Not Quite that Close: Israel’s Policy towards China

Colonel (res.) Dr. Eran Lerman

With permission, read full article on JISS.

Over recent weeks, a serious debate has taken place on the pages of Mosaic Magazine on Israeli-Chinese relations. First came a detailed study by Arthur Herman, a respected scholar on aspects of Israeli foreign policy. Then came stern warnings from one of America’s best “China hands,” Dan Blumenthal, that Israel’s Embrace of China is Sorely Misguided,” and from a strong and steady friend, Elliott Abrams, who wrote that “Israel mustn’t let its economic relationship with China threaten its political relationship with America.”

In response, I offer here a somewhat different, and perhaps more balanced, perspective on the evolution of Chinese-Israeli relations. (This is an expanded and modified version of my response as published in Mosaic).

I argue that Israel’s strategy toward China doesn’t conflict with American interests; rather, it serves and reinforces them. Partnering with Beijing can help stabilize the Middle East. Partnering with Asian nations threatened by Beijing can help build a counterbalance to Chinese power.

In late October 2018, the Vice President of the People’s republic of China, Wang Qishan, paid a remarkable visit to Israel, during which he attended, together with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the fourth session of the Israeli Innovation Summit. Also attending the conference was Jack Ma, founder and CEO of Alibaba – one more indication that serious Chinese business leaders take Israel seriously, despite the obvious discrepancy in size and population. The visit, and the pattern of cooperation established by previous sessions of the China-Israel Joint Committee (led by Vice Premier Liu Yandong in her capacity as co-chairperson, together with Netanyahu) seem to lend weight to Arthur Herman’s description of the fast-growing relationship between the two dramatically unequal but mutually respectful ancient nations.

Still, to what an extent is he justified in his fear that Israel will be swept into China’s orbit, and may even serve as a gaping hole in the West’s technological defenses against Chinese encroachment and ambitions? “Happy is the man that feareth always” (Proverbs 28:14)! And indeed, the stern warnings that Herman refers to, particularly from Shaul Chorev on the future of Haifa harbor, are not idle concerns.

According to a recent report in Haaretz (9.11.18), American officials did not hide their anger at the prospect of Chinese corporations in charge of construction at a port of call of the Sixth Fleet. Moreover, the PRC is today a fierce challenger in the field of cyber (on which Herman does not elaborate). Finding weak points in Israel’s cyber defenses could have very severe consequences. Nevertheless, his depiction of the situation – perhaps reflecting positions taken within the Trump Administration on this issue – seems to overstate the threats. Nor does he fully take into account the broader scope of Israel’s interests in the region and in Asia, which in fact coincide with those of the U.S.

To begin with, Beijing’s emerging policy in the region is indeed of great importance to Israel. It is easy enough to depict Israeli interests in terms of narrow economic perspectives: China as a market and as a source of investment for the ever-growing Israeli economy. Indeed, for a country now fully dependent on high-end trade, these are not trivial matters. But equally important is the potential role of the PRC as a stabilizing strategic presence in the region. As I have written elsewhere, few things would be as harmful to Israel’s prospects of survival in our rough neighborhood than the collapse of Egypt into dysfunction and chaos (or worse, an Islamist grip on power). It is very much in the interests of Israel and the U.S. alike to see the Chinese coming in as long-term strategic investors in Egypt’s growth and stability: for example, as the key contractors for the new “Administrative” capital of Egypt – which has yet to be given a name! – being built east of Cairo. This is not a zero-sum game; it is a win-win situation.

True, China has kept a warm relationship with Iran. But as Herman mentions (quoting Sam Chester), Israel was able to explain to the Chinese that unless measures are taken to curb Iran’s nuclear project, the region will descend in mayhem, which in turn would have disastrous consequences for global stability and Chinese economic growth: to be specific, back in 2010, when a delegation led by then Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Yaalon, in which I participated, went to Beijing, we were able to leverage our credible military threat into a surprising “yes” vote in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed far-reaching sanctions on Iran. Today, again, a sober calculation by China, coupled with forceful suasion on the part of both Israel and the U.S. – which would hopefully play a role in the planned Trump-Xi summit – would probably lead to a decision in Beijing that the cost of supporting Iran may turn out to be too high. This should be one more good reason for keeping our channels to China wide open.

In any case, Herman’s depiction of the Chinese challenge understates – indeed, avoids altogether – the most salient aspect of Israeli policy in Asia: namely, that the main thrust of Israel’s security-related efforts is directed not at China but rather at the range of nations seeking to build a counter-balancing strategic capacity (and formidable military responses) to the emerging hegemonic bid by China. The latter may be indeed harboring far-reaching designs. Evan Osnos, in the title of his excellent book on contemporary China, speaks of The Age of Ambition – but others in the arc that stretches from Japan to India are not quite willing to be dominated.

Thus, Israel has emerged as a key partner in building up significant military capacities, in the overall bid to sustain the balance of power. Within the last few years, Japan has dropped the traditional reservation about security cooperation, Vietnam and the Philippines have emerged as significant markets for the Israeli defense sector, cooperation with Australia has intensified. And above all, Israel’s relationship with India, in terms of military hardware, has become even more extensive and intimate than it has ever been, since it emerged in the 1990s.

All this is happening while Israel studiously avoids, under the terms of a highly intrusive agreement with the U.S., the sale of any weapons, munitions or dual-use technologies to China. The effort to engage with the Chinese on other fields, from water and medical services to the construction of projects in Israel, should thus be seen not as a path leading Israel into the Chinese orbit, but rather as a bid to keep Beijing happy while Israel is arming those in Asia who fear China’s ambitions. This, again, should be perceived in the U.S. as a sensible strategy which ultimately serves U.S. interests as well. Even in this age of polarization, the Trump Administration, like its predecessors, has come to recognize that the PRC is a foe in some respects and a beneficial partner in others.

Ultimately, I would concede, the validity of all these counter-arguments stands or falls on one key criterion alone; namely, the ability of the Chinese in Israel, whether as investors, infrastructure builders, or even students, to abuse their welcome by obtaining access to sensitive systems, sowing the seeds of cyber subversion, and gaining information on Israeli and American capabilities. As already indicated, the concern is perfectly legitimate, given China’s offensive cyber prowess as well as a long history of IP abuses. This is certainly a field in which experts from both the U.S. and Israel need to cooperate very openly and quite intensely. Fortunately, the mechanism for doing so already exists; and moreover, Israel retains a lead in defensive cyber that should be and can be put to good use in determining the proper limits of Chinese intrusion.

A sophisticated, discerning approach is needed. It should consider the major benefits that Israel can draw from greater Chinese involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean (above all, in Egypt), as well as the direct economic benefits of cooperation and perhaps a free trade agreement. At the same time, effective fire walls need to be built and maintained against potential abuses. This would surely be preferable to an “all or nothing” attitude.

Perhaps part of the solution lies in enhancing links between Israel and specific Chinese provinces, which by necessity would be focused on legitimate civilian needs. Indeed, on November 1 a delegation led by Vice Governor Zong Guoying was in Israel for the fourth annual Yunnan-Israel Innovation Cooperation Forum, and similar links have been forged with other provinces. This mode of cooperation, carefully applied, should not be seen as a challenge to U.S. policy but rather as a useful auxiliary to it. At the same time, Israel’s security relations with other key players in the Asian balance of power continue to grow apace.