Stronger China-Israel ties fuel concern of US, Palestinians
LONDON - Strengthening economic ties between Israel and China is likely to be cause for concern for the United States as well as for Palestinians, who traditionally enjoy good ties with Beijing.
The 4-day visit of Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan, a close confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping, to Israel was significant. He is the most senior Chinese official to visit Israel since 2000 when President Jiang Zemin visited Tel Aviv.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Wang hosted a trade and innovation conference on October 24 and toured an exhibition of Israeli technology start-ups.
Netanyahu said the visit was a “tremendous compliment” to Israel. He said Wang’s participation in the Israeli innovation summit “reflects the growing ties between our countries, our economies, our peoples.”
Wang praised Israel and said China hoped to learn from it. “Israel leads the world in electronics, information technology, modern medicine and agriculture,” he said. “China is still striving to achieve modernisation.”
China is Israel’s second largest trading partner after the United States. Israel exported $2.8 billion worth of goods to China in the first half of 2018, an 80% increase from the previous year. The two countries are expected to complete a free trade agreement next year.
Wang’s visit coincided with a statement by retired US Army Lieutenant-General Ben Hodges, who was the army’s commander in Europe from 2014-17, predicting that the United States would be at war with China in less than two decades.
“I think in 15 years — it’s not inevitable but it is a very strong likelihood — that we will be at war with China. The United States does not have the capacity to do everything it has to do in Europe and in the Pacific to deal with the Chinese threat,” Hodges said at a forum on defence and security issues in Warsaw.
It is not the first time that Israeli-Chinese dealings raised alarms in Washington.
“In 2016, Israel announced it would allow a Chinese company to manage its strategic Haifa port. This move alarmed the US Navy, which perceived the move as a potential strategic challenge from China,” read an October report by Stratfor, a US think-tank.
Israeli defence experts downplayed the likelihood of Israel giving China access to security information, especially considering Beijing has sold nuclear technology to Iran.
“We have to be cautious about the types of things we sell to China,” Dale Aluf, director of research for Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, a think-tank that promotes closer Israeli-Chinese relations, told the Associated Press. “Defence technology is off the table but we can sell health care and sustainable development so there’s no reason for America to be upset.”
Nevertheless, the United States may be upset with Israel over an issue not security related.
“While Israel is scrupulous now not to anger the Americans by selling the Chinese any military hardware, the intensifying relationship may cause a different problem with the Trump administration, which is escalating its trade war with China, forcing Netanyahu to choose between Washington and Beijing,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz.
Wang visited Ramallah for talks with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah but that is unlikely to trouble the Israelis for two reasons.
First, they view the Chinese position as not amounting to more than rhetoric. “Asian leaders never bother (Netanyahu) about the Palestinians. If they bring the issue up at all, it’s just for protocol. They just want to talk business and that’s what he likes,” an unidentified Israeli diplomat who served as ambassador in East Asia told Haaretz.
Second, by winning over China, the Israelis would be doing what they did with the improvement of ties with India — neutralising traditionally pro-Palestinian global heavyweights.