Analysis |

To Avoid an Unnecessary Clash, Israel Should Closely Follow Biden's Moves on China

Biden has made it clear that containing China's influence is a priority. Israel's warming trade relations with the superpower can throw a wrench in an already-complicated relationship

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara host Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, 2018.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara host Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, 2018.Credit: Kobi Gideon / GPO
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Sixty days into his presidency, it seems that there are two major pillars in U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy: restoring alliances and countering China.

Two meetings in the last week, and one meeting scheduled to take place soon, bear mentioning. The first is a virtual leaders’ summit of the United States-India-Japan-Australia “Quad,” in which the states discussed vaccines, Indo-Pacific regional issues and Chinese influence. Then came Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Tokyo to discuss China’s “coarsening” behavior. And on Thursday, Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are scheduled for a first for this administration: a meeting with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska.

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In a two-page statement after the Tokyo meetings, the United States presented a hard line: “We will push back when necessary when China uses coercion or aggression to try to get its way,” Blinken said, while Austin described Chinese action in the South and East Asia seas as “destabilizing.”

But, one may ask, how is this any of Israel’s business, and why should Haaretz readers care?

The answer to those questions has to do with the expanding relationship Israel has with China, and the suspicion with which some in Washington are viewing it. The impact on Israel is a just a derivative of the broader U.S.-China relationship, but if managed badly, it could affect Israel’s strategic partnership with the United States.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga meets with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the prime minister's residence in Japan yesterday.Credit: Eugene Hoshiko,AP

Immediately before and shortly after the U.S. election last November, many in the foreign policy ecosystem adopted a conveniently lazy conventional wisdom: Biden’s policy toward China will not diverge greatly from that of Donald Trump. After all, this logic went, the problems remain the same and the perception of China as a long-term threat isn’t all that different. This arena, experts said, is one where we should expect continuity.

While Trump failed miserably in drafting a comprehensive and coherent China policy, focusing instead on Twitter insults and pejoratives, his criticism of the People’s Republic, both as candidate and as president, was salient. Therefore, explained the experts, Biden will have to address these issues more or less similarly.

Wrong.

Trump was vociferous and obsessed with the U.S.-China bilateral trade deficit and with China’s unfair trade practices, and justifiably so. But his preferred and only foreign policy tool was protectionist tariffs, an instrument that backfired more than it corrected the imbalance after China reciprocated with tariffs of its own.

Trump denigrated, neglected and effectively undermined regional alliances with South Korea, Japan and Australia on issues directly related to China and on North Korea. He was indifferent to China’s human rights record, refused to cooperate or engage China on climate challenges, and went on a year-long tirade against Beijing over COVID-19, which he called “the China virus” and accused the country of concealing its origins.

Both Biden the candidate and Biden the president took a completely different approach. This was evident in articles Biden, Blinken and Sullivan all wrote before the election. In their view, alliances are the main and most effective instrument that the United States has in order to contain China, and while bilateral trade relations are important, China’s expansive foreign policy presents a greater and more complex challenge to the United States.

The Biden approach, at this early stage of interaction between the two countries during his term, sees China as a formidable adversary capable of using both cyberwar and regional muscle flexing.

The United States believes the potential for a diplomatic, technological, trade and economic clash should not be discounted. For the Biden administration, there is less preoccupation with trade imbalances and significantly more emphasis on China as a geopolitical rival that could potentially evolve into a geopolitical menace – and a future threat.

China’s hegemonic aspirations in the South and East China Seas, its political suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, violence and incarceration against the Uighurs and its ominous policies toward Taiwan all feature prominently on Biden’s agenda.

It is in this foreign policy context that Israel may find itself involuntarily and collaterally involved in a U.S.-China-Israel relationship triangle. Israel’s relationship with China has been growing impressively in the last 20 years. As of the end of 2018, the Israel Export Institute found, China is Israel’s second-largest trading partner, ranked at first place in imports and second among export destinations. Trade volume between the countries is valued at billions of dollars.

A young protester demonstrates outside the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. to encourage Canada to label China's treatment of Uighurs a genocide, last month.Credit: LEAH MILLIS/ REUTERS

Most of the trade is comprised of a variety of consumer goods, machinery and advanced technology. Ever since the attempted Israeli sale of the Phalcon advanced airborne early-warning system in 2000, which was scrapped following heavy U.S. pressure from the Clinton administration and Congress, Israel has refrained from direct advanced military and military technology relations with China.

However, current U.S. concerns are not only about dual-use military technology transfers between Israel and China, but about Chinese involvement in major infrastructure projects in Israel, all of which may have strategic impact on the U.S.-Israel relationship.

A large part of the concern has to do with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. China developed a strategy to connect the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea through the acquisition and operation of ports and through infrastructure investments, thus creating a land-sea bridge linking trade and energy routes from the Far East through Africa and the Middle East to Europe.

The Americans see this as an ostensible economic expansion which may lead to China exerting more political influence. For example, 67 percent of the port of Piraeus, Greece’s largest port, is owned by the China Ocean Shipping Corporation. Perhaps coincidentally, when the European Union wanted to condemn China’s human rights violations a few years ago, Greece vehemently opposed. China also owns and operates ports in Pakistan, Italy, Spain and Djibouti.

Here in Israel, China’s involvement in the port of Haifa, the light-rail system in Tel Aviv, a water desalination plant along the coast – a tender that Chinese-controlled Hutchison eventually lost due to U.S. pressure – are all issues that the United States will demand answers from Israel about. It is doubtful whether ongoing projects will be curtailed, or contracts rescinded. It is also implausible that Israel will be confronted by the United States with a binary ultimatum of “it’s either us or China.”

In the midst of all this, in June 2020, China and Iran signed the 25-year Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement, mostly regarding infrastructure investments in exchange for oil and gas. It has yet to go into effect, and China will very likely delay the military dimensions of it, but it is another twist in the China-Israel-U.S. relationship, and one with major implications.

Looking forward, Israel should be very attentive to U.S. sensitivities around this issue, even when they seem exaggerated. It will have to exercise maximum transparency, utmost truthfulness and full coordination with the Biden administration in its dealings with China. If it doesn’t, it will risk inevitable friction and a rift on an issue that the current president views as a top priority.

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