Elbit Systems, Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, all have important partnerships in India.
This is likely part of a future that will see greater Israel, India and US cooperation on defense technology and potentially strategic issues. At the same time, Israel will continue to have relations with China and look keenly on China’s growing economic clout.
This is a fact of the current century, and as China and India expand, they will both play a growing role in the Middle East, without the burdens of the past that have shaped the current prejudices that underpin conflicts in this region.
Israel must and will take account of these new winds of change.