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As Chinese-Israeli Relations Enjoy a Second Honeymoon, America Frets

The last time China and the Jewish state drew close, the United States drove them apart. Now there’s even more at stake.

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China’s Premier Li Keqiang toasts with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People on May 8, 2013, in Beijing. (Kim Kyung-Hoon-Pool/Getty Images)
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Shipping gas to China and having the Chinese run an Israeli railroad that competes with Egypt’s Suez Canal are political projects masquerading as commercial ventures. In this sense, they are similar to a restoration in Sino-Israeli military ties that began in 2011 but whose true importance is difficult to measure. In 2012, Israel augmented the recent chorus of visits by generals, admirals, and spy chiefs from both countries by appointing a senior military figure to the position of ambassador in Beijing. Some observers assume the renewed prominence of security officials signals the emergence of a new clandestine arms trade between the two countries. With Syria enmeshed in violence, Chinese military strategists are in need of accurate intelligence and friendly ports of call as Chinese influence expands in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel is uniquely positioned to supply both needs.

If Israel and China have secretly returned to the arms business, it is far more likely to be taking place with covert U.S. permission than without. It is hard to imagine that within a decade of the Phalcon and Harpy scandals, Israeli leaders would so blithely disregard America’s hypersensitivity to the transfer of advanced weapons to China. If the military meetings are about sharing intelligence and port access, American officials who keep a careful eye on China’s naval ambitions have greater reason to be concerned. Were Chinese flotillas to make a regular practice of patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean, the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet would likely step up its own activity off of Israel’s shores, bringing the threat of conflict between the great powers to Israel’s doorstep.

Whatever impact the Arab Spring has had in stimulating China’s military collaboration with Israel, the upheaval has certainly caused Beijing and Jerusalem to adopt similar positions on regional crises—a development that takes on greater significance with China’s intent to ramp up its political involvement in the Middle East. In Egypt and Syria, Israeli preferences are not too different from China’s desire for stability and a return to the status quo. Neither country is enamored with America’s inchoate policy of hesitating to support opposition groups before rushing to abandon traditional allies like Hosni Mubarak. China and Israel both remain largely disinterested in actively embracing the peace process, despite Beijing’s past and present rhetorical embrace of the Palestinian cause. When it comes to Iran, Beijing and Jerusalem clearly disagree what if any level of outside pressure should be applied to Tehran. However, China’s leaders have responded to Israeli lobbying by becoming increasingly critical of Iran’s nuclear program.

While China is generally the lead actor in other avenues of Sino-Israeli relations, Israeli government and especially non-government programs have taken the lead in developing academic and cultural ties. These Israeli programs are responsible for a vast range of activities that include academic centers, cultural exhibits, translated literature, language courses, tourist initiatives, and expanded and informed media coverage. Together these activities have had great success in rebranding Israel in China as the Start-up Nation—a center of dynamic commercial innovation and economic development—rather than a religious conflict-zone. Although Beijing has opened a Confucius Institute in Tel Aviv and is planning a second such language and cultural center in Jerusalem, Israeli interest and understanding of China have largely developed independently. The allure of China’s economic growth makes Chinese languages the most popular (besides English) in Israeli universities, with over 800 college students studying them every year.

Although academic and cultural ties between China and Israel are far less likely to unnerve American officials than military and political initiatives, the former are uniquely capable of truly transforming ties between the three countries. The most fundamental obstacle to Sino-Israeli relations remains the fact that China and the East remain foreign concepts for Israelis whose personal and professional connections are often embedded in Europe and the Americas. With a vibrant American Jewish community and a shared democratic and Judeo-Christian heritage, Israel and the United States appear unlikely to back away from six decades of incredibly close bilateral ties.

Nevertheless, the Phalcon crisis that destroyed Sino-Israeli ties in 2000 did not come out of nowhere. American pressure on Israel stemmed from the deterioration of U.S. ties with China. Today, the two great powers are again divided by naval face-offs in the East and South China Seas, ever-growing trade disputes, and are one mistyped cyber-attack away from causing an amount of damage far greater than the 1999 embassy attack in Belgrade. If U.S. and China ties came undone, Israel can take solace in knowing that the complex reality of its modern ties with Beijing will ensure that any American pressure will not cripple ties as occurred in 2000. At the same time, the changing Sino-U.S. dynamics in the Middle East present valuable opportunities for Israel to leverage its ties with both countries.

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As Chinese-Israeli Relations Enjoy a Second Honeymoon, America Frets

The last time China and the Jewish state drew close, the United States drove them apart. Now there’s even more at stake.

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