The head of Israel's Shin Bet internal security service, Nadav Argaman, has issued a warning about Chinese influence in the Zionist state. He is not the first Israeli official to do this, which has prompted the Chinese ambassador to Israel to ask for clarification about such statements. This is important, because China is now Israel's second largest economic partner, after the US, with investments and trade exceeding $25 billion, double what it was ten years ago.
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials also conveyed their dismay to diplomats at the Israeli Embassy in Beijing, according to Israel's Channel 13. The concerns are not based solely on these statements, though; Israel's Finance Ministry has cancelled a contract for China to purchase two major Israeli insurance companies, Clal and Phoenix. This move threatens ambitious projects including the development of Haifa and Ashdod ports, the construction of 10 tunnels in Haifa, and a light transit system in Tel Aviv.
According to Argaman, intensive Chinese investment in Israel may pose a security threat. "Chinese influence in Israel is particularly dangerous in terms of strategic infrastructure and investments in larger companies," he told an audience at Tel Aviv University.
Israel's main ally the United States is also concerned. Washington is on the verge of losing its economic influence in in the Arab Gulf and now, it seems, Israel, just as it lost its influence in Iraq; China, Russia and India are all stepping in to replace it, as is Turkey.
China is not only expanding trade and investment in Israel, but also with neighbouring Jordan, for example, where it has funded Jordan's Salt to Aredah road, connected to the border crossings with Israel, to the tune of $31 million. Beijing has also provided $11 million for Jordan to equip border crossings with the latest equipment to facilitate swifter movement of imports and exports. In doing so, it has brought Jordan into the competitive circle and potential conflict. With the expansion and development of the port in Haifa, Jordan stands to benefit from goods using the overland route from the Mediterranean to the Gulf.
The government in Beijing accelerated its activity in Western Asia and the Arab world last year at the China-Arab Economic Forum. Grants estimated at $100 million are on the table for Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian Authority, as well as loans and grants exceeding $20 billion, investments exceeding $200 billion over the next 10 years, and trade exceeding $250 billion. These are ambitious moves that Israel seeks to dominate by developing and opening land, air and sea border crossings.
The Chinese strategy goes beyond bilateral relations with Israel in the form of major regional and economic projects at the heart of Beijing's expansion strategy represented by its "One Belt, One Road" initiative. This includes the land and sea routes that extend towards the Red and Mediterranean Seas. Israel's normalisation aspirations for domination provide an important entry to the eastern Mediterranean, giving China the chance to overcome US obstacles. It is trying to invest in the wave of Arab normalisation with Israel, confirmed by its economic involvement in the region.
The Haifa port provides China with a safe and short passage that bypasses the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. This will have a negative effect on Jordan and Egypt, as the Arab countries are interested in a different path rather than Haifa. Israel has greater US support, though, and while economic and political forces in Israel support and invest in what is seen as a clear advantage in its relationship with the US, Washington has cautiously taken action to hinder it.
Israel's vision is to take advantage of international jostling for top position in the global market so that it can dominate regional resources and be politically independent. Chinese aspirations in the region, meanwhile, worry Washington, Europe and Japan, which has offered Jordan a $300 million loan and beaten China by supplying border crossings with essential equipment. Having major influence and control at important border crossings and routes is no longer solely a Chinese project; there is serious competition, and Jordan is at the heart of it with the possibility of it becoming a centre of negative international and regional conflict. There are also implications for Syria and Iraq.
Indeed, Jordan's openness to Israel's normalisation and geopolitical projects could deprive the Kingdom of the opportunity to be an independent economic platform for the international reconstruction of Syria and Iraq. It may simply be a transit and service base for the massive reconstruction projects, with the Jordanian economy losing out on the opportunity to benefit from the Syrian and Iraqi markets and reconstruction. The government in Amman needs to reassess its position and status in the light of the geopolitical and economic transformations taking place around it. It cannot afford to be a passive victim of the US-China race for global hegemony.
This article first appeared in Arabi21 on 24 January 2019
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.