Washington’s long arm against China reaches Israel

The most virulent confrontations between the United States and Israel in recent memory were precipitated by furious US opposition to Israeli arms sale to China.
Sunday 10/03/2019
A US Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion manoeuvres to enter the back of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima anchoured in the northern Israeli port of Haifa, last March. (AFP)
Tough balancing act. A US Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion manoeuvres to enter the back of Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima anchoured in the northern Israeli port of Haifa, last March. (AFP)

Washington’s campaign to contest China’s expanding influence knows no bounds. Late last year, the US Navy’s USS Ross visited Israel. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer attacked Syria in April 2017 when it fired Tomahawk missiles at Shayrat Airbase in Homs.

The ship’s visit was part of a broader agreement enabling ships of the Mediterranean-based US Navy 6th Fleet to make routine stops in Israel, an element of the deep security cooperation between Israel and the United States.

“We are determined to defend ourselves against the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a dockside ceremony greeting the Ross’s sailors. “[US] President [Donald] Trump gave full support to this policy of ours and the fact that this destroyer is visiting here today is an expression of that support.”

Even in Israel, China’s global rise is forcing the United States and Israel to make new calculations. Beijing is competing successfully throughout Israel — as it is elsewhere — for construction of major infrastructure projects.

It is the growing involvement by Chinese companies in the operation and management of Israeli ports in Ashdod and Haifa that is sparking American concern for the security of US naval operations where Chinese operators exercise a commanding presence. These are apprehensions that may affect Washington’s use of Israel’s port facilities.

Shanghai International Port Group won control over the container port in Haifa for 25 years in exchange for a commitment to invest $2 billion to transform Haifa’s bay terminal into the largest harbour in Israel.

“I am sure that this decision wasn’t made haphazardly,” a senior government official told the Times of Israel, “and that there were serious discussions about it. It probably has to do with financial considerations. The Chinese can do it faster and better and we needed someone to operate our ports quickly.”

There are solid commercial reasons for China’s interest in Israel’s maritime port assets. In 2014, Netanyahu noted that “China is Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and, looking ahead, it seems it will soon become Israel’s largest trade partner in general.”

Ashdod, where a Chinese company is building a state-of-the-art port, is well-placed to serve Israel and the Gaza market if the crippling siege imposed on it is lifted and the effort to construct a Palestinian port falters.

Chinese management of container traffic at Haifa offers Beijing an opportunity to expand its role not only in Israel’s growing trade with the Far East but also to establish a Mediterranean gateway to Jordan and the Fertile Crescent via a planned “Tracks for Peace” rail link between Haifa and Jordan.

Washington’s concerns about the effects of this growing Chinese presence on the security of US naval operations are not limited to Chinese commercial advances in Israel. Much to Washington’s consternation, China is expanding its operation of ports in the critical Red Sea-Mediterranean arena to construct and operate commercial ports everywhere as part of its strategic Maritime Silk Road undertaking.

From Djibouti, where China has its only foreign naval base, to the Suez Canal and the Greek port of Piraeus, Chinese companies, often under government ownership, have won commercial tenders. The ubiquitous Chinese state-owned China Ocean Shipping Company container line has begun operations in the Lebanese port of Tripoli in anticipation of cashing on Syria’s reconstruction.

Washington increasingly views China’s efforts as a state-driven mercantilist strategy to establish China’s global commercial, if not military supremacy. During a January visit to Israel, John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, included Israel in Washington’s global push to impede the expansion of Chinese high-tech and maritime trade.

US concerns about the security of the Navy’s 6th Fleet, given the Chinese presence at Haifa, was high on Bolton’s agenda. He stressed Washington’s opposition to business with Chinese telecom giants Huawei Technologies and ZTE, both of which are the subject of a US global effort to limit their international markets.

In Israel’s case, US concerns about the Chinese presence at Haifa port are part of broader criticism of the growing commercial relationship between Israel and China focusing on investment and technical collaboration on high tech commercial and cyber applications that have potential military applications.

“This issue is part of a broader concern that the Americans have about our relationship with China,” explained an official to the Times of Israel. “Their concerns are legitimate.”

Beijing begs to differ. “The US side has been abusing “national security” to smear and suppress normal business activities of Chinese enterprises,” charged China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman when asked about China’s role in the Haifa project. “The US side consistently ignoring facts and seeing enemies wherever it looks has become a laughingstock of its own allies.”

China is an important market for Israel, one that is destined to grow but it is also the case that Israel cannot afford to ignore, whatever their merit, Washington’s increasingly vocal opposition to China’s commercial and military expansion.

The most virulent confrontations between the United States and Israel in recent memory were precipitated by furious US opposition to Israeli arms sale to China, resulting in a 2005 Israeli ban on such transfers.

Washington’s complaints may be working. Reports from Israel suggest that the Israeli government has opened “a review of the [Haifa] agreement at a high level.”

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