Israel’s alliance with the United States is the cornerstone of its foreign policy and should remain so. But a preponderance of common interests is not the same as an identity of common interests. Russia, for example, gave Israel a nearly free hand to engage Iranian assets in Syria even while Russia supported the Assad regime against American-backed rebels. Israel put its own security interest first, and Washington accepted this. The same should apply to China.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warns that China may destabilize the Indo-Pacific region, echoing earlier charges by Trump administration officials. Whether this characterization of China’s role in East Asia is true or not, China may well be a stabilizing force in Western Asia. Israel’s strategic interest in East Asia is limited while its interest in Western Asia is existential.
On Dec. 9, while President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia, China signed a Gulf Cooperation Council call “to address the Iranian nuclear file and destabilizing regional activities, address support for terrorist and sectarian groups and illegal armed organizations, prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles and drones, ensure the safety of international navigation and oil installations, and adhere to UN resolutions and international legitimacy,” according to a summary published by MEMRI.
China’s first public criticism of Iran reflects its self-interest as the largest importer of oil from the Persian Gulf. China needs a steady supply of hydrocarbons at low prices. It wants stability in the region. Its exports to Saudi Arabia have tripled to about $42 billion a year in 2022 from $16 billion a year in 2017, while its exports to Iran fell to $8 billion a year in 2022 from $16 billion a year in 2017. China’s exports to Israel are about $17 billion a year, according to Beijing’s data.
China’s economic interests in the region center on the Persian Gulf and Israel. China shares with Israel a common interest in stopping Iran from destabilizing the region. Henry Kissinger’s observation that the United States has no friends, only interests, applies to China as well.
Israel has made a firm commitment to the United States to withhold military technology from China. But American policy now focuses on suppressing the technological advance of China’s civilian economy as well as its military capacity. This effort is unlikely to succeed. Indeed, no established power has ever succeeded in holding back a challenger by hoarding know-how. With six times America’s count of university engineering graduates, China has a decisive advantage in human capital and will find ways to work around American restrictions and eventually develop substitutes for American intellectual property.
Israel can’t afford to sacrifice its technological edge to accommodate a poorly conceived and ill-executed American policy. It should not accept restrictions on collaboration with China in non-military technology. In some critical AI fields, for example medical research, China dominates in data collection. Engineering professor Edward Dougherty warns that American researchers can choose to “abandon a promising line of research, or collaborate with a laboratory in China that has the needed data.”
Israel has discouraged Chinese participation in infrastructure projects to placate Washington. That is pointless. Western security won’t suffer if a Chinese construction firm builds light rail lines or desalination plants. But it is also fairly harmless. Infrastructure as such is low-value-added business and of secondary importance in the Sino-Israel relationship.
More broadly, China’s economic ambitions center on the global south, where its advantages in broadband and physical infrastructure have a transformative impact. Chinese shipments to the Global South rose from $700 billion a year in 2016 to nearly $1.5 trillion in 2022. Israel excels in agricultural and environmental technologies for which China’s infrastructure investments will create new markets.
Israel should stick to its commitment to withhold military technology from China, while proactively exploring collaboration with China in agricultural, environmental, medical and other non-military fields. It should monitor but not necessarily exclude Chinese investment in Israeli companies, and find new ways of using the soft power of its technology sector to influence China’s perception of Israel.
After nearly a decade of discussion with Chinese officials about the Middle East, I am convinced that China remains unsure about its prospects in a region where American willingness to commit blood and treasure is diminishing. China is rethinking its position. Israel should make China a diplomatic priority, rather than an afterthought.
Washington won’t like this, any more than it liked Israel’s refusal to provide arms to Ukraine this year, but its authority to dictate policy to Jerusalem has well-defined limits. The main fact on the ground is that America doesn’t need Persian Gulf oil and China does. That presents opportunities as well as risks for Israel, and Israel should put its own security interests first.
David P. Goldman is Deputy Editor of Asia Times and a member of the advisory board of SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Government Network and Academic Leadership).
This article was originally published in the Times of Israel here.