As US, China tensions heat up, Israel walks tightrope

Israel wants both to increase trade with China and protect its relations with the U.S.

By David Isaac, World Israel News

Iran was at the top of the agenda between the U.S. and Israel on Wednesday as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. However, another issue that had been on the back-burner has simmered to the surface in the wake of the global pandemic – China.

The U.S. is concerned about Chinese infrastructure projects in Israel, which it fears will adversely affect its own security. Administration officials have expressed their suspicion that China will use its influence to obtain classified intelligence and sensitive technology.

The U.S. and China, which have been in a trade war, have been at still greater loggerheads due to the toll that the coronavirus has taken on America, causing over 80,000 deaths and erasing a decade of economic gains, particularly under the Trump administration.

The U.S. blames China for hiding information about the seriousness of the virus, leading the world to drop its guard. Most recently, President Donald Trump responded sharply to a reporter’s question about the rising death toll in the U.S. by saying, “Ask China that question.”

Pompeo mentioned China at the press conference before his meeting with Netanyahu, though not by name. “You’re a great partner, you share information, unlike some other countries that try to obfuscate and hide that information,” Pompeo said. “We’ll talk about that country too.”

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The issue of Chinese involvement in Israeli projects has cropped up from time to time. Earlier this month, the U.S. expressed reservations about a Chinese firm’s bid to build a large desalinization plant in Israel.

“The Americans are speaking to us about this very politely but it is clear they would like us to review the Chinese participation in the [bid],” an Israeli official told the Axios website.

In response, Israel’s Security Cabinet set up a special committee to look into foreign participation in infrastructure projects.

In December 2018, the U.S. said it may have to stop using Haifa’s harbor for its Navy given that a Chinese company, Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG), is set to run the port in 2021.

The U.S. said it feared that Chinese operatives would use its position to spy on the ships, exploiting the fact that maintenance personnel would have access to the ships. Another Chinese company is building Ashdod’s new port.

Israel, however ,has been working to build economic ties with China. Netanyahu is eager for a free trade agreement with the country. Talks are ongoing.

“China is Israel’s second largest trade partner reaching $10 billion in 2017 and it is already up 30% in 2018,” the prime minister said during a visit by Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan in 2018. “I know for China this isn’t the biggest trading partner. But for us it is very important.”

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The eagerness to trade with China has led to tensions with the U.S. in the past. In one of the best-known cases, the U.S. pressured Israel in July 2000 to cancel the sale to China of the Phalcon, an advanced, airborne early warning system.