Can China Replace the United States in Israel?

Talk of new Chinese-Israeli trade deals points to more complicated relationships with Washington to come.

China’s President Xi Jinping and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands ahead of talks at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on March 21, 2017.
China’s President Xi Jinping and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands ahead of talks at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on March 21, 2017. Etienne Oliveau/AFP/Getty Images

In the wake of the United States and China’s phase one trade deal, the latter is quietly trying to strike an agreement of its own with Israel. Reports last December indicated that, after years of secret talks, China and Israel could conclude a trade pact sometime in 2020. This news renders an already contentious trilateral relationship even more so.

The great-power competition between the United States and China has clouded both countries’ ties with Israel. Some observers, such as the American diplomat and commentator Elliott Abrams, speculate that Israel’s political relationship with the United States could be a casualty of deeper commercial ties to China. The commentator Jake Novak went so far as to say that Israel may be forced to “choose between” the two sides. A trade deal would give this group more reason for disquiet.

A Chinese-Israeli agreement would be as much of a political gesture as an economic one. Although China would presumably welcome the increased trade any agreement would bring, of far greater value is access to the Israeli high-tech sector. The reputed Silicon Wadi offers much to the Chinese economy, not the least of which is advanced technology that could enhance China’s expanding surveillance state. Whether or not the deal addresses head-on Chinese access to these companies matters little relative to the geostrategic victory, as it would at least pave the way for future discussions about access. An agreement would make Israel more economically dependent on China—right now Israel’s second-largest trade partner—and as such beholden to the Communist Party in not only commerce but also politics and security. The 2015 Haifa Port deal, which granted Shanghai International Port Group rights to operate the port for 25 years, much to the United States’ chagrin, may have brought just a fraction of future Chinese influence over Israel.

Beijing, characteristically cryptic in its public pronouncements, will likely frame a trade pact as another example of “win-win cooperation.” Win-win for China, perhaps—Israel has decided that getting into the Chinese market is worth the risk of whatever the blowback from Washington may be. It is telling that the warnings of such pro-Israel stalwarts as former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have largely fallen on deaf ears.

In turn, Israel’s dealings with China have become bar none the most contentious issue in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Resolute U.S. support for Israel in security, economics, and politics—already crumbling on the American left—could also be eroded on the American right by this agreement. What is more, Washington’s perceived withdrawal from the Middle East—justified by waning U.S. interests in the region—has prompted Israel to seek other patrons, China chief among them.

U.S. protestations will not prevent Israel from moving ahead with China. For one, there is little internal opposition to warmer relations with Beijing. A full 66 percent of Israelis view China favorably (in comparison to much lower proportions in other advanced democracies such as Australia, Germany, and the United States). What helps explain this trend is the relative absence of anti-Semitism in Chinese history as well as the Israeli view that much of the West (Europe especially) is irredeemably opposed to the Jewish state. Beijing has caught on to these perceptions, leading the Chinese ambassador to Israel to tout the supposedly “unbreakable foundation of the China-Israel friendship.” Israel’s shifting orientation toward China will likely continue.

But Israel should count its blessings in its alliance with the United States. At its disposal is, among other things, the richest defense supplier across the globe, an influential domestic lobby, and a virtually guaranteed veto of anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations Security Council. Beijing presently offers none of these. Although China may soon surpass the United States as the world’s largest economy, it will lag behind on other measures of national power. Israel should also keep in mind China is the same country that has aggressively provided weapons technology to Israel’s Middle Eastern adversaries, including Iran.

Israel may think that its courtship of China accords with the Palmerstonian maxim that nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests. Yet the Israeli foreign-policy establishment needs to ask itself whether these economic interests are worth jeopardizing the country’s one indispensable alliance. If the trade deal is any indication, they seem to think they are.

Daniel J. Samet is a program assistant for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council.