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Israel’s relations with China have always been marred by dilemmas. Those dilemmas became more acute in recent years with the intensified geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China. As President Joe Biden is reaffirming Western cohesion to face off China, Israel may have reached the tipping point it had hoped to avoid: choose side and take the risk of alienating China. In June 2021, the Biden Administration asked the newly sworn Israeli government to add its voice to a joint statement by UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) members expressing concern over China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. This American request faced Israel with a conundrum, which was discussed and assessed by Israel’s new foreign minister Yair Lapid and the top echelon of his ministry.
At stake was a classic case of foreign policy dilemma between realpolitik and principles. Israel has no interest in crossing China; but it is also has moral obligations as a Western democracy, as a state whose people suffered from persecution, and as a U.S. ally. After weighing the pros and cons, Yair Lapid decided to join the Western criticism of China – a decision for which he was thanked by the U.S. administration, but which raised the ire of China and its threat to retaliate (never mind that China systematically backs anti-Israel resolutions at the UN). China’s threats caused Ukraine to back down and to withdraw its signature from the joint statement. The fact that China imposed painful economic sanctions on Australia to punish it for advocating an international probe into Covid-19’s origins must have concentrated the mind of Ukraine’s president.
Israel, like other signatories of the joint statement, will likely pay a price for its principled decision. Hence does the United States have a responsibility toward democracies. The Biden administration is correct to coalesce the free world around an expanding and repressive China; but it must also complete its strategy by shielding its allies from China’s economic bullying. Ukraine’s flip-flop and Australia’s woes are but a reminder that America’s legitimate expectations cannot be a one-way street. As China threatened to interrupt its supply of Covid-19 vaccines to Ukraine, the U.S. should have stepped in with its own supplies. The fact that the U.S. has taken advantage of Australia’s ostracization by selling more American coal to China is both cynical and counterproductive.
Israel would have much to lose from downgrading its economic relations with China – relations that were built thanks many years of diplomatic efforts. Israel was the first Middle East country to recognize, in 1950, Mao Zedong’s government; yet it also refrained from establishing full diplomatic relations for fear of alienating the U.S. (which fought North Korea between 1950 and 1953) and France (which fought China-backed Vietnamese communists until 1954). After the 1955 Bandung Conference and the 1956 Suez war, China engaged in a resolutely pro-Arab policy. Yet the Sino-Soviet split, together with the severance of relations between the USSR and Israel in 1967, produced the conditions for a quiet rapprochement between China and Israel.
Abandoned by its former Soviet ally, China lost its only military supplier. Having fought and defeated Soviet-backed Arab armies, Israel was known for its expertise in upgrading Soviet military equipment. Hence did China initiate secret military ties with Israel in the late 1970s under the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping. By the late 1980s, military ties between Israel and China were reported to be worth billions of dollars. Israel publicly admitted to their existence in 1992. That same year, the two countries established full diplomatic relations. But Israel’s military ties with China caused tension with the United States.
In March 1992, the U.S. government accused Israel of transferring American military technology to China. In 2000, America stopped Israel from selling its airborne early warning and control radar system (AEW&C) to China. Although this system had been developed exclusively by Israel and did not include American technology, the U.S. government feared the sale would alter the military balance in the Strait of Taiwan to China’s advantage. In December 2004, the U.S. government asked Israel not to sell drones to China. Again, the technology was Israeli, but the U.S. feared it might provide too much of a qualitative military advantage to China. The same year, Israel and the U.S. signed an agreement in which Israel committed not to sell any military equipment to China that might include American technology.
While Israel had to downgrade its military ties with China, economic relations between the two countries flourished. In 2013, it was announced that China would be involved in building the “Med-Red” project, a commercial railway planned to run from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. In 2015, Israel became one of the founding members of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), despite strong American reservations. In March 2016, Israel and China announced the negotiation of a free-trade agreement. In 2016 as well, China invested $21.5 billion in infrastructures in the Middle East and Africa. Its “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), partly financed by AIIB, involves investing heavily in transportation infrastructures (such as roads, railroads, and seaports) to connect China to European and African markets. China is also involved in building infrastructures in Israel, such as the Carmel tunnels in Haifa, the light rail in Tel Aviv, and the expansion of the Ashdod and Haifa ports.
China’s interest in Israel is related to Israel’s scientific excellence and innovation, especially in high-tech, agriculture, water technologies, and biotech. Even though Israel’s deepening ties with China are now mostly commercial and technological, they are still a source of concern for the United States. Since the U.S. perceives China as an economic rival in the global sphere, senior U.S. officials have warned their Israeli counterparts that trade and technological relations between Israel and China are going too far. In January 2019, for example, U.S. national security advisor John Bolton expressed to Israeli leaders his government’s discomfort that the Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE are investing in Israel, and that a Chinese company is building the new Haifa port.
Neither Israel nor China have an interest in economic decoupling. China is Israel’s third trade partner (after the EU and the U.S.), and Chinese investments in Israeli technology are mutually beneficial. Indeed, the U.S.-China trade is worth hundreds of billions of dollars despite acute disagreements between the two powers. Israel cannot reasonably be expected to disengage economically from China, but it does and will continue to coordinate with its U.S. ally Chinese investments in sensitive areas such as 5G and infrastructures.
While China used to separate between business and politics, and while its support for anti-Israel UN resolutions could be seen and forgiven as mere lip service to Chinese interests in the Muslim world, China’s Middle East policy has taken a worrying turn in recent months. During the May 2021 confrontation between Hamas and Israel, China adopted an aggressive stance vis-à-vis Israel both at the UN and in its state-controlled media: it co-sponsored (and not only supported) a biased UNHRC resolution against Israel; it initiated three Security Council emergency sessions aimed at condemning Israel; China’s foreign minister castigated the U.S. for shielding Israel and the Security Council (implying that Israel had no right to defend itself from Hamas); and Chinese media became replete with anti-Semitic slurs (typically accusing the Jews of controlling finance and the media).
In March 2021, shortly before the latest Israel-Hamas flare, China had signed a cooperation agreement with Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions. Sensing partial U.S. retreat from the Middle East, and aware of America’s determination to reach an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, China is positioning itself as a competing power in the region. A China that openly challenges the U.S. and upgrades its ties with Iran can hardly be a neutral Middle East actor. Hence, it seems, China’s outspoken support for Hamas during the recent conflict with Israel.
If China can decouple between bilateral and multilateral relations (developing strong economic ties with Israel while supporting anti-Israel UN resolutions), so can Israel. Chinese officials claim that China’s voting pattern at the UN has not changed on the Middle East, but the evidence (detailed above) suggests otherwise. The same officials claim that votes on Xinjiang or Tibet constitute an interference in domestic Chinese affairs, but they refuse to apply the same logic to votes on the West Bank or Gaza. Seen from Jerusalem, this double-standard is disingenuous.
The Biden administration can count on Israel to close the ranks of Western democracies. At the same time, however, Israel’s economic relations with China must be allowed to grow within the range of U.S. strategic interests and security concerns. As for China, it must understand that decoupling (between bilateral and multilateral diplomacy) and interference (whether on Xinjiang or Gaza) can no longer be a one-way street, due to Israel’s strategic relations with the United States, to the expectations of the Biden administration from its allies, and to recent changes in China’s UN votes on the Middle East.