It isn’t just the pirates playing the Arabian Sea who should have been looking on anxiously as China, Russian and Iran launched a joint war games exercise on Friday.
That is because the war games mark a further deepening of China’s presence in the Middle East. Any hopes that Israel would somehow be able to stay aloof in the escalating trade and technology confrontation between the United States and China are quickly disappearing.
The war games in the Gulf of Oman, which lies just outside the strategic Strait of Hormuz, aren’t aimed at fighting a hypothetical Israeli enemy. The exercises are about defending shipping against piracy and other threats to maritime sea lanes.
Naturally, you might be wondering why Iran is part of the exercise. After all, isn’t Iran the biggest threat these days to shipping in the region?
An excellent question, but not a relevant one: The war games are less about maritime security than it is about messaging. For Tehran, the message, as articulated by Vice Admiral Gholamreza Tahani, is that “Iran cannot be isolated” and that relations with Russia and China have reached “a new high level.” Tehran wants to show the world it has powerful friends.
China’s foreign and defense ministries, on the other hand, sought to play down the whole event as “normal military-to-military co-operation.” China doesn’t want to be seen as challenging the United States, which is heavily entrenched in the Gulf.
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It’s fair to suggest they’re both lying, but it’s Beijing’s spin that’s the important one for Israel. Over the last decade, China has become a major economic player in the Middle East. It’s now the world’s biggest importer of oil and about 40 percent of that oil comes from the region. China became the region’s largest foreign investor in 2016 and is a major contractor for infrastructure projects via its Belt and Road Initiative.
Police protection for free
Until now, Beijing has been perfectly happy to do business in the Middle East while the United States provides the security and gets itself entangled in the region’s endless crises. It’s been a good deal for China, which has been getting police protection at no cost.
That dynamic is starting to change. First Obama and now Trump have wound down U.S. involvement in the Middle East, leaving a dangerous security vacuum. When Saudi oil facilities were struck by what is widely supposed to be Iranian missiles in September, it was China rather than the United States that was at risk of losing its key energy source. Saudi Arabia supplies close to a fifth of China’s oil, but the U.S. policeman refused to step in.
Without a doubt China is quickly learning that you can’t trade and invest in an unstable place like the Middle East if you don’t have the means to protect your interests. Where business executives come, warships and commando units follow and they will follow big.
Thus as much anxiety as there is about Russia’s growing role in the region, it is nothing compared to what we can expect from China. Beijing has both economic interests and resources that dwarf anything Moscow has.
Israel is a particularly fraught position because it has its feet in two worlds: the Middle East and high-tech. Not too long ago, choosing between America and China wasn’t at all difficult. America was the caller of shots in the region and Silicon Valley was the undisputed center of global high-tech. China had in its favor that it was an up-and-coming economic power that is hungry for innovation, but if we had to choose between Washington and Beijing the decision was a no-brainer.
America is slowly disengaging from the Middle East, leaving Israel vulnerable and forcing it to cooperate with Russia, politically and militarily, more than it has ever had to in the past.
The days will soon be upon us where we may well find us having to do more with China, too.
But although America is exiting the Middle East, it is still determined to fend off the Chinese challenge to its global technology leadership. Unfortunately, this is a conflict that Israel can’t keep out of. We’re a outsize technological power in proportion to the size of our economy and population. As much as we would like to, we can’t play Switzerland much longer. We’re already caving in to U.S. pressure.
We’re far from that day when the Israeli prime minister is flying off to Beijing regularly to discuss regional issues as he does today in Moscow. But, what was once a no-brainer in the contest between the United States and China has become a one-eighth-brainer.
The technology war is America’s to lose and the links between Israeli and U.S. industries are so tight that China can’t begin to compete on that front. But tech ties aren’t isolated from political and military ties: If China gradually takes over the American role in the Middle East, Israel won’t be in a position to say we’d rather do our tech business with someone else.
Ten years from now it may be a Chinese leader, with troops keeping order in Syria for Israel’s benefit, that pressures Israel to keep its technology out of U.S. hands.