Before and after the recent visit by speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, global attention was focused on fears over the unfolding crisis between the United States and China, two nuclear powers. Even the media in Israel devoted more than a little broadcast time and newsprint to the subject.
Although the event is no longer in the Israeli news, Jerusalem must realize that the Taiwan issue will continue to affect relations between the powers, and more importantly, events in Taiwan could have a significant impact on Israel’s national security. The latest crisis is a strategic warning for Jerusalem of the shrinking space for maneuver between the powers.
A senior Chinese Communist Party diplomat reportedly warned Israel’s ambassador in Beijing recently that the countries’ relations are at a critical test point, and cautioned against negative effects of US pressure. The report, which might have exaggerated China’s familiar talking points, explained that the background to the admonition was Israel’s joining some international resolutions on human rights, which China sees as intervention in its internal affairs and as towing the US line. Israel, for its part, is displeased with China’s positions on the Palestinian issue, its support of Iran, and its consistent votes against Israel in international forums.
Israeli officials reportedly assessed that the admonition by the CCP official was also related to the China-US tensions around Taiwan and Speaker Pelosi’s visit to the island in early August. Before and after the visit, global attention was focused on fears of the unfolding crisis between the United States and China, two nuclear powers, and the potential for escalation. Air and naval traffic on both sides was closely monitored, and even the media in Israel devoted more than a little broadcast time and newsprint to the subject.
But while the rapid news cycle in Israel soon moved on to Operation Breaking Dawn in Gaza and the approaching elections, the Taiwan issue has remained on the global agenda, on August 14 another delegation of elected American politicians arrived on the island, and other delegations followed.
Why does the Taiwan issue matter for Israel?
Israel must internalize two facts: the Taiwan issue will continue to negatively affect relations between the great powers, and more importantly, events in Taiwan could potentially have a significant impact on Israel’s national security. The latest crisis is a strategic warning for Jerusalem of its shrinking space for maneuver between the powers.
Pelosi’s visit was intended to send a message of support for Taiwan and its democracy, to show the US stands by its partners, and in particular, to exhibit its determination to stand firm against China in the Indo-Pacific. China strongly criticized the visit as a flagrant breach of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and as an American provocation violating the “One China” policy and existing understandings between the powers on this subject.
China announced combined military exercises and issued notifications on navigation and closures of air and naval space in six regions around Taiwan. China’s Eastern Theater Command carried out maneuvers that included combined blockade exercises, attacks on targets at sea and on land, control of the airspace, sea raids and anti-submarine warfare. Ballistic missiles flew over Taiwan, and Chinese naval vessels and aircraft crossed the mid-line between Taiwan and the continent and penetrated the island’s air defense identification zone.
The exercises continued for a week, yet China announced that it would continue regular patrols and training exercises in the area to be ready for war. Taiwan for its part carried out defensive drills and raised the levels of alertness of the relevant arrays.
In addition to the military measures, Beijing imposed sanctions on Pelosi and her family, and announced the suspension of dialogue and cooperation with the US: in the area of defense – talks between commanders, maritime coordination meetings, and policy coordination talks; and in civilian areas – on criminal matters, illegal migration, drugs, and climate.
There were also reports of restrictions on trade between Taiwan and China, and on extensive cyberattacks on the island. These steps were accompanied by firm messages from China, including a first “white paper” in 20 years, stating that unification of Taiwan with China is an inevitable process that cannot be obstructed, and that those who play with fire will ultimately be consumed by it. A senior Pentagon official estimated that China will not attack Taiwan within the next two years, but it is striving for a change in the status quo using the “salami method.”
AND HOW does all this affect Israel? Israel’s relations with China were always overshadowed by great power relations: in the Korean War, the Cold War and in the 1970s, when Washington initiated a strategic turnaround and established relations with Beijing. In fact, Israel’s security exports and aid to China began in 1979 with the blessing of the United States, and diplomatic relations between Israel and China were only established in 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Madrid Peace Conference (1991).
However, in 1995-96 the third Taiwan Strait crisis erupted. In response to what it saw as moves by the president of Taiwan to diverge from the “One China” principle, China launched rockets, and carried out live fire exercises and amphibious landing maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait. The US responded by sending two aircraft carrier task forces to the strait, as a show of force and the determination to use it when necessary.
For China, the crisis sharpened its sense of the military threat posed by the United States, and led to a process of significant force buildup. Washington, on the other hand, awoke to the possibility that China, its economic partner for two decades, could position itself as a military rival against US forces.
A few years later, serious crises erupted between Washington and Jerusalem around the export of the Phalcon early warning aircraft and Harpy loitering munitions from Israel to China. They ended with the cancellation of the Phalcon deal, the dismissal of senior officials in the Israeli Defense Ministry, the establishment of a department for Defense Export Oversight (API, in its Hebrew acronym), the passage of the Defense Export Oversight Law (2007), the cessation of all defense exports to China, and lengthy cooling of relations with it. The military crisis between China and the US around Taiwan aroused waves that threatened Israel’s relations with its largest ally and drastically reduced its room to maneuver with China.
The fourth crisis following Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which is so far limited, is another milestone in the deterioration of relations between the great powers, and has already included the use of military (ships, aircraft, and missiles), political and economic means. For Israel, it should be seen as a strategic warning of a lowering of the powers’ sensitivity threshold and a narrowing of Jerusalem’s space to maneuver between them.
Israel seeks to reinforce its strategic relations with the United States, and to maintain fruitful and friendly relations with China as much as possible, subject to considerations of national security. Israel must carefully examine all aspects of its relations with China and identify areas of sensitivity that could have implications for its national security in general, and for its relations with the United States in particular.
Apart from military and security exports to China, from which Israel has refrained for two decades, it would be right to focus attention on matters of advanced technology, the subjects of a strategic dialogue announced between the US and Israel by Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Joe Biden during the president’s visit to Israel. It is important for Israel to remember that Taiwan is a core interest of Beijing and an important interest of Washington, and therefore the island will continue to be the focus of possible eruptions of further crises for years to come.
Israel’s relations with Taiwan in cultural and economic areas are beneficial to both parties, within parameters acceptable to China, and it is right to continue developing them in this way. In view of recent events in Taiwan, Israel must for the moment conduct itself with even greater sensitivity toward Washington, its strategic ally, and toward Beijing, its important economic partner. To the extent it may have to choose between them, the choice is obvious.
The writer, a brigadier-general in the reserves, is the director of the Diane & Guilford Glazer Foundation Israel-China Policy Center at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a Liz and Mony International fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was formerly head of the IDF Strategic Division.