It is no secret that growing economic relations between Israel and China are raising concerns in Washington, despite internal warnings in the occupation state that Beijing is exploiting these ties to obtain military and security technology through secret means. The echoes of a Chinese cyber-attack on Israel still reverberate.
Between 2007 and 2020, China invested $19 billion in Israel, including $9 billion in technology and $6 billion in infrastructure. The annual trade flow between the two has also increased from $12 billion to $15 billion, making China Israel's third-largest trading partner after Europe and the United States. However, since 2018, there has been a decline in Chinese investment in Israel, as has happened elsewhere, although China's interest in Israeli technology has been demonstrated through Beijing's endeavour to send academics to Israel, buy companies and establish research and development centres.
Nevertheless, China has intensified its economic, political and military activities vis-à-vis Israel, with a more assertive and sometimes even aggressive policy. The Americans have sensed the dangers and challenges of the growing links between Tel Aviv and Beijing, most importantly the large scale transfer of technology and skills, in addition to economic incentives to promote political objectives, espionage and foreign influence.
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One US concern is that Beijing is trying to obtain Israeli security and military technology through a variety of overt and covert, government and civil channels. Washington has warned Israel about China's growing access to its infrastructure and technology, yet many in Tel Aviv regard such warnings as an attempt to restrain the occupation state's relations with Beijing, as such ties are of great economic importance. Tel Aviv has to be careful, not in terms of managing tension wisely with the US, its strategic ally, but to reduce exposure to Chinese risks.
This confirms that Israel's relations with China have direct challenges that go beyond the position adopted by the US. Hence, there is a possibility that China will try to obtain specific technology from Israel not only consensually, but also in clandestine ways. This demands greater awareness of the espionage and cyber risks posed by China, which may pursue other objectives in the government, business, academic and civil society sectors.
US unease about growing Israel-China ties is no longer kept behind the scenes. The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, William Burns, expressed Washington's concerns about Beijing's increasing interference in the Israeli economy to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, as well as China's involvement in the high-tech market and large infrastructure projects.
This prompted the Israeli cabinet to include the issue on the agenda of Bennett's meeting with US President Joe Biden scheduled this week, in the knowledge that China's increased engagement with Israel was a source of tension between former President Donald Trump and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. This followed a surge in China's involvement in major infrastructure projects in the occupation state, such as the construction of a new port in Haifa and the Gush Dan Light Railway. Washington was pushed to demand that Tel Aviv should restrict China's participation in such activities.
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Israel is torn between maintaining important relations with China, and the warnings from the US because it cannot ignore the tension between Washington and Beijing. It may be forced to choose between the two super powers, which will not be easy as it wants to maintain links with both. Chinese interests in the arms industry are of particular importance to Israel.
Last year was marked by US pressure on Israel to cancel a huge deal to supply China with military aircraft, due to concerns over a possible transfer of sensitive technology related to the Patriot missiles. US intelligence sources and officials at the Department of State and the Pentagon have accused Israel of transferring US military technology to China and other countries. The US Congress has called on the state comptroller to conduct urgent investigations into this.
Even so, economic and other ties between Israel and China have continued to grow despite attempts to disrupt them. Chinese companies invested in Israeli infrastructure and technology and managed to secure an important role in the management and expansion of Israeli ports. Israel's former ambassador to China, General Matan Vilnai, is expected to inaugurate a branch of a Chinese university in October with the aim of teaching the Chinese language and hosting students in Israel.
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The Israelis know that such developments are aimed at spreading political and cultural influence. For China, they are part of its "Belt and Road" initiative, which combines the economy and geography in a set of strategic objectives. Israel also knows that it must take into account the fact that US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has described Beijing as "the greatest challenge to the United States". Biden himself has called in his meetings with European leaders for a united front against China, prompting one of his political advisors to announce that Beijing's goal is to achieve global dominance over the US within the next 30 years.
Admittedly, Israel may not agree with this negative assessment of China, but it cannot ignore such an evaluation as long as it represents the guiding principle of US foreign policy, despite important links with Beijing and the fact that Washington remains Israel's main strategic ally and more than half of the world's Jews are US citizens. If it has to choose between the two, this may be a decisive factor.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.