When I speak to members of the US Congress on both sides of the aisle, they agree upon very few things. However, one common concern is China’s threat to American security and economic interests. These include stealing of intellectual property, forced technology transfers, unfair trade practices, cyber espionage, development of advanced weapons systems, human rights abuses, and integration into key US allies’ civilian infrastructure.
The Brookings Institute’s Madiha Afzal wrote, “American policymakers and experts from across much of the political spectrum are expecting that allies around the world may have to make… difficult choices in the future between the two powers… A choice between the United States and China would be costly for Israel-Chinese economic opportunities are large and growing. Yet for Israel, more than for other regional actors, the choice is clear.”
According to Jon Bateman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in Foreign Affairs, Biden “is now all-in on taking out China… the US is committed to rapid decoupling, whatever the consequences.”
How can the US counteract China's influence in the Middle East
However, a CNN analysis points out, “The main weakness in the US proposition regarding China in the Middle East is that Washington offers no alternatives to Beijing’s lucrative deals. Tin Hinane El-Kadi, a fellow at Chatham House, said, “If the US wants to pressure countries… [it] would have to start to put real projects and some real cash on the table.”
The binary strategy of choosing between the US and China is unlikely to work with Saudi Arabia. According to Haaretz, “Bilateral trade between Saudi Arabia and China surged to $116 billion in 2022, up from $87 billion the year before….[ranging] from genomics company BGI opening a research lab to plans by Haichang Ocean Park Holdings to open a massive amusement park.”
As the Saudis told me during my recent visit to Riyadh, they don’t choose sides as the Chinese will be their best customer for fossil fuels for the next 25 years, so it is unrealistic for America to expect us to side with them.
The story closer to the truth is that the Saudis feel disrespected by US President Joe Biden. No matter how many times Biden sends over National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Crown Prince and pime minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (known as MBS) is still angry about the pariah comment and the American non-response to the Iranian attack in 2019 on their oil fields under Donald Trump.
However, it is still an open question whether the Chinese want to replace America as the security guarantor for the kingdom or be content with its economic gains and diplomatic influence.
For Israel, America is, first and foremost, its best friend based on common values and shared security concerns. The US is Israel’s most important defender on the international scene and a generous supplier of military aid, no matter who is in the White House. The relationship is a two-way street, especially regarding Israeli intelligence, which has become indispensable since the US withdrew from Afghanistan and Israel remains Washington’s only stable and democratic friend in a chaotic geopolitical theatre.
For many Middle Eastern countries, China is the address to solve their problems. The Chinese are appealing partners for Arab and Muslim nations, as their authoritarian rulers are not burdened by America’s concern for their human rights records. With America leaving the region and perceived as a strong military player, but unwilling to be a credible military threat to its adversaries (Iran), many nations have reevaluated their security arrangements, which counted on a reliable American presence, hedging their bets by moving toward the Chinese-Iranian-Russian axis.
With its Belt and Road initiative, China’s move into the Middle East has been received warmly by Israel’s adversaries, offering an alternative to the unpredictable American policy, which changes at least every four to eight years with a new administration.
Why is America so concerned about Israeli-Chinese ties?
Israel is one of the world’s most technologically important nations, on the cutting edge of scientific breakthroughs. America is concerned about Chinese integration into everything from Israel’s advanced 5G telecommunication networks to Chinese control of Haifa harbor, where the US Sixth Fleet docks.
The Asia Times reports, “Since 2002, Chinese companies have struck around 500 investment deals in Israel, 97% of which have been in its vaunted technology sector... acquiring Israeli firms, employing dozens of experts in fields ranging from telecommunication and artificial intelligence (AI) to cloud computing and data science.”
In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping designated the Israel-China relationship a “Comprehensive Innovation Partnership.” This has placed Israel in a tough position, navigating a course between acceding to its best friend’s demand for a scorched earth policy in its relationship with the world’s second-largest economy, while trying to remain economically competitive as China is a larger trading partner than America. Israel has previously acquiesced to American demands regarding China. In 1999 and 2004, Israel canceled the sale of early warning aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicle upgrades.
With the American-Israeli relationship at a low point, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation from Xi has gotten the attention of the Biden administration and has perked up the ears of Democrats and Republicans. Why would Netanyahu, a seasoned and expert politician schooled in American politics, choose to go to China now, and what does he hope to gain or risk by potentially antagonizing Congress and the US president?
