The Middle East’s Chinese-American balancing act: Where does it leave Israel?

T. Belman. I maintain my support for Bibi meeting with Xi. It is time for the US to negotiate a new deal with Israel in which Israel gets something tangible from the US such as a US commitment to stay out of Israel’s internal affairs and for the US to stop backing the Palestinian cause. Included should be a commitment to protect Israel form the UN and the ICC.  I call the new deal, reciprocity. If  the US demands loyalty, Israel should get the same in return.  Now that the Gulf States are gravitating to China, the US should move away from the Arabs and align with Israel. Such a realignment will influence the Arabs to join them. The new deal should be a much better deal for Israel than the current deal is.

by Dr. Eric R. Mandel, MEPIN

When I speak to members of the US Congress on both sides of the aisle, they agree upon very few things. However, one common concern is China’s threat to American security and economic interests. These include stealing of intellectual property, forced technology transfers, unfair trade practices, cyber espionage, development of advanced weapons systems, human rights abuses, and integration into key US allies’ civilian infrastructure.

The Brookings Institute’s Madiha Afzal wrote, “American policymakers and experts from across much of the political spectrum are expecting that allies around the world may have to make… difficult choices in the future between the two powers… A choice between the United States and China would be costly for Israel-Chinese economic opportunities are large and growing. Yet for Israel, more than for other regional actors, the choice is clear.”

According to Jon Bateman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writing in Foreign Affairs, Biden “is now all-in on taking out China… the US is committed to rapid decoupling, whatever the consequences.”

However, a CNN analysis points out, “The main weakness in the US proposition regarding China in the Middle East is that Washington offers no alternatives to Beijing’s lucrative deals. Tin Hinane El-Kadi, a fellow at Chatham House, said, “If the US wants to pressure countries… [it] would have to start to put real projects and some real cash on the table.”

The binary strategy of choosing between the US and China is unlikely to work with Saudi Arabia. According to Haaretz, “Bilateral trade between Saudi Arabia and China surged to $116 billion in 2022, up from $87 billion the year before….[ranging] from genomics company BGI opening a research lab to plans by Haichang Ocean Park Holdings to open a massive amusement park.”

As the Saudis told me during my recent visit to Riyadh, they don’t choose sides as the Chinese will be their best customer for fossil fuels for the next 25 years, so it is unrealistic for America to expect us to side with them.

The story closer to the truth is that the Saudis feel disrespected by US President Joe Biden. No matter how many times Biden sends over National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Crown Prince and pime minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (known as MBS) is still angry about the pariah comment and the American non-response to the Iranian attack in 2019 on their oil fields under Donald Trump.

However, it is still an open question whether the Chinese want to replace America as the security guarantor for the kingdom or be content with its economic gains and diplomatic influence.

For Israel, America is, first and foremost, its best friend based on common values and shared security concerns. The US is Israel’s most important defender on the international scene and a generous supplier of military aid, no matter who is in the White House. The relationship is a two-way street, especially regarding Israeli intelligence, which has become indispensable since the US withdrew from Afghanistan and Israel remains Washington’s only stable and democratic friend in a chaotic geopolitical theatre.

For many Middle Eastern countries, China is the address to solve their problems. The Chinese are appealing partners for Arab and Muslim nations, as their authoritarian rulers are not burdened by America’s concern for their human rights records. With America leaving the region and perceived as a strong military player, but unwilling to be a credible military threat to its adversaries (Iran), many nations have reevaluated their security arrangements, which counted on a reliable American presence, hedging their bets by moving toward the Chinese-Iranian-Russian axis.

With its Belt and Road initiative, China’s move into the Middle East has been received warmly by Israel’s adversaries, offering an alternative to the unpredictable American policy, which changes at least every four to eight years with a new administration.

Why is America so concerned about Israeli-Chinese ties?

Israel is one of the world’s most technologically important nations, on the cutting edge of scientific breakthroughs. America is concerned about Chinese integration into everything from Israel’s advanced 5G telecommunication networks to Chinese control of Haifa harbor, where the US Sixth Fleet docks.

The Asia Times reports, “Since 2002, Chinese companies have struck around 500 investment deals in Israel, 97% of which have been in its vaunted technology sector… acquiring Israeli firms, employing dozens of experts in fields ranging from telecommunication and artificial intelligence (AI) to cloud computing and data science.”

In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping designated the Israel-China relationship a “Comprehensive Innovation Partnership.” This has placed Israel in a tough position, navigating a course between acceding to its best friend’s demand for a scorched earth policy in its relationship with the world’s second-largest economy, while trying to remain economically competitive as China is a larger trading partner than America. Israel has previously acquiesced to American demands regarding China. In 1999 and 2004, Israel canceled the sale of early warning aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicle upgrades.

