Time for Israel to pivot away from Beijing - opinion

As Israel decouples from China, there will be even greater opportunities for greater cooperation between close allies. Israel must support the US and keep a distance from China.

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands ahead of talks in Beijing, in 2017. ‘Beijing is not a friend. It is time to pivot away from Beijing,’ say the writers.  (photo credit: Etienne Oliveau/Reuters)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands ahead of talks in Beijing, in 2017. ‘Beijing is not a friend. It is time to pivot away from Beijing,’ say the writers.
(photo credit: Etienne Oliveau/Reuters)

The recent tensions between the United States and the People’s Republic of China over Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan could further deteriorate into open conflict. Israel cannot take a direct role in this conflict, but Jerusalem should send a clear message: Israel stands unequivocally with America.

This is also the right time to reevaluate Israel’s relations with Taiwan. There is no reason to stick a finger into the eye of the Communist Chinese dragon. This is unnecessary as Jerusalem confronts its near enemies, most notably the Islamic Republic of Iran. But warmer relations between the democratic Jewish state and a democratic Chinese state, both under assault by dangerous dictatorships, is smart policy.

Washington rightly expects its allies to line up in this new Cold War. And make no mistake: Sino-American competition will be as intense as the Cold War between Moscow and Washington. Israel chose wisely during those years (most of its enemies did not) – and should choose wisely again.

The crises between the US and China over Taiwan in 1995 and 1996, when China conducted missile tests in the waters around Taiwan and president Clinton sent US battle groups into the Taiwan Straits, precipitated a greater sensitivity to Israeli cooperation with China in the following decade. Israeli sales of sensitive military technology to Beijing, including Harpy loitering drones and Falcon early warning aircraft, sparked serious political crises between Washington and Jerusalem. Tensions only subsided when Israel implemented new export control bodies and mechanisms at the Defense Ministry that restricted the sale of military technologies to the People’s Republic.

Jerusalem and Beijing 

A Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft flies over the 68-nautical-mile scenic spot, one of mainland China's closest points to the island of Taiwan, in Pingtan island, Fujian province, China August 5, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/ALY SONG)A Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) aircraft flies over the 68-nautical-mile scenic spot, one of mainland China's closest points to the island of Taiwan, in Pingtan island, Fujian province, China August 5, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/ALY SONG)

Today, the growing relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Communist China are a major concern for both Jerusalem and Washington. The Chinese are planning to invest $400 billion (NIS 1.3 trillion) over the next 25 years in the Iranian economy in exchange for heavily discounted Iranian oil, and deeper military cooperation, undercutting US efforts to sanction and isolate Tehran.

This flow of funds will help Iran to enhance its conventional defense industry, with access to sophisticated Chinese weaponry and support for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. It will enable the funding of the terrorist activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including the support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. For Israel, this deal should be another alarming wake-up call: Beijing is not a friend. It is time to pivot away from Beijing.

The dangers are equally great for Washington. Chinese leader Xi Jinping seeks to replace the US as the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific, and eventually the entire world. China is a serial proliferator of nuclear and missile technology to Iran, North Korea and Pakistan.

Xi is militarizing the South China Sea, stealing intellectual property on a massive scale, and committing shocking human rights abuses. He and his cronies also lied about the COVID-19 virus, suppressing vital information that could have contained a devastating global human and economic disaster.

As Beijing demonstrated after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit, when it launched a wide-scale military drill and fired precision missiles in the Taiwan Strait, the People’s Liberation Army will use military force to threaten American allies. Taiwan is now in the crosshairs.

There will be complications

Decoupling from Beijing for Israel won’t be simple. China is one of Israel’s largest trading partners and sources of foreign investment. Beijing has its eye on adding Israel’s critical infrastructure to its Belt and Road Initiative. This includes the Haifa port, the port of Ashdod, underground tunnels and control systems in the northern Carmel mountains, and Tel Aviv’s subway system. The strategic importance of this infrastructure is clear; some of it runs alongside key military installations, major businesses, food suppliers and other essential Israeli military and civilian services.

China also has recognized Israel’s high tech sector and its world-class academic research institutions as an essential source of technology. Beijing’s relatively small investments are strategic in nature and designed to leverage Israel’s prominence in artificial intelligence, hypersonic technologies, edge computing, autonomous vehicles, robotics and big data. These are all technologies recognized by the US Defense Department as essential to its own military modernization efforts, even if they also have civilian applications.

It will be painful, but Israel must reassess these ties. American military, political and economic leadership is critical for Israeli security. Sino-Israeli technology cooperation erodes American leadership. Israeli professors must recognize that joint research with Chinese partners, especially with those connected to the Chinese government or military, will damage their ability to work with the US.

Israeli high-tech entrepreneurs should also grasp that Chinese cooperation will severely limit their access to American capital and markets. And Israelis from all sectors must abandon the delusion that there is a bright line between civilian and military projects and technologies in China.

Israeli academics and technology entrepreneurs, instead, should deepen their ties with Taiwan. While its economy is small compared to China’s, it is no economic mouse. Taiwan’s economy clocks in at about $800 billion (NIS 2,645 trillion) in GDP and is ranked 22nd in the world. It is ranked also as one of the freest economies in Asia, with a strong rule of law, intellectual property protections and a commitment to free markets. In contrast, while China’s economy seduced Israeli companies with its size and growth rates, they soon found their businesses and technologies stolen, and with little recourse in Chinese ministries and courts.

The US-Israel-China triangle

In the final analysis, Israel has no choice but to side with America. This must be reflected in official policy and actions. Jerusalem does not need to encumber its private sector with unnecessary laws or regulations, or to issue public declarations that will infuriate Beijing. But Israel’s informal system, comprised of a small and tight network of senior bureaucrats and security officials, can be very effective in quietly limiting Chinese ties. These are sensitive security issues and must override narrow agendas.

Washington can help by enhancing US-Israel high-tech defense and academy ties and cooperation. For example, the congressionally mandated Operational Technology Working Group, recently created between the Pentagon and the Israeli Ministry of Defense, is a good model of what active cooperation can yield. The working group is designed to ensure our “war fighters never confront adversaries armed with more advanced weapons.”

It leverages Israeli battlefield experience and rapid development timelines with American scale and military power. Imagine Start-Up Nation meeting Scale-Up Nation in the military technology field. These initiatives will only succeed if there is the certainty that these technologies will not leak to China.

As Israel decouples from China, there will be even greater opportunities for greater cooperation between close allies. Free market ingenuity will outpace anything that China’s state-run authoritarian model can produce. With Beijing backing Israel’s most dangerous enemies in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Israel sees clearly now that it must support its best friend and to keep a distance from its best friend’s biggest rival.

Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a visiting professor at the Technion aerospace faculty. He previously served as prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser and head of the National Security Council (acting). Mark Dubowitz is a former venture capitalist and high tech executive, and currently serves as FDD’s chief executive, where he focuses on Iran and China.