The US Campaign to Undermine Chinese-Israeli Relations

Seeking to counter China’s growing influence on the world stage, its technological advances, and desperate to deflect attention from its own COVID-19 failures at home, the US government and its proxies appear to have launched an anti-China media campaign designed to accomplish both these aims. Chinese-Israeli relations have become both a flashpoint and a target.

Echoing themes from his mid-May visit to Israel, Secretary of State Pompeo told the American Jewish Committee’s Global Forum in June that “standing up to the Chinese Communist Party is a growing challenge to the United States, to Israel, indeed to all free people,” because “Beijing’s opaque military buildup, reckless indifference to its internal obligations, and disinformation campaigns endanger us all.” Sounding like a resurrected John Foster Dulles, he called on AJC attendees to “be alert to the Chinese Communist Party’s threat to our way of life. Standing against bad actors is at the core of America’s values.”

This was not the first occasion that America had told Israel (sometimes via American Jews) what to do. The first time came shortly after the establishment of the PRC. Although Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize the PRC, American threats before and during the Korean War forced Israel to cool its ardor for China. Then, in 2000, the US compelled Israel to cancel the sale of its Falcon aircraft to China. Now, Israel is being pressured to join on the American side of President Trump’s confrontation with China. Already back in October 2019, Israel’s security cabinet decided to establish a mechanism to monitor Chinese and other foreign investments, following pressure from the United States. While China’s rebuilding of the port of Haifa continues, much to America’s displeasure, Israel did recently reverse itself regarding Chinese involvement in the construction of a major desalination plant.

Speaking in Jerusalem during his May visit, Pompeo had blamed China for bearing responsibility for spread of COVID-19 and accused it of problematic trade practices. State Department officials said a main topic of discussion was Washington’s concerns over Israel’s expanding trade relationship with China, which the Trump administration believes is a back door way for China to obtain intelligence on US military capacities around the world. During that same visit, he also told public broadcaster Kan that Chinese participation in Israeli infrastructure and communications systems could jeopardize U.S. cooperation.

In response, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated “some political forces in the US are taking China-US relations hostage and pushing our two countries to the brink of a new Cold War” while its embassy in Israel added “We trust that the Jewish friends are not only able to defeat the coronavirus but also the ‘political virus,’ and choose the course of action that best serves its interests” noting as well that “China’s investment in Israel only accounts for 0.4 percent of China’s investment across the world and 3% of the foreign investment flown into Israel.” What is left unsaid is the fact that, by breaking Israeli-Chinese economic links, the US is damaging and punishing Israel, not China, because what is macro-economical for Israel is micro-economical for China.

About the same time, I received by mail, unsolicited, a copy of The Epoch Times, featuring a special report “How the Chinese Communist Party Endangered the World.” Buried inside the issue, which purports to document how the CCP was using COVID-19 to pursue its global ambitions, was the fact that the paper is published by American practitioners of Falun Gong, whose enmity of the Chinese government is well-known.

As I considered this coincidental timing, the Jewish online magazine Tablet published, on 18 May and again on 24 May, a screed entitled “China’s Plan to Win Control of the Global Order” by Tanner Greer, identified only as a “journalist and researcher.” Upon investigation, I found out that Greer often writes for the National Review, the Weekly Standard and the American Conservative, which would have provided important contextual information for his rant.

On 2 June, writing for the JTA, Ron Kampeas, its Washington D.C. correspondent, described how, under President Trump, the United States was putting pressure on Israel, along with many of its allies, to limit Chinese investment in the country as part of his trade war with China.  To highlight the dangers posed to Israel, Kampeas only cited conservative writers, virtually ignoring other sources who might have balanced his assessment.

Looking into the sources Kampeas cited led me to the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Washington D.C. In recent times, it has published over 200 articles that deal with US-China-Israeli relations in greater or lesser degree including “The Impasse Obstructing U.S.-Israel Relations, and How to Remedy It” by Arthur Herman (which was also featured, with a more inflammatory headline, in the right-leaning online Jewish publication Mosaic), and “The China Factor in U.S.-Israel Relations” and “The Chinese Challenge to the U.S.-Israel Relationship” by Douglas Feith. Herman is a senior fellow at the Institute and author of nine books. He is also a frequent contributor to Commentary, Mosaic, National Review, the New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Feith, also a senior fellow, served as under secretary of defense for policy from July 2001 to August 2005 under President Bush I. His writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Commentary, New Republic, and elsewhere.

