Even prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, China and the US were engaged in a global struggle over their economic interests and their international influence.
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington in 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently made an unusual visit to Israel to warn against extending economic cooperation with China. Israel should not require such pressure in order to formulate an independent policy that is cautious of China, while at the same time, safely engages Beijing.
The decision by the Israeli government to allow a Chinese state-owned company to build and operate a privately owned port in Haifa constitutes a significant security issue. It represents a narrow, economics-based form of decision-making that conceded a strategic asset. A US-built port in Haifa would have been far more preferable. It also angered Israel’s principal and most powerful ally, the United States, which will remain Israel’s top ally, at least for the coming decades. Unlike China, the US’s values closely match and mirror those of Israel.
Long-term strategic thinking should have been what did and what will inform the core considerations and decisions surrounding the granting of such contracts. Such considerations should trump economic incentives. Israeli governments have a duty to consider every such contract first and foremost through the lens of geostrategic considerations. Awaiting American pressure in order to do so is a mistake.
Mike Pompeo’s visit, alongside public statements by Chinese and American leaders, has caused some observers to wonder whether the US and China are on a path to economic decoupling and a new escalation in their rivalry. In the current global order, with its complex economic systems and interdependency, a full decoupling is not an inevitability. Even prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, China and the US were engaged in a global struggle over their economic interests and their international influence. The US’s strategy includes regaining its lost manufacturing power, and getting China to pay for that shift to the extent that it can do so.
The current conditions will very likely intensify this preexisting struggle. China has been steadily using its economic, regional development and diplomatic capabilities to buy and take over industries in multiple locations; an approach that very much strengthens China’s international trade infrastructure, economy, manufacturing and ability to boost its GNP. Taking advantage of the Trump Administration’s “America First” approach, which has reduced American participation abroad and assistance to other countries, China has moved into vacuums and open spaces in order to increase its influence.
That maneuver is natural and practical for a massive state that requires a growing quantity of supplies and capabilities. The US may now seek to recruit countries to its struggle against China, a struggle which, until now, it was waging unilaterally. Israel’s own role in this epic struggle is small. It must prioritize and protect the strategic anchor that is the alliance with Washington, which is the highest strategic order for Jerusalem.
China, with its technology and economic prowess, has been keen to invest in infrastructure projects in Israel and to gain access to Israeli technology. Israel must always keep its finger on the pulse of such investments, keeping investment beating, but never garroting its vital strategic interests in the process.
Allowing China to take control of Israel’s 5G cellular network, for example, would mean ceding control of the information being relayed on the network to someone else. While it’s true that networks can be hacked regardless of who built them, it is easier for a global power to control and bring down a network it built on its own.
Similarly, a highly strategic seaport should not be in the hands of a power that can quickly change its views on Israeli interests, and which lacks common values with Israel. Again, a US-built port in Haifa, would have been far more preferable. Ultimately, the time has come for Israel to minimize Chinese involvement in strategic infrastructure projects, as quickly as possible, and to decrease the amount of time that Israel is committed to pre-existing projects.
Several papers produced by the Haifa Maritime Policy and Strategy center (HMS) have laid out the argument for such an approach. The matter at hand is one to be played out delicately. On one hand, foreign investment on sensitive projects should be the preserve of the strongest of allies. When Israel purchases submarines from Germany, for example, it does so knowing that it can rely on the German government for parts in the hour of need.
On the other hand, significant caution must be applied to any suggested breaking of ties with China. Beijing is a highly significant power, with many advantages for those who engage with it. Those include production and manufacturing abilities, efficient implementation, economic investment opportunities, and a desire to work with Israel. Those assets are not to be casually discarded.
Diplomatically, Israel must also take care not to be dragged into anti-Chinese sentiments or statements. It need not take up a frontline position in the campaign against China; it is not in a position that justifies or requires it taking on such a role.
The struggle against China is not an Israeli one, but in the coming months, Israel must monitor the global US – Chinese struggle while making its own decisions in accordance with its own strategic imperatives; something that inherently mandates China’s subjugation to America in the mindset of Israeli policymakers.
A clear line on where and when to engage with China – or not – should be drawn at vulnerable, strategic sites. Vulnerability and strategy should serve as the guiding lighthouses for Israel’s future engagement with China, and Israel’s relationship with America must remain the clearcut priority.
The writer is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute and a retired Israel Navy admiral and is a graduate of the Israel Naval Academy.