Australia/Israel Review


Editorial: The Iran-China Axis

Jul 27, 2020 | Colin Rubenstein

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Reports from mid-July indicate that Iran and China are on the verge of entering into a 25-year strategic, security and economic partnership that would vastly expand China’s presence in Iranian banking, telecommunications, ports, and railways – as well as foster military cooperation. This is a development that should deeply trouble the Morrison Government and all Australians, as well as cause a serious rethink in Israel.

The deal should come as no surprise, given the propensity for the world’s revolutionary actors to seek alliances to help each other withstand diplomatic and economic pressure aimed at changing their problematic behaviours.

China’s interference in Australian affairs, its mishandling of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, its ongoing South China Sea aggression, and now its indefensible changes to the status quo in Hong Kong, in violation of treaty obligations and other commitments, are just the latest chapters in Beijing’s increasingly menacing foreign policy and grave human rights record.

At the same time, China, together with Russia, poses the biggest obstacle to restraining Iran’s nuclear enrichment program through the UN Security Council. This ongoing permissiveness effectively enables Teheran’s growing violations of the woefully inadequate and ephemeral 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, as well as its recently exposed violations of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

For Israel, the prospects of an Iran-China deal that could potentially see Beijing invest up to US$400 billion in Iran over the next 25 years should be a sobering wake-up call. 

Like many other countries, Israel’s Government has long tried to balance its relationship with China. Yet Jerusalem has nonetheless too strongly highlighted the benefit side of the cost-benefit equation, all the while confident it could contain the potentially deep risks extensive Chinese involvement might have for the nation’s security. 

Israel even awarded some major infrastructure projects to Chinese Government-linked firms, including, especially egregiously, the automation and management of Haifa Port over the next quarter-century, beginning in 2021. 

At least there is little chance a similar contract would be awarded today. 

As Yossi Melman, an expert on Israeli-Chinese relations, wrote last year, “The Israeli Government ignored China’s behaviour for too long, but lately it has begun to pay attention.”

Last October, Israel’s security cabinet established an advisory committee to examine national security issues as part of the approval process for foreign investments.

In May, Israel chose an Israeli company over Chinese firm Hutchison to construct the world’s largest desalination plant.

In June, Israel’s Communications Ministry declined to include bids from Chinese firms in tenders for the construction of the country’s 5G infrastructure.

To be sure, Israel’s newfound wariness towards China has been spurred on by its biggest ally, the US. “We don’t want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure, Israeli communication networks,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Israelis in a televised interview in May. They’re “the kind of things that endanger the Israeli people and the ability of the US to cooperate with Israel,” he warned.

There is finally a growing awareness that Israel, while keeping the door open to trade opportunities in principle, must go much further in safeguarding national security vis-à-vis its business dealings with China, especially in regard to dual-use technology transfers.

China is now offering the Iranian regime, which is openly bent on destroying Israel, numerous benefits that will effectively assist Teheran in its bid to achieve that goal. These potentially include making Iran more powerful militarily by supplying weapons; giving Iran the financial wherewithal to increase its support for terrorist proxies attacking Israel; and even indirectly helping Iran develop nuclear weapons by removing much of the pressure Iran is currently confronting to negotiate a new nuclear deal as a result of the effectiveness of new US sanctions. 

As Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz recently wrote, “One could say that while Israel is reportedly waging a covert battle against Iran’s nuclear program with one hand… with the other hand it is giving China billions of dollars that could then make their way to Iran.”

The mooted China-Iran deal should persuade any remaining Israelis still starry-eyed about the economic opportunities Beijing supposedly offers that these must now be significantly reassessed. 

Meanwhile, the draft agreement between China and Iran should be recognised as a potentially grave development with the capacity to reframe foreign relations in ways that affect not only Jerusalem, but Canberra, Washington, London, Riyadh, New Delhi and beyond. 

China is moving to project its power westward while Iran is seeking to insulate itself from American sanctions, enhance its own regional influence, and bolster its claim to lead a coalition of “resistance” states against the international order.

Iran’s partners in this alliance include not only Syria and Lebanon, Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis, but Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, as well as China. In other words, this is a deal to help empower an international gallery of violent and destructive rogue actors. 

With the JCPOA mandating the lifting of the long-standing arms embargo on Iran in October, the world could soon face the prospect of modern Chinese arms and military technology flowing into Iran, shifting the regional balance of power with potentially devastating, destabilising consequences.

This gives yet another strong reason for Australia to lend its diplomatic support to the US-led efforts to cancel the obviously foolhardy lifting of the arms embargo on Iran. 

Meanwhile, Iran, which is reeling from a series of mysterious explosions that have reportedly damaged key strategic facilities around the country, could turn to China for a lifeline for its nuclear weapons program as well, given China’s long history of nuclear weapons technology transfer to Pakistan going back to the 1980s.

As Beijing and Teheran huddle closer together, Australia, Israel and their natural allies must review their respective basic national interests, draw the necessary conclusions and adjust their policies to develop and implement effective counter-strategies towards both countries accordingly.

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