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Trump has had enough of Israel’s cozy ties with China

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24 May 2020 05:05:25 GMT9
24 May 2020 05:05:25 GMT9

In the entire history of the US–Israel relationship there has never been an administration in Washington as ideologically aligned with Israel’s government as that of Donald Trump. There is a total meeting of minds on international affairs … with one exception: China. 

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made his recent impromptu visit to Israel, the official line was that the urgency stemmed from a need to coordinate both countries’ Iran policy and Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank. During Pompeo’s flying visit it became apparent that Washington had Israel’s ever-evolving relationship with China on its mind no less than the other topics. Increasingly, the Trump administration is taking a polarizing approach in tackling its worsening relations with China, from the “you’re either with us or against us,” school of thought; Israel, like its other allies, is expected to toe the line.

Hostility between the US and China is increasing. The current venomous rhetoric by Trump and his loyalists about China’s “culpability” for the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to strong reactions from Chinese officials, has become routine; it builds on several years of open verbal hostilities and unilateral punitive measures, mainly by the US, in its declared trade war with China. With neither side taking the necessary precautionary measures, this verbal barrage is endangering world peace and stability. The coronavirus pandemic, which began in China and is being handled disastrously by the Trump administration, toxifies the relations, and also plays into the hands of a president who is sliding in opinion polls behind his Democrat rival Joe Biden, with the presidential election less than five months away.

In this context, it was not surprising that Pompeo’s discomfiting message to Israel’s decision makers was that their ties with China in areas with security risks and sensitivities for the US, including academic projects and technological research and development, must be cut.

Israel has managed down the years to avoid being implicated in the hostility between these two major international powers; it has maintained its political, military and economic alliance with Washington, while also establishing trade relations and developing investment and technological cooperation with China, including military platforms and components, second in volume only to the US. There are sound foundations for the growing geoeconomic and geopolitical cooperation, based on correlating interests that serve both countries.

In the entire history of the US–Israel relationship there has never been an administration in Washington as ideologically aligned with Israel’s government as that of Donald Trump... with one exception: China.

Yossi Mekelberg

Relations between China and Israel increased this century in pace and breadth of cooperation, from the political-diplomatic to investment and trade, joint educational programs, scientific cooperation, and ever-growing tourism in both directions. One aspect of China’s interest in Israel is on a bilateral level, but is in the context of its global Belt and Road Initiative, and its manifestation in the MENA region. However, international factors in the background are slowing down the pace and nature of trade between the two countries. Chief among these are the US objection to the supply of certain technologies to China, and more recently the trade war. China for its part has to balance maintaining good relations with other countries in the MENA region, including Iran.

Despite their immense differences in population and territory, a pattern of relations has evolved in which China values Israel as a global hub of technological innovation, while Israel as a small country sees before it a vast Chinese market and an economic power that is willing to invest in its economy. For the sake of understanding the overall picture of the economic ties between the two countries it is significant to include trade with Hong Kong, as it is playing the role of a major hub that facilitates ever increasing trade relations. In 2018 the combined figure for Israel’s exports to mainland China and Hong Kong was $9 billion, while imports amounted to $6.8 billion, almost entirely from China. What is even more eye-catching is that those 2018 exports from Israel represent an increase of more than 44 percent on the previous year, while imports increased by 9 percent.

What looks like a prolonged honeymoon between China and Israel, helped by Beijing’s mild interest in the region’s politics including the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, is perceived by the US as a threat to its own interests, particularly Chinese investment in Israel’s infrastructure. For instance, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative China will develop and operate major infrastructure projects in Israel, including the ports of Haifa and Ashdod, and build Tel Aviv’s light rail. China is also becoming a major investor in the local high-tech scene and Israeli start-ups are working harder to penetrate the Chinese market.

But if all of the above sounds promising, it is also raising grave concerns in Washington; inherent US hostility to China is not confined to Trump, the Pentagon, the State Department or the Republicans, but is shared by many Democrats.  It derives from intrinsic distrust of China’s intentions and competition over technology and, more widely, hegemony in different parts of the world. The US perceives an encroachment on its spheres of influence. However, more specifically since the 1990s it has raised its concerns with Israel over the transfer of sophisticated technologies, either military or with dual civilian-military usage, from Israel to China. Moreover, developing Israeli ports gives Beijing not only an opportunity to compete more effectively with the US in the MENA region, but may also allow it to monitor and gather intelligence on the US Sixth Fleet, whose vessels frequently dock in Haifa.

At a recent meeting of Israel’s security cabinet, the foreign ministry warned that Israel could be on a collision course with the Trump administration unless tight restrictions are imposed on Chinese investment in the country, because the US president sees this both as a geopolitical security threat and a distraction from accomplishing the objectives of his trade war with China. The US presidential election and the coronavirus pandemic have increased already existing tensions, and it seems that Washington is now ready to lean on Israel to come into the fold on this issue.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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