During a classified briefing with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Axios news website reported that Netanyahu said, “Chinese involvement in the Middle East isn’t necessarily bad. It could be useful because it will compel the US to stay here.”
The strain in the relationship is multi-focal. The Biden administration has secretly negotiated a “less for less” nuclear agreement with Iran, Israel’s existential enemy. After visiting Oman and Qatar last month, I confirmed this firsthand as they told me that the administration had asked them to be quiet intermediaries with the Islamic Republic.
When I told Congress this information before it became public, many Republicans were appalled, while Democrats rationalized, and some applauded the rapprochement, choosing to follow party lines.
In addition, Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform, along with new settlements in Judea and Samaria, some in response to Palestinian terrorism, have irked Biden, a long-time critic of any Israeli presence in the West Bank. In his defense, he has visited China multiple times without controversy, and China, unlike Western Europe, is not infected by antisemitism in the guise of anti-Zionism.
Several years ago, I brought up America’s concern about China embedding itself into our most important ally in the region. I said, you know, when China brings over hundreds of workers for infrastructure projects, many could be spies. The answer before 2018 was we could manage it; today, Israel has heard the message from the US loud and clear. So many Israeli politicians, defense, intelligence, and security officials have spoken to American officials over the past five years, dramatically changing the Israeli position on China to align with America’s. And in polls, Israelis now have the same disapproval rating of China as Americans.
So where for Israel is the fine line between angering your American ally and hurting your economic interests?
American fears are not unwarranted. According to the Asia Times, in “August 2021, cybersecurity firm FireEye uncovered a large-scale cyber-attack targeting government bodies and private organizations involved in shipping, hi-tech, telecommunications, defense, academia, and information technology. A year later, media outlets reported that Chinese party-state-affiliated institutions were operating recruiting networks targeting Israeli scientists in a bid to acquire intellectual property.”
What should Israel do, and what can America tolerate in Israel-Chinese economic cooperation?
Israel has heard the American complaint and has responded over the last five years. Israel’s Economy Ministry now has an Export Control Agency to thwart any dual-use military or technology materials from being transferred to China. Israel, at the request of then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, turned down a Chinese bid for the Sorek desalination facility and two light rail lines in Tel Aviv.
According to the White House, “Biden and then-prime minister Yair Lapid launched the US-Israel Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology to establish a partnership on critical and emerging technologies to bring the cooperation between the countries to new heights.” In addition, Israel’s National Security Affairs Committee increased its oversight regarding foreign ownership of Israeli companies.
The Chinese are pressing back, warning Israel regarding canceled deals and not entertaining bids. According to Axios, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international affairs department urged Israel not to get “dragged” into the conflict with the US, as they share long-term economic interests.
Israel’s response to American concerns regarding China has been strong and will continue to be, as Israelis across the political spectrum know America is its best friend for the foreseeable future, sharing the values of democratic nations.
However, the US cannot ask Israel to stop all trade with China, as we ourselves continue trading with China, albeit with new restrictions on AI and dual-use technologies. Israel has already been sensitive and placed limits on transferring these types of technologies.
The best way forward is continuous communication between America and Israel to make sure there are no misunderstandings, especially with the rise of anti-Israel far-Left Democrats just looking for reasons to distance the US from the Jewish state.
Gedaliah Afterman, head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, offered one alternative strategy. Since Israel is “stuck” among the superpowers, it must formulate an Asian Pacific strategy that strengthens its economic, diplomatic, and security relations with key Asian countries beyond China, who are American allies, like Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN nations.
Not only the Chinese but the South Koreans, Japanese, Europeans, Taiwanese, and Americans realize that Israeli innovation and creativity, especially in technology and medicine, is at the cutting edge of the next generation of scientific breakthroughs. Despite chastisements regarding the Palestinians, few of these nations are willing to give up the advantages of working with Israel.
With China all-in on the Middle East, it is incumbent on America to remain engaged in the region or risk losing influence in one of the most important geostrategic theaters. America’s allies in the Far East are watching to see how America’s old allies in the Middle East are being treated as an indication of what the future holds for them. It would be unrealistic for the US to demand complete compliance from its allies to distance themselves from China while, at the same time, America is pivoting from the Middle East.
The best way for America to confront the Chinese in the region is to remain engaged and present and convince the region’s nations that America is not a paper tiger. ■
Dr. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network) and regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides.