Two years ago: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Prime Minister of China, Liu Yandong, at the opening of the Israel-China Innovation Conference in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 29, 2016. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.
Two years ago: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Deputy Prime Minister of China, Liu Yandong, at the opening of the Israel-China Innovation Conference in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 29, 2016. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.
featureU.S.-Israel Relations

Experts call on Israel to adopt ‘more proactive role’ in US-China conflict

Israeli experts point to Japan as a possible alternative model to the Jewish state’s position in the conflict.

The increasingly hostile relationship between the U.S. and its allies on the one hand, and the Chinese regime on the other, may present an opportunity for Jerusalem to increase its geopolitical stature, some Israeli experts say. The Jewish state should reimagine its relationship with the two superpowers, they argue.

“Israeli leadership needs to shift course and place Israel’s China policy on a more proactive path,” said Dale Aluf, research and strategy director at the Sino-Israeli Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL) policy organization.

In his view, the Israeli government should focus on “replacing the ad hoc measures of ‘putting out fires’ that currently characterize Israel’s approach to managing relations with Beijing.”

U.S. tech edge

According to U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, “America’s technological edge over China is a critical element of the U.S. strategy.” However, that tech gap is growing smaller by the day, experts warn.

According to a report released last month by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the Chinese government has made stunning advances in critical domains including robotics, defense tech and advanced materials.

“Western democracies are losing the global technological competition, including the race for scientific and research breakthroughs,” the report said.

In response to this developing reality, the Biden administration announced last month that it would set new goals for the U.S. technological advantage over China, and pursue “as large a lead as possible.”

Washington has already put sweeping trade restrictions on Beijing, and according to the U.S. Department of Defense, the current American policy is to “check Chinese access to advanced technologies.”

And, according to Aluf, “to compliment its economic statecraft the United States has launched a campaign to persuade allies and partners worldwide to limit, exclude or remove any Chinese involvement in their critical infrastructure and digital ecosystems.”

Again according to Aluf, an element in that campaign is the U.S.-Israel Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology, intended “to establish a partnership on critical and emerging technologies to bring the cooperation between the countries to new heights.”

While China was not mentioned in the context of the new dialogue, he said, “the writing is on the wall.”

U.S. pressure on Israel

Jerusalem and Beijing historically have had a very poorly developed relationship.

Carice Witte, founder and executive director of SIGNAL, explained that “it wasn’t really until 2010 that relations began to expand.” However, the technological aspect of the U.S.-China rivalry immediately threw Israel into the center of the conflict.

“All of this might seem very far away from Israel, but actually it’s on our doorstep because at the heart of the rivalry is technology,” said Witte. Israelis comprise only 0.11% of the world’s population but account for a large percentage of the global investment in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. “This is one of the reasons China is so interested in Israel,” Witte added.

Already in 2006, the first echoes of the Sino-American rivalry began to be felt in Israel. In August of that year, Jerusalem was forced to cancel the sale to China of the Israeli-built Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) due to U.S. pressure.

Since then, Aluf said, “U.S. officials began scrutinizing and criticizing what they deemed potentially unsavory collaborations between its most trusted Middle Eastern ally and its newly designated strategic rival.”

In 2018, a container terminal at Haifa Port that was contracted out to the Shanghai International Port Group for 25 years drew heavy criticism from the U.S. State Department. A year later, the installation of Huawei inverters in Israel’s solar panel grid was widely criticized by representatives of the U.S. Department of Energy.

Responding to U.S. pressure, Israel convened a foreign investment review committee in 2019 to ensure “to advise regulators responsible for approving foreign investments about national security aspects pertaining to approval of such investments.”

Again, though the founding document of the panel didn’t name China, according to Aluf the committee was convened to address “Washington’s concerns surrounding Chinese involvement in Israeli infrastructure.”

During the latter part of the Trump administration’s time in office, the pressure on Israel only ramped up.

Following a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in May 2020, the Hong Kong-based CK Hutchinson Holdings lost a bid for the construction of a desalination plant in Israel. In 2022 another Chinese company failed to get a contract to build part of the planned Tel Aviv light rail. According to Channel 12, these deals were viewed in the United States “as a major test of the Israeli government’s policy towards China.”

Witte said this consistent pressure has left Israel in an “inferior” position.

“The constant demands from the United States to have Israel concede its private sector for a broader U.S. policy has left Israel completely reactive,” Witte told JNS. “Ultimately, for the past period, Israel has allowed itself to operate in a very constrained way because that’s what the U.S. expects.”

Japan as model

Israeli experts point to Japan as a possible alternative model to the Jewish state’s position in the conflict.

“Because Japan understands how to balance between government interest and private sector interest they are a perfect model for Israel,” Witte told JNS.

Japan has been critical of the United States’ approach and has pushed for more mild economic statecraft.

“China is a really big market for Japanese companies, so there’s a little bit of hesitation to pull out of that market or even restrict involvement in that market because it could potentially harm these companies financially,” said Samantha Howell, a research assistant with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

According to Witte, Japan has managed to strike a balance between keeping pressure on China and not entirely folding to U.S. pressure. She cited the semiconductor trade restrictions that Japan recently began applying to China as an example of this.

“Japan has strengthened its agency with the U.S. When it complies, it complies on its own terms. In this case, the terms were to start the restrictions quietly.”

The discreet arrangements have “allowed the Japanese government to maintain the broadly accepted balance between national strategic interests and the business sector’s commercial interests,” Witte explained.

This balanced model has been hailed as much more appropriate for a country of Israel’s economic and military status.

“Israel can’t operate in a reality where we are constantly afraid to make moves in various industries because it might get in the way of the U.S.’s China policy,” Witte said. “Ultimately, it’s not about getting closer to China or further from America, it’s about asserting yourself as an independent player.”

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