With the American-Israeli relationship at a low point, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of an invitation from Xi has gotten the attention of the Biden administration and has perked up the ears of Democrats and Republicans. Why would Netanyahu, a seasoned and expert politician schooled in American politics, choose to go to China now, and what does he hope to gain or risk by potentially antagonizing Congress and the US president?

During a classified briefing with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the Axios news website reported that Netanyahu said, “Chinese involvement in the Middle East isn’t necessarily bad. It could be useful because it will compel the US to stay here.”

The strain in the relationship is multi-focal. The Biden administration has secretly negotiated a “less for less” nuclear agreement with Iran, Israel’s existential enemy. After visiting Oman and Qatar last month, I confirmed this firsthand as they told me that the administration had asked them to be quiet intermediaries with the Islamic Republic.

When I told Congress this information before it became public, many Republicans were appalled, while Democrats rationalized, and some applauded the rapprochement, choosing to follow party lines.

In addition, Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform, along with new settlements in Judea and Samaria, some in response to Palestinian terrorism, have irked Biden, a long-time critic of any Israeli presence in the West Bank. In his defense, he has visited China multiple times without controversy, and China, unlike Western Europe, is not infected by antisemitism in the guise of anti-Zionism.

Several years ago, I brought up America’s concern about China embedding itself into our most important ally in the region. I said, you know, when China brings over hundreds of workers for infrastructure projects, many could be spies. The answer before 2018 was we could manage it; today, Israel has heard the message from the US loud and clear. So many Israeli politicians, defense, intelligence, and security officials have spoken to American officials over the past five years, dramatically changing the Israeli position on China to align with America’s. And in polls, Israelis now have the same disapproval rating of China as Americans.

So where for Israel is the fine line between angering your American ally and hurting your economic interests?

American fears are not unwarranted. According to the Asia Times, in “August 2021, cyber-security firm FireEye uncovered a large-scale cyber-attack targeting government bodies and private organizations involved in shipping, hi-tech, telecommunications, defense, academia, and information technology. A year later, media outlets reported that Chinese party-state-affiliated institutions were operating recruiting networks targeting Israeli scientists in a bid to acquire intellectual property.”

What should Israel do, and what can America tolerate in Israel-Chinese economic cooperation?

Israel has heard the American complaint and has responded over the last five years. Israel’s Economy Ministry now has an Export Control Agency to thwart any dual-use military or technology materials from being transferred to China. Israel, at the request of then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, turned down a Chinese bid for the Sorek desalination facility and two light rail lines in Tel Aviv.

According to the White House, “Biden and then-prime minister Yair Lapid launched the US-Israel Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology to establish a partnership on critical and emerging technologies to bring the cooperation between the countries to new heights.” In addition, Israel’s National Security Affairs Committee increased its oversight regarding foreign ownership of Israeli companies.

The Chinese are pressing back, warning Israel regarding canceled deals and not entertaining bids. According to Axios, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international affairs department urged Israel not to get “dragged” into the conflict with the US, as they share long-term economic interests.

Israel’s response to American concerns regarding China has been strong and will continue to be, as Israelis across the political spectrum know America is its best friend for the foreseeable future, sharing the values of democratic nations.

However, the US cannot ask Israel to stop all trade with China, as we ourselves continue trading with China, albeit with new restrictions on AI and dual-use technologies. Israel has already been sensitive and placed limits on transferring these types of technologies.

The best way forward is continuous communication between America and Israel to make sure there are no misunderstandings, especially with the rise of anti-Israel far-Left Democrats just looking for reasons to distance the US from the Jewish state.

Gedaliah Afterman, head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, offered one alternative strategy. Since Israel is “stuck” among the superpowers, it must formulate an Asian Pacific strategy that strengthens its economic, diplomatic, and security relations with key Asian countries beyond China, who are American allies, like Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN nations.

Not only the Chinese but the South Koreans, Japanese, Europeans, Taiwanese, and Americans realize that Israeli innovation and creativity, especially in technology and medicine, is at the cutting edge of the next generation of scientific breakthroughs. Despite chastisements regarding the Palestinians, few of these nations are willing to give up the advantages of working with Israel.

With China all-in on the Middle East, it is incumbent on America to remain engaged in the region or risk losing influence in one of the most important geostrategic theaters. America’s allies in the Far East are watching to see how America’s old allies in the Middle East are being treated as an indication of what the future holds for them. It would be unrealistic for the US to demand complete compliance from its allies to distance themselves from China while, at the same time, America is pivoting from the Middle East.

The best way for America to confront the Chinese in the region is to remain engaged and present and convince the region’s nations that America is not a paper tiger.

