Israel’s leaders are not particularly fond of multilateral initiatives. The ones coming out of the United Nations are notorious for one-sided measures that single out Israel, and even those that articulate a vision for Middle East peace usually call for unilateral Israeli territorial concessions.
But China’s “One Belt One Road” initiative appears to be a notable exception. This is not a peace plan. Rather, it’s an economic vision that connects China to its Muslim neighbours in Eurasia and stretches toward the Middle East, and even to Israel.
On a recent trip to China, my interlocutors told me that Jerusalem and Beijing are actively discussing joint “Belt and Road” projects. Among them is reportedly a railway project connecting Eilat to Ashdod. The proposed rail line would be a clear alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal.
Both Israel and China are wary of incurring the ire of their Egyptian allies, and are likely to scuttle the project. But even other less controversial projects may prove difficult to undertake for the two countries.
While next year marks 25 years of bilateral ties between the two countries, and Chinese officials were unreservedly gushing over Israeli innovations in technology and modern weaponry, the Chinese are stumbling over their ideological commitments. As a Communist country sworn to a non-aligned vision of global social justice, Beijing is concerned about being viewed as too pro-Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.
Officials in Beijing acknowledge that a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not likely to come any time soon. And China’s commitment to the Palestinians, some say, shouldn’t have to come at the expense of other relationships.
Indeed, this increasingly appears to be the view of some Sunni Arab states. So, why not China too? But Chinese officials also raise concerns about the enduring strength of the US-Israel relationship, which they see as an impediment to their own relationship with Israel. They understand that the basis for US-Israel ties is shared values that China would be hard-pressed to emulate.
The Chinese also remember well the pressure that Washington placed on Israel in 2000 to cancel the sale of the Phalcon Airborne Early Warning System to China. The cancellation was a blow to Chinese military plans. Indeed, the purchase of several of these systems would have allowed China to significantly hinder air and maritime traffic in the Taiwan Strait.
Chinese frustration increased in 2005 when the US pressured Israel not to sell China replacement parts for Harpy drones, which Israel had sold to China in 1994. Washington also signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel that gives the US the ability to veto Israeli military sales to Beijing.
Remarkably, with arms sales out of the picture, China-Israel security ties have nevertheless developed.
Indeed, the bilateral relationship has transcended the transactional ties that characterise many of China’s foreign relations. In 2007, then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited China, where he and then-President Hu Jintao discussed a wide array of security issues, including Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as they pertain to international stability.
This was followed by high-level Chinese delegations to Israel and Israeli reciprocations. Military delegations are now a regular feature of the bilateral relationship, with exchanges reflecting increasingly specialised areas, including naval and police training.
Now, amid Israeli concerns about a post-American Middle East, punctuated by the highly controversial Iran nuclear deal and recurring spats with the Obama Administration over Israel’s settlement policies, it’s no secret that Israel is looking for new allies. The growing potency of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign designed to isolate Israel economically has prompted the Jewish state to look for new markets, too. A growing chorus in Israel believes that China is a good option.
At best, this would be a marriage of convenience. Beijing’s support for Iran as it made a play for nuclear weapons, its support for the Assad regime and its slaughter in Syria, or even China’s recent targeting of its small Jewish population, bode poorly for strategic cooperation. China’s anti-democratic style of governance is also deeply at odds with Israel’s vibrant democracy. And that’s just naming a few of the challenges.
China, in other words, is not long-term alliance material for Israel. Ties are almost certain to continue at the current levels, and they may even grow warmer in some areas.
But predictions of a new special relationship that supplants that of Israel and the United States are very premature. To put it another way: mind the silk ceiling.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the US Department of the Treasury, is Vice President for Research at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies. He travelled to China in September on a delegation sponsored by the American Foreign Policy Council. © Jerusalem Post, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.