Opinion

Israel May Live to Regret Its Warming Ties With China

As recent anger over the deal between Israel and China on the Haifa Port shows, U.S. support for Israel may not be unconditional after all

Netanyahu shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, May 2013.
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent warning that the United States may scale back intelligence cooperation with Israel over ties to China may be more than bluster after all.

As Haaretz reported on June 14, the U.S. Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act for the 2020 fiscal year raises “serious security concerns” over the Haifa Port deal with China. A Chinese-operated port, as others, could keep the U.S. Navy away from Haifa and imperil security ties between Israel and its closest ally.

The bill does not mince words, and the Israeli government should listen.

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The sponsor of the National Defense Authorization Act, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, is an emphatic supporter of Israel. His green-lighting of such strident language should send Jerusalem a clear message. The carte blanche the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have granted Israel on the Palestinian issue doesn’t mean they’ll look the other way when it comes to China.

Israeli officials have dismissed these concerns from Washington as a joke. Maybe they should reconsider their laissez-faire attitude toward Chinese investment — which reached $16 billion in 2016 — now that the U.S. Senate is calling out Israel as a result of it. If the National Defense Authorization Act doesn’t force Jerusalem to “wake the hell up,” as Mark Dubowitz puts it, then what will?

The king himself deserves most of the blame for this budding crisis in U.S.-Israel relations. Under Benjamin Netanyahu’s premiership, China’s footprint in Israel has grown massively — bilateral trade increased from $50 million in 1992 to over $13 billion in 2017 — all without government oversight. Gaudy photo ops at the Great Wall shouldn’t divert attention from damage to Israel’s relationship with the United States, purportedly Bibi’s strong suit.

Although the National Defense Authorization Act doesn’t go beyond voicing misgivings, it foreshadows divides in U.S.-Israel ties. Israel is a major patron of American arms, such as the next-generation F-35 fighter jet. Turkey, which like Israel has long maintained deep security ties to the United States, may find itself kicked out of the fighter program over its purchase of a Russian anti-aircraft system.

As Jerusalem grows closer to the world’s other authoritarian great power, Washington may decide against parting with advanced military technology like the F-35 lest Beijing get its hands on it. The Trump administration has already told Germany and Britain that security ties could suffer if Huawei, a global telecoms firm many believe is a puppet of the Chinese Communist Party, is allowed to build their 5G infrastructure. If Jerusalem considers itself immune to blowback from Washington, it should consider how other U.S. allies have fared.

Israel is a strong country that punches well above its weight in the international arena. Yet the historical record does not look favorably on its relations with authoritarian states. Take the Soviet Union. The putative workers’ paradise came to view Zionism as a threat to Soviet global domination before backing anti-Zionist regimes like Nasser’s Egypt. Today, Israel’s relations have soured with increasingly autocratic Turkey. It’s risky, to say the least, for a small, regionally isolated state like Israel to engage authoritarian powers.

China, for its part, may portray itself as seeking good relations with everyone. However, Israel would do well to bear in mind what it’s dealing with: a totalitarian state that engages in dubious lending practices to developing countries, holds over 1 million Uighurs in “reeducation camps,” and regards democracy with disdain.

Liberal critiques of China aside, of most concern to Jerusalem should be Beijing’s strategic competition with the United States. Vice President Mike Pence’s address at the Hudson Institute last October outlined the administration’s China policy, the key takeaway being Washington’s tougher stance on Chinese economic, military and political aggression. The U.S. government aims to push back against the People’s Republic everywhere and in every domain. Israel may want to tread carefully in these turbulent times.

What’s more, China’s specious musings about its desire for win-win economic cooperation conceal its calculated geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East and across the globe. The so-called Middle Kingdom seeks a “great rejuvenation,” in President Xi Jinping’s words, that will see China supplant the United States as the world’s foremost power and impose a Communist Party-built international order. This authoritarian tiger means business.

It’s for Jerusalem, and ultimately Israeli voters, to determine the country’s foreign policy. However, Israelis might want to consider the implications of their government’s cooperation with China, and especially how it affects ties to the United States.

Maybe the grandees of the Israeli establishment believed that under the current occupant of the White House, U.S. support of Jerusalem was a fait accompli. Yet through carelessness or miscalculation, they’ve embroiled Israel in the burgeoning Sino-American strategic competition.

Jerusalem needs to think long and hard about whether it’s worth compromising its special relationship with Washington over trade with Beijing. Absent a reevaluation of Chinese-Israeli ties, more significant blowback could follow the National Defense Authorization Act.

Daniel J. Samet is program assistant for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed in this piece are his own.