Israel’s US-China balancing act in peril

Israel’s US-China balancing act in peril

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Israeli Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz in Jerusalem, May 13, 2020. (Reuters)

Israel’s balancing act, which has allowed it to reap America’s unconditional and often blind support while also slowly benefiting from China’s growing economic influence and political prestige, is floundering. Thanks to the growing cold war between the US and Chinese economic superpowers, the Israeli strategy of playing both sides is unlikely to pay dividends in the long run. Soon enough, Tel Aviv might find itself having to make a stark choice between Washington and Beijing.

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israel on May 13, two items topped his agenda: Israel’s imminent illegal annexation of Palestinian land and the growing Israeli-Chinese economic ties. Pompeo communicated his country’s stand on both issues, reflecting Washington’s long-standing policies regarding Palestine and China. In the case of Palestine, the US seems to adhere to Tel Aviv’s agenda, often to the letter. But China is a different story. 

Two significant historical examples come to mind: In the 1990s, Israel attempted to sell China the Israeli-made Phalcon airborne radar system, which relied heavily on American technology; and a similar event from 2005, this time concerning Israel’s Harpy anti-radar missiles. On both occasions, Israel succumbed to US pressure and canceled the deals.

For the Chinese, Israel matters for two reasons. Firstly, it is a strategic stop on the Belt and Road Initiative — China’s most significant economic project to date, which ultimately aims to turn Beijing into a center of global trade and financial activities. And, secondly, China is hoping to fight the US on its own political turf in the Middle East, partly in response to the American “pivot to Asia” strategy, which was initiated by the Obama administration. 

However, the post-coronavirus pandemic world is likely to be a changed one compared to that of previous years, both in terms of political and economic balances of power. China’s rise has been in the making for many years, while the US’ political retreat and declining global outreach has also been evident for some time. The isolationist policies of President Donald Trump, coupled with Washington’s many China-related tantrums in recent years, are indicators of the vastly changed political realities of a formerly unipolar world.

A few years ago, Beijing had the time, patience and resources to play the long geopolitical game in order for it to challenge the US’ global influence, whether in South America, Africa or Israel. The visit by Vice President Wang Qishan to Israel in 2018 to “boost business ties” was part of this strategy. That visit followed the signing, one year earlier, of the China-Israel Innovative Comprehensive Partnership. China-Israel trade jumped from $10.9 billion in 2014 to $14 billion in 2018 and has continued to grow ever since.

China would have been happy to carry on with that strategy for many years to come. Israel, likewise, would have played along considering the lucrative financial returns from this partnership. Despite Washington’s warnings and, at times, explicit demands that Israel refrain from giving Chinese companies access to its fifth-generation telecommunications infrastructure (5G) projects, Tel Aviv labored to make China feel welcome. However, the global response to the coronavirus pandemic is likely to change this, as it has increased the tensions between the US and China, pushing the latter to adopt a more aggressive form of diplomacy and pour massive sums into other countries’ economies to help them in their desperate fight against the virus.

The Chinese strategy is predicated on two main pillars: Fortifying existing ties and solidarity with its allies or potential allies anywhere in the world; and pushing back against its foes, especially those who are participating in Washington’s anti-Beijing campaign. The latter is known as “wolf warrior diplomacy.” The “wolf warriors” are Chinese diplomats who have, for months, pushed back with unprecedented ferocity against what they perceive to be US and Western propaganda. 

“We never pick a fight or bully others,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in Beijing on May 24, while explaining China’s novel approach to diplomacy. “We will push back against any deliberate insult, resolutely defend our national honor and dignity, and we will refute all groundless slander with facts.”

China’s aggressive new diplomacy is unlikely to allow Israel to maintain its balancing act for much longer. Beijing’s ambassador to Israel, Du Wei, died in his home only a few days after Pompeo’s visit to the country. Although Du’s death is not perceived to be the result of foul play, his absence, especially in the age of coronavirus and “wolf warriors,” might prompt a shift in China’s approach to its economic and political interests in Israel. 

Last week, under American pressure, the Israeli Finance Ministry denied a Chinese company a massive $1.5 billion desalination plant contract, instead awarding it to an Israeli firm. This was the first time in many years that the US had used its political and economic sway over Israel to curb Chinese influence in the country. China must now be anxiously watching events unfold to see if US pressure on Israel will continue to undermine its long-term strategy.

Chinese diplomats have pushed back with unprecedented ferocity against what they perceive to be US and Western propaganda.

Ramzy Baroud

The world’s quickly shifting balance of power and the unmistakable US-Chinese fight for dominance is likely to eventually force countries like Israel to make a choice — to either wholly join the American or the Chinese sphere of influence. This is reminiscent of the US-Soviet Cold War, where much of the globe was divided into zones of influence operated by proxy from Washington or Moscow.

Balancing acts only work in politics if all parties are willing to play or, at least tolerate, the game. While this form of politics suited Israel’s interests in the past and was played for years, quite successfully, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s balancing act is now possibly over.

Between Washington’s demands for Israel to keep China at bay, and the latter’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, Israel is facing a stark choice: Remaining loyal to a retreating superpower or diving into the uncharted waters of an emerging one.  

  • Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine studies from the University of Exeter. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud
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