Israel’s relations with the U.S. and China: A zero-sum game?

Are ties between Israel and the two great powers of our time, the United States and China, a zero-sum game? Must Israel’s relations with one power necessarily come at the expense of relations with the other?

The answer should be an easy “no.” On the one hand, Israel enjoys a special relationship with the United States, a relationship that won’t be changing for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, relations with China are rapidly developing on a number of fronts ─ economic, diplomatic and academic ─ and the benefits of the relationship are clear to both sides.

But some Israeli officials and American pundits have been sounding the alarm in recent months, warning that Israel’s relations with China shouldn’t take the place of Israel’s special relationship with the U.S. To cite one example, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently asserted in The Jerusalem Post that, “it’s no secret that Israel is looking for new allies… A growing chorus in Israel believes that China is a good option.” Schanzer’s advice? “China… is not long-term alliance material for Israel… predictions of a new special relationship that supplants that of Israel and the United States are very premature.”

Schanzner is obviously right to point out that, for the foreseeable future, there is no substitute for the Israel-American relationship. Among other things, Israel’s qualitative military advantage depends on it. However, the notion that “a growing chorus in Israel” would like supplant that relationship with the Israel-China relationship is simply wrong. No Israeli public figure or pundit has argued that an Israeli-China alliance should supplant Israel’s alliance with the United States. Nevertheless, Schanzner is not alone, and other public figures have advanced similar arguments.

One can only speculate why Israel’s ties with the U.S. and China are portrayed as a zero-sum game. Perhaps the reason lies in Israel’s historically comprehensive relationship with the USA. Alternatively, the rapid growth of economic cooperation between Israel and China might have taken people by surprise. Whatever the case, Israel is mapping an independent path when it comes to China. Washington intervened in the Israel-China relationship in 2000 and 2004 in order to prevent the transfer of military technology to Beijing, but that no longer remains an issue as Israel does not, and will not, sell military technology to China. Instead, Jerusalem’s ties with Beijing are concentrated in non-military commercial, scientific and academic fields.

Moving forward, Israel has made it clear that it intends to invest in maintaining the Israel-US alliance even as it strengthens its relationship with China. But that imperative leads to a more challenging question regarding the long term: is it true that, as Schanzner asserts, “China… is not long-term alliance material for Israel?” Or is it instead possible for Israel to cultivate the Israel-China relationship, in the long-term, in a way that doesn’t supplant but instead parallels the Israel-US relationship? After all, ties between Israel and the U.S. are grounded in shared values, while Israel and China are separated by a vast, cultural gap.

The simple but surprising answer is a guarded, “yes.” There are profound cultural and historical parallels between the Chinese and Israeli experiences that, if thoughtfully cultivated over time, can be used to deepen the connection between the Israeli and Chinese peoples and to buttress the Israel-China relationship. While relations between Israel and China can never share the intensity of the Israeli-American relationship, if only because six million Jews don’t live in China, nevertheless the relationship can be significantly deepened. In order to cultivate this level of connection, however, Israelis will need to look beyond the short-term political and economic benefits of ties with China and begin to think seriously about the impact of culture and history in the ties between Jerusalem and Beijing. In other words, they will need to think strategically. A subsequent article will address this topic.

All that said, stepping back from the long-term view and returning to immediately present purposes, one point needs to be made crystal clear: relations between Israel and the United States and China are not a zero-sum game. Israel can maintain its special relationship with the United States even as it deepens its ties with China. This point should be self-evident, but sometimes self-evident points get lost in the haze of passionately held political beliefs.