The geopolitical balance of power operates like the Earth’s tectonic plates. Movements of all shapes and sizes occur on a daily basis and are often unnoticeable. However, when friction occurs between plates, immense energy is released unleashing an earthquake upon a helpless population unable to prepare for the force of nature. As the plates of geopolitics continue to move, two of the biggest- the US and China- are seemingly bound to collide. However, we don’t quite know where. As tensions continually rise, a confrontation can occur in a number of high-profile geopolitical battlegrounds such as Iran, Venezuela, or the South China Sea. But another unsuspecting place where a clash can occur is Israel. Amid the height of the US Coronavirus travel restrictions, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Israel to discuss a myriad of topics, including Chinese ties in Israeli strategic assets. While Israel enjoys mutually beneficial cross-industry relations between both states, today’s blessing can be tomorrow’s curse in a potential geopolitical tug of war between the US and China.
If one were to describe Israel’s diplomatic relations with the US and China, it would be described as symbiotic entanglement. They are mutually beneficial for all parties and don’t overlap in many spheres allowing Israel to balance these ties without a conflict of interest. The storied and historical US-Israeli relationship has been shaped by a number of factors; shared values, cross pollination of technology-based businesses’ in the American and Israeli markets, and the historical partnership with American diaspora. Yet, without a doubt, the backbone of these strategic relations is the diplomatic and military cooperation. The quality of the cooperation is seen through intimate information-sharing between intelligence agencies, several diplomatic peace initiatives to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and $3 billion of assistance in arms, fighter jets, and defensive weaponry systems over a period of 50 years.
This differs greatly between Israel and the People’s Republic of China, as diplomatic relations weren’t established until 1992, and have since been predicated on mutual development. Key sectors that are leading this mutual growth are cybersecurity, higher education, and critical infrastructure. The Chinese hand in Israeli infrastructure is significant as Chinese engineering firms have earned contracts to numerous motorways, tunnels, and ports, such as the Haifa port. Additionally, despite the different nature US and Chinese relations, both share a foothold in the economic arena with the parties being the 2nd and 3rd largest trade partners to Israel.
This strategy had worked wonders as Israel juggled alliances between competing giants without significant pressure from either state to dismantle the existing relations. A significant reason this worked because the US and Chinese historical diplomatic philosophies reflects different brands of realpolitik. The US engages in pragmatic hard power while the Chinese specialize in soft power. However, despite holding influence over American and Chinese decision makers, China and the US both hold stronger political sway in different strategic assets.
While US military assistance remains unconditional, the dependency of American weaponry and support is essential to the Israeli defense apparatus and national security doctrine, holding leverage through hard power. Moreover, the Chinese footholds in Israeli infrastructure and 56% ownership of Tnuva is a cause for concern that Israel may become the latest victim of debt-trap diplomacy, holding leverage through soft power. Diplomacy is about leverage, which both currently have over Israel.
Recent events demonstrate this complex web of alliances no longer serves the status quo. The exclusion of Chinese firms in constructing Sorek 2 desalination plant and Chinese diplomatic support of the Palestinian Authority against annexation tests the interwoven strings of diplomacy and reflects Israel’s prioritization of its American ally. If a second Cold War is on the horizon, Israel will need to be prepared for international isolation, just as it was during the Cold War between the US and USSR. The new globalized geopolitical reality will breed a new definition of international isolation in which economic sanctions replace proxy wars. And if Israel is to survive and thrive, it must stand on its own diplomatically by building new strategic alliances and strengthen preexisting ones built on mutual pragmatism and shared values. If they’re solely built off mutual interest, the relations won’t outlive the conflicts they were established in. States like India, Australia, and Sri Lanka fit the bill of as democratic states sharing values which have similar strategic goals to Israel’s. Additionally, many Asian and Oceanic powers such as Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand have shown exceptional governance and leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting them as global innovators and leaders. Overall, looking towards the east invites a bevy of opportunities to foster new ties.