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Israel and China’s relationship is deteriorating

by Neville Teller

It was back in the 1990s that the Chinese began to realize that Israel was fast becoming a global technology hub.  Previous frosty relations began to thaw, and China started to engage with Israel’s growing hi-tech, partly to enhance Chinese power in the Middle East and to help speed up their innovative developments.  It didn’t take long for the US government to worry about the strong economic and technological ties between China and Israel. The US sees China as its biggest rival for power and profit in the Middle East, and alarm bells started to go off in Washington.

The US National Security Strategy prioritizes “maintaining an enduring competitive edge” over China. The head of Britain’s secret service, citing China’s cyber warfare and espionage activities in the UK, recently called it the agency’s top intelligence priority.  He was none too complimentary, either, about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has seen China investing billions into development projects throughout the Middle East and Africa in an obvious attempt to enhance Chinese power and influence.  “Debt and data traps” was his succinct description.

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Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister for the next twelve years until June 2021, did not quite see it that way.  Over that period, with his enthusiastic support, Israeli governments conducted a clear policy of promoting economic relations with China in hi-tech innovation, investment, infrastructure projects, and trade. Netanyahu perceived China’s growing economy as an important opportunity for Israel.  Chinese companies, mainly through the BRI, have been involved in upgrading Israeli ports and building infrastructure such as the Tel Aviv light rail.

Even so, Israel has consistently maintained control over network management and electricity provision, restricted Chinese companies from controlling key infrastructures, and ensured that Israel remains in charge of management, maintenance, and development of its ports. The light rail in the Tel Aviv area runs about 150 meters from the headquarters of the Israeli military. Aware of the obvious security risk, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman called for legislation to oversee Chinese involvement in the country’s infrastructure projects in January 2019. 

In May 2020, Washington formally asked its allies to sever ties with China in areas with security risks.  As a result, in August 2020, the UK government announced that products manufactured by the China-based company Huawei, one of the world’s largest telecommunications equipment providers, would be removed entirely from the UK’s 5G networks by the end of 2027. 

Slowly, perhaps too slowly, the democracies have come to understand the danger to national security of allowing China-based companies to construct and operate infrastructure projects that are key to the functioning of the state itself. As a result, Sino-Israeli relations have cooled.

One expert commentator, noting that bilateral trade grew from $50 million in 1992 to some $15 billion or more in 2021, added that “a closer look at the data shows that in 2018 both Israeli exports to China and Chinese investment in Israel peaked. The former thereafter declined and then plateaued.”

Israel has also aligned its political position on China with Washington. At the end of June 2021, Israel joined the US in criticizing China for treating its Uyghur minority badly and putting them in jail against their will. China has long said that Taiwan is one of its provinces, even though most of the world recognizes it as a separate country. If China decided to invade Taiwan, Israel could not stay neutral.  Most likely, the US would blame China and put sanctions on it, and Israel would probably agree.  China’s President Xi has probably hesitated to take irreversible action against Taiwan because it would hurt China’s carefully built power and influence the BRI structure in the Middle East.

On December 1, 2022, the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, released a well-researched report on the current state of relations between China and Israel.  Among a variety of other issues, it noted that since 2019, favorable views of China among Israelis have declined. Up until that point, Chinese state media and Chinese diplomats had been able to get into Israel’s media and change how Israelis thought. Among the devices employed were direct messaging to the Israeli public in local Hebrew-language newspapers and the use of the Hebrew department of China Radio International targeted at Israeli audiences.

Israeli sentiment has shifted for a number of reasons, not least the public’s awareness of repression in China, Beijing’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, unfavorable reporting by the Chinese media of the 2021 conflict with Hamas in Gaza, and repeated voting against Israel in the UN. Most impactful, perhaps, has been Beijing’s policy in respect of Iran.  By continuing to import Iranian oil, China has provided Iran with an economic lifeline, leading to a possible strategic partnership with a regime dedicated to destroying Israel

By late 2022 Israelis had come to recognize the potential risk to its national security from China’s cyber technology and the danger of becoming economically dependent.  Bilateral trade and investment slowed. At the same time, the US kept putting more pressure on Israel to limit how much Chinese money went into the Israeli economy.

In his recently published memoir, Netanyahu describes the tightrope he walked in Israeli-Chinese relations.  While seeking to foster bilateral China-Israel investment, he was at the same time candid with the Chinese about his firm commitment to the US to restrict military and intelligence technologies.

Now Netanyahu is back in charge of Israel’s government.  As the Institute for National Security Studies recently remarked: “The man who over the past decade enthusiastically championed the development of Israel’s relations with China must chart Israel’s future path between China and the United States, and between the economy and national security.”

The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review.  His latest book is“Trump and the Holy Land:  2016-2020”.  Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com

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