Although Herman, Feith and others associated with Hudson are legitimate, albeit politically conservative, scholars, it is clear to me that there is a concerted campaign to discredit China-Israel ties in the eyes of Americans in general, and Jews and Israelis in particular, as part of the US government’s multi-front campaign against China.

The Trump administration’s recently published “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” adopts a much harder line against China and its ruling Communist Party, painting them as America’s enemy. The document argues that “Beijing will attempt to convert OBOR projects [its Belt and Road Initiative] into undue political influence and military access. Beijing uses a combination of threat and inducement to pressure governments, elites, corporations, think tanks, and others – often in an opaque manner – to toe the CCP line and censor free expression.” Put another way, American economic and political dominance is threatened by Chinese advances and Washington will bully foreign “governments, elites, corporations, think tanks, and others” to toe its own line, citing freedom of expression as its concern.

An example of this “long-term strategic competition” is the increasing US pressure on its allies not to install Chinese fifth generation (5G) communications infrastructure, along with the possibility of punitive measures against those who ignore such warnings. Another is the way that America strives to assert “freedom of the seas” in the waters of the South China Sea. In the face of Chinese advances, both technological and geopolitical, the Trump administration is playing a defensive game.

Chinese policy in the region is not without its challenges and it remains to be seen how long China can be friends with Israel, the Gulf states and Iran without its being forced to choose sides. For now, however, China has managed to juggle all three and thus extend its influence throughout the region, much to America’s consternation.

Although one can fault the Chinese government for its failings with regards to religious freedom, its treatment of minorities, and its human rights abuses, and although America does have legitimate commercial concerns vis à vis trade with China, we ought not to fall prey to American anti-China rhetoric, not on the subject of Chinese-Arab relations, nor on the issue Chinese-Israeli relations, and not on the problem of the Kaifeng Jewish descendants. (For an example of the latter, see the articles on religion in China by Lela Gilbert, Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.)

One way we can immunize ourselves against this “political virus” is by reading more balanced approaches to the issue of US-China-Israeli relations. As opposed to hearing from the Trump administration and its Jewish-American proxies, read articles by those thinkers who strive to find more nuanced ways to navigate US-China tensions. For publications that still tilt to an American perspective, consider Investment in Israeli Technology and Infrastructure: Security Implications for Israel and the United States, by Shira Efron, Karen Schwindt, Emily Haskel, published by the Rand Corporation and Foreign Involvement in Strategic Infrastructures Requires Clear Guidelines, by Galia Lavi and Shira Efron, published by the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Shalom Salomon Wald’s fine paper, China’s Rise, US Opposition, and the Implications for Israel, published by the Jewish People Policy Institute, is less concerned with placating American interests and stakes out a solid, moderate position with Israel’s best interests in mind. The writings of Yitzhak Shichor and Dale Aluf also offer balanced, Israel-centric perspectives.

I cede the next-to-last word to Carice Witte, the founder and director of SIGNAL, the Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, who in an interview with Times of Israel on 20 May 2020 offered the following pragmatic advice: “People talk about the US pressing allies to choose. Pick a side. Israel already has a side. There is no choosing here. And China knows it. China realizes that the joint US-Israel development of military technology and the US financial backing for military equipment as well as the US veto in the UN Security Council are things that China will not be providing.” Nonetheless, she adds, “Israel and China want to continue to do business together.” In other words, the relationship will continue to flourish because of mutual interest.

The question, to my mind, is how much pressure from Washington can Israel tolerate before it acquiesces, particularly when the Trump Administration seems hell-bent on giving Israel everything it wants territorially.

About the Author
Rabbi Anson Laytner of Seattle is currently president of the Sino-Judaic Institute and longtime editor of its journal Points East. He is the co-editor, with Jordan Paper, of "The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng." Before retiring, he taught at Seattle University and worked with the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. His most recent book is "The Mystery of Suffering and the Meaning of God."
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