Why the China-Israel connection worries Washington

Washington has cast a critical eye towards China’s growing commerce with Israel. As a consequence, Israel’s ability to walk between the raindrops without getting wet is under strain.
Saturday 06/07/2019
A file photo shows Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan (R) laughing as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a face during their tour of the Israeli Innovation Summit in Jerusalem, 2018. (AFP)
A file photo shows Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan (R) laughing as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a face during their tour of the Israeli Innovation Summit in Jerusalem, 2018. (AFP)

It’s doubtful that US President Donald Trump understood the implications of his suggestion that China and others relieve the United States by sending warships to secure oil supplies transiting the Strait of Hormuz, where recent engagements between Washington and Teheran raised fears of war and the interruption of oil supplies via the strategic waterway.

The Chinese Navy has not visited Hormuz since Cheng Ho’s Treasure Fleet set anchor there in the early 15th century.

Trump, as is his wont, almost surely did not consider implications of announcing Washington’s unprecedented willingness to share the burden of securing the Gulf’s critical maritime routes with China.

Elsewhere in the administration, however, the campaign to limit the expansion of Chinese influence to maintain Washington’s global ambitions is escalating and growing more shrill.

“China wants to be the dominant economic and military power of the world, spreading its authoritarian vision for society and its corrupt practices worldwide,” declared US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a recent tour of European capitals aimed at warning Europeans of the perils of accommodating China’s global aspirations.

In a similar vein, Washington has cast a critical eye towards China’s growing commerce with Israel. As a consequence, Israel’s ability to walk between the raindrops without getting wet is under strain.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu suggested that, under his leadership, Israel is fast becoming “a rising regional and global power.”

China may not share Netanyahu’s exaggerated vision of Israel’s global reach but Beijing and its all-important regional governments do see Israel as a growing market for China’s infrastructural expertise, a technological hothouse in need of strategic Chinese investment and an important Mediterranean station on the route of the Maritime Silk Road.

The visit of Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan in October 2018 and his appointment as China’s representative to the Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation attest to China’s interest in cultivating good and mutually profitable relations with Israel, whose exports to China are second only to those sold to the United States.

Washington, however, is growing more impatient with relations that Israel and China see as “win-win.” During talks in Israel in late June, US national security adviser John Bolton once again raised US objections to Israel’s growing ties to China, including China’s increasing presence as a source of funding and technology to Israel’s much-vaunted tech sector.

Bolton’s central and more immediate focus, however, remains Washington’s opposition to Israel’s 2015 decision to award China’s Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) a $2 billion tender to modernise and operate the port of Haifa. The company’s management of the facility commenced last year.

Israel views China’s role in Haifa, Minister of Transportation (now Foreign Minister) Israel Katz, said, as “an expression of confidence in the state of Israel on the part of a superpower, which has decided to invest billions of shekels in Israel and turn it into an international cargo centre for all the world.”

In contrast, Washington views China’s management of the Haifa port, where the US Navy’s 6th Fleet occasionally visits, and the subsequent agreement of another Chinese firm to run Israel’s other port in Ashdod, as a growing security threat to US naval forces in the Mediterranean.

In testimony to Congress this year, US Central Command commander US Army General Joseph Votel warned that expanding relations between China and Israel comprise an evolving threat to American security.

“China,” he warned, “uses its One Belt-One Road initiative as an economic lever to provide access and influence across the Central Region. China invested in Suez Canal development, the port of Haifa in Israel and Jordan to provide access, relationships and leverage… For China, economic power is the primary tool, and while many One Belt-One Road projects do not pose direct threats to US national interests, burgeoning Chinese economic power could support and mask longer-term military and political objectives.”

The US Senate has joined the chorus of American voices demanding that Israel renege on its port agreement with China’s SIPG. Opponents have legislated an admonition to Israel, advising that, “It is the sense of the Senate that the United States — (1) has an interest in the future forward presence of the United States naval vessels at the Port of Haifa in Israel but has serious security concerns with respect to the leasing arrangements of the Port of Haifa… and (2) should urge the government of Israel to consider the security implications of foreign investment in Israel.”

China has derided these American warnings. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the United States “has been abusing ‘national security’ to smear and strike down normal business activities of Chinese enterprises… Even its allies find it ridiculous.”

Ridiculous or not, there are indications that the American campaign to remove Chinese management of the Haifa port is gaining traction. Local Israeli officials are slow-walking efforts to facilitate the port’s construction and a growing number of politicians and security experts are sounding the alarm about the perils of crossing Washington.

The port issue is not the first time that Israel’s relations with China have sparked tension in US-Israel relations. Previous Israeli efforts to sell advanced military equipment and technology, notably the sale of the Phalcon airborne radar system in 2000, were opposed by Washington, which forced Israel to cancel the sale.

China’s ties with Israel are strong and broad enough to weather an Israeli retreat on Haifa. More significant, however, is the degree to which US concern about China’s growing presence on the world stage has become a central factor in Washington’s policy considerations.

Cheng Ho would have been proud.

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