Dr. Mandel is the Director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the Senior Security Editor for the Jerusalem Report. He is a regular contributor to The Hill and the Jerusalem Post. He has been published in National Interest, Must Reads-Foundation for Democracies, RealClearWorld, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, National Cyber Security News, MSN, the Forward, JNS, i24, Rudow (Iraq), The NY Sun, Moment Magazine, The Times of Israel, Jewish Week, Kurdistan24, IsraelNationalNews, JTA, Algemeiner, WorldJewishNews, Israel Hayom, Thinc., Defense News, and other publications.

July 26, 2023 | 7 Comments »

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7 Comments / 7 Comments

  1. I agree completely. Israel must stand up for itself and it’s on interest on the world stage. I understand bending and bowing and give and take, but it has been one sided for way too long. As for the technology coming out of Israel that all the world wants. Israel should open it up for bids. The highest bidder gets the technology for one year, then the second highest bidder gets it at the bid price the next year and then everybody can have it at bid price in the third year. Israel invents it, they can do as they wish with it.

  2. It is regrettable that the US govt has pursued a policy of daylight with Israel with ever strengthening boldness, and betrayed the tight bond which actually does exist between the American and Israeli peoples. Of course, they have done so because they have no respect for Israel’s independence and see Israel as being a captured proxy unable to oppose the American , no matter how destabilizing it might be to Israel herself to do so – one needs only to look to the devastation being visited upon Ukraine as an example of the rich reward which comes from exercising total obeisance to American domination in domestic matters. In fact, no greater source of disrespect might be highlighted than the US support for the ongoing Israeli military coup which was planned years in advance by the tightly associated Epstein colleague, Barak. The financial and political support which has been provided by the US to the Israeli protest movement is far from subtle, and the intent is clearly to preserve the existing control which the US has wielded over Israel from within her unelected institutions for decades.

    Israel must find the means by which to reshape her sovereign choices around sovereign interests. The move to meet with China by Bibi is a wise a necessary challenge to American dominance over the Jewish State, one which might shake some sense back into the American understanding that Israel is not Ukraine, and does not care to meet the end which is playing out for Ukraine by adhering to US policy in Ukraine.

    Respect must be earned and the US actions to destabilize and undermine Israel’s authority even within her own borders would seem to be a poor manner in which to maintain the unilateral exercise of respect which Israel has shown to the US for far too long. We will see what the US will do next, but Israel should not continue to cloister her geopolitical alliances with an ally which is even now trying to destabilize the legitimate govt chosen by the Israeli people. There may be great things or nothing at all which comes from the meeting between Bibi and Xi, but if nothing else, it will demonstrate to Israel’s allies and her enemies, both of whom exist in the American govt, that Israel is worthy of the respect which has only been shown by Trump in recent decades. Indeed if this alone is all that is gained by Bibi’s trip to China, it will be a sizeable victory.

  3. US power in the Mideast is dwindling ; so many treacherous by Obama and blunders by Biden ( Obama just give an approval nod when he refrained from unseating Assad in 2013 opening the door to Russia – the JCPOA is another Munich 1938 redux ) .So now do you smell the stench of this wannabee best friends ?
    Truth is the USA looks for Israel’s decline and demise and will not do any real step to annoy Teheran’s run to nuclear devices and oppressive dictature .
    We are on our own and only up to us to shut out the mouth of the lunatics mollahs.
    Next 10 years we shall see the alliance with India become our best bet .
    China is about to lose 40% of its population in the next 50 years.
    India is the true giant.

  4. Israel remains Washington’s only stable and democratic friend in a chaotic geopolitical theatre.

    That’s exactly the problem.
    America takes Israel for granted.
    Secondly, it is completely irrelevant to America whether Israel is Democratic or not.
    America supported Taiwan under Chiang Kai-Shek’s dictatorship more than under the current democratic government. America has supported scores of fascist and authoritarian dictatorships throughout the world: in Central America, Chile, Argentina, Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Franco’s Spain, Greek fascist coup. America removed the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran.

    There was nothing democratic about South Vietnam for which America fought the war.

    So time to stop this nonsense BS about shared democratic values.

    The only issue is real interest. Real politics. “Democracy” is just an empty word.

  5. @Ted,

    Excellent comment. We need equal relationship, instead of a vassal relationship.
    The way to achieve equal relationship is to be neutral, rather than vassal.
    In many areas, Israel’s interests may align better with Russia, China, or India, than with the US’, (or at least better than with the ruling Democrat junta that stole the last election.)

    Israel can play an important role in liberating Arab neighbors from US dominance and dependence.

    Also, everything indicates that Russia is not a spent power, and is not going anywhere. Under Putin, Israel can forge long-term strategic relations with Russia.
    Israel has a lot to give, and Russia can take America’s role as the peace-maker in the Middle East including the full implementation of the Jordan Option and recognition of Israeli rights to all of the mandatory Palestine west of the River.

    As long as America is taking us for granted, they have no reason for giving us anything. They already have us in their pocket, now they can use us to manipulate the Arab states.

    In our time, America has become an evil empire in need of constant war.