U.S. Senate Warns Israel Over Deepening Ties With China, Citing 'Serious Security Concerns'

A Senate committee promotes legislation expressing concern about Israel allowing a Chinese company to operate the port of Haifa, long a port of call for the Sixth Fleet

Senator Jim Inhofe (L) and U.S. Air Force Gen. John Raymond at a Senate Armed Services hearing, in Washington, April 11, 2019.
AFP

The U.S. Senate has criticized Israel over its deepening economic ties with China, promoting a bill that expresses "serious security concerns" about a contract letting a Chinese company operate a port in Haifa that has long been a docking point for the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

The tough language on the port in the north has been included in the National Defense Authorization Act, a major piece of legislation that sets the U.S. Defense Department's budget and priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

The bill was passed Thursday by the Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Republican Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.

>> Read more: Israel won't vet Chinese investment, risking U.S. ire | Analysis ■ With its national security at stake, Israel takes sides in U.S.-China trade war | Analysis ■ Bibi has bet on the wrong horse in the U.S.-China race | Opinion

The bill was made public earlier this week and devotes two clauses to a contract between the Israeli government and the Shanghai International Port Group. Under the terms of the deal, the Chinese company could operate the Haifa port for 25 years starting in 2021. The bill describes this as an obstacle to U.S. national security considerations.

Haifa port, April 24, 2019.
rami shllush

“The United States has an interest in the future forward presence of United States naval vessels at the port of Haifa in Israel,” the bill states, “but has serious security concerns with respect to the leasing arrangements of the port of Haifa.” It adds that the U.S. government should “urge the government of Israel to consider the security implications of foreign investment in Israel.”

While China isn’t directly named in this part of the legislation, the language is a clear reference not just to the Haifa port contract, but to the trend of growing Chinese investment in Israeli infrastructure projects. This issue has already caused tensions between Israel and the Trump administration, as previously reported in Haaretz.

In discussions with Israeli ministers and other officials, the Americans have raised the specter of China exploiting its ties with Israel to boost its strategic position, and to acquire sensitive intelligence and classified technology. The conversations have included Chinese activity at Israeli sites like the Haifa and Ashdod ports, the Tel Aviv light rail and the Carmel tunnels.

Some of the conversations became unusually heated. One senior Israeli official told Haaretz last year that U.S. officials “blew up at us” over the Chinese issue.  During his visit to Israel in January, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton mentioned Chinese tech companies Huawei and ZTE and their establishing of a presence in Israel. 

In a separate exchange last year, American officials told their Israeli counterparts that the United States could not be friends with a country for which China was building ports. They mentioned another country, not Israel, but Jerusalem got the hint.

Transportation minister Yisrael Katz (second from left), at the contract signing with Shanghai International Port Group, May 28, 2015.
Nir Keidar

The Americans asked Israel for guarantees that China would not be able to use projects in Israel to improve its strategic standing and intelligence capabilities. They remained unconvinced by the Israelis' answers and said if proper assurances could not be provided, this would be grounds for Israel to reconsider its contracts with China.

With the Senate now weighing in via legislation, the pressure is likely to increase on Israel to limit Chinese investments. Moreover, Inhofe is known as an ardent supporter of Israel who rarely criticizes its government and holds strong right-wing views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A bill from his committee directly warning Israel over a national security issue shows the level of frustration in Washington over the issue.

The bill is expected to pass in the entire Senate, and while some changes could be made, the language on the Haifa port is likely to remain, as limiting China’s economic footprint is a joint priority for both parties in Washington. Nearly all members of the Armed Services Committee voted for the bill in its current form, Republicans and Democrats alike.

An op-ed in The Wall Street Journal last month warned that the dispute over the Chinese investments has “the potential to disrupt defense cooperation between the U.S. and Israel and embroil the Jewish state in America’s increasingly intense trade conflict with China.”

Columnist William Galston added: “Doing business with China is not the same as doing business with a democracy. Does Israel really want to enable China’s rise at the cost of weakening its relationship with its greatest ally?”