By Coby Goldberg
The Trump Administration is engaged in a global campaign to persuade allies of the China threat. The results have been disappointing. Ask the average pundit why America has failed to enlist allies in a coalition to counter China, and they will suggest two reasons: interest in Chinese money is high, and trust in President Trump is low.
This simple outline of the problem suggests a relatively easy solution. First, elect a globally minded President. Second, emphasize the benefits of the rules-based international order that China seems bent on changing.
In Israel, where 66% of people hold favorable views of China, the China problem defies such simple formulations.
To be sure, economics play a role in shaping Israeli perceptions of China. In the decade that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been in office, Israeli exports to China have climbed 420 percent. Chinese investors have poured into the Israeli hi-tech space, participating in 35% of the largest Israeli fundraising rounds in 2018. Most notoriously, Chinese companies have involved themselves in Israeli infrastructure projects, including the privatization of the Haifa Port and the expansion of the Tel Aviv light rail.
“Israel’s current chief interest in promoting its relations with China is economic,” concluded the RAND Corporation, a centrist American think tank.
On the basis of this assumption, American diplomats have focused on countering Chinese economic interests in Israel. U.S. officials warned that Chinese infrastructure projects could jeopardize American support for Israel’s annexation plans. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even personally travelled to Israel at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in order to prevent a Chinese bidder from winning a contract for a desalination plant. “The unusual visit was meant to signal to Israel that the war is already here and it will soon have to pick a side,” wrote Calcalist, the economics magazine of Israel’s largest circulation daily newspaper.
But Israel might be hesitant to put all its eggs in one basket in this great power competition. To understand why, American policymakers need to peer beyond their economic blinders. Israel’s relationship with China runs deeper than dollars and cents.
Israel and China have a broadly similar view of how the world should treat them.
Both countries are often on the receiving end of international human rights criticism. The U.N. Human Rights Council has passed more condemnations of Israel than of all other countries combined. Though many countries are afraid to criticize China, last week a group of more than fifty U.N. experts called on the council to “act with urgency” with regard to human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong.
China has sought to elevate the idea that different countries can adopt their own approaches to human rights. “The realization of human rights must take into account regional and national contexts,” read the Beijing Declaration, a statement on human rights adopted by China and more than 70 other countries. In recent years, China has undermined the universal aspirations of the Human Rights Council by inserting language into resolutions that reflects its own relativistic interpretation of human rights. A limited human rights body remade in China’s image will benefit Israel.
Domestically, both countries have attacked international human rights advocates. They have both barred critical foreign elected officials from entering their countries, and have also gone after foreign human rights NGOs.
In 2016, Prime Minister Netanyahu enacted a law mandating foreign-funded NGOs to prominently disclose the details of their funding. Human rights groups accounted for twenty-five of the twenty-seven organizations effected. The Obama administration warned that the measure would have a “chilling effect” on Israeli democracy. The European Union said that the bill would undermine democratic values.
China expressed no such concerns. One year later, it introduced its own “NGO law,” requiring that foreign NGOs register with the Ministry of Public Security.
Both countries are most harshly criticized, finally, for their widely rejected claims to disputed territories. This year, they acted on those claims. China introduced an internationally denounced national security law, ending more than two decades of relative autonomy in Hong Kong. Israel announced plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
Neither country endorsed the other’s move. But both would surely benefit from a system in which the international community allowed powerful countries to do as they please.
Israel, in other words, would benefit from an international system with Chinese characteristics. Then why has Israel ceded to some American demands to cancel infrastructure deals with China?
One explanation is Israel’s relationship with President Trump. 71% of Israelis support the Trump Administration. Netanyahu cannot afford to alienate the President. This should give pause to policymakers who assume that Israel would easily pick America over China.
If Joe Biden is elected, many expect that U.S. allies will welcome Trump’s exit and join a coalition to counter China. But in Israel, policymakers have heeded American warnings about China not in spite but because of President Trump. A Biden Presidency, meanwhile, will struggle to win over Israelis. After all, only 49% of Israelis supported President Obama.
As annexation of the West Bank alienates Israel in the West, China’s star will only rise in Israelis’ estimations. A non-interventionist power willing to turn a blind eye to territorial aggression will seem attractive.
The U.S. may discover that its most reliable partner in the Middle East is leaning heavily towards the Middle Kingdom.
Coby Goldberg is a researcher at the Center for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Program