While China maintains its record of voting for measures to relieve the humanitarian plight of Palestine at the United Nations, what is less discussed is China’s increased economic relations with Israel. In 1992, the total worth of China-Israel bilateral trade stood at a mere $50 million, but by 2017 this had increased to over $13 billion. By the end of 2017, China was Israel’s second highest import partner while more importantly, China was Israel’s number three export market, just behind the United States and United Kingdom.
At present, Chinese companies are slated to built major infrastructure projects in Israel including ports, railways and modern roadworks. In spite of the US-Israel relationship being among the closest in the world, increased Chinese economic connectivity with Tel Aviv has not sat well among some in Washington.
In November of last year, US officials reportedly admonished their Israeli counterparts over Tel Aviv’s Chinese built mega-projects. According to a November, 2018 piece from Haaretz:
“Based on conversations with ministers and other top officials, it now turns out that the Israelis were amazed at the intensity of their American counterparts’ ire on the matter. ‘They blew up at us,’ said one of the Israelis who attended the meetings”.
While it is not surprising that Israel officials would be shocked at receiving what amounts to a threat from their closest ally, what is surprising is that the US would risk alienating Tel Aviv over Chinese projects in the country which have nothing to do with the military sector. One should contextualise America’s displeasure with Sino-Israeli projects against the background of the fact that America’s comparatively new partner India was grudgingly given a green light by Washington in respect of New Delhi purchasing Russian built S-400 weapons systems without facing sanctions. Likewise, the US granted India a sanctions waiver in respect of India’s continued purchases of Iranian energy.
This would imply that whilst India is ultimately more of a strategic “prize” to have as a partner because of its immensity vis-a-vis Israel and because Russia and Iran have far worse relations with the US than does China – that the US might be ready to increase hostile economic acts against China, so much so that even its best international friend will not be exempt from the wrath of a US administration that at least recently has let its dislike of China trump its consistent support of Israel. In this sense, one must now ask a further question: is the Sinophobia which underpins America’s desire to engage in friendly relations with India now more important than the long standing US-Israel alliance? The short term answer is “not quite” but in the long term, things may well pivot in such a direction if present geopolitical trends continue.
On the 22nd of January, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to America’s increasingly public admonitions to Tel Aviv, calling them “ridiculous“. While the facts dictate that China’s involvement in Israel’s civilian sector would in no way interfere with America’s strategic military alliance with Tel Aviv, the present atmosphere in Washington does not allow for the logic of these facts to prevail.
It is still possible that the US will have to eventually bite its tongue regarding Chinese projects in Israel, not least because Russia is becoming an increasingly important security partner to Israel – something that one would think ruffle US feathers more than China’s commercial relations with Israel. Instead, the opposite appears to be true as Donald Trump went out of his way to highlight Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warm friendship with Israeli leader Benjamin Neyanyahu in order to justify Trump’s own supposedly controversial relations with the Russian leader. In this sense, Israel now has geopolitical/geostrategic/geoeconomic options outside of its traditional west leaning partnerships, but it is China’s commercial relations with Israel rather than Russia’s security partnership with Israel that appear to be causing more anger in Washington.
What this means is that in the long term, the current powers that be in the United States view China as their number one rival, over and above Russia and seemingly over and above Iran – a country with whom Israel is engaged in an intense regional rivalry. In the short term, this is not likely to impact US-Israel relations but in the long term, it is indicative of the fact that as even close US allies begin to embrace the win-win prospects of Belt and Road connectivity with China and China’s other partners, the more the US might gradually take an accusatory tone towards those with whom the US has traditionally enjoyed supreme friendship.