US: Blinken to warn Lapid of risks of cooperating with China in ‘candid’ talk

Ahead of secretary’s meeting with Israeli and UAE foreign ministers, senior official says sides will also unveil trilateral working groups on religious coexistence, water, energy

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken  (right) greets Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of their meeting in Rome, on June 27, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) greets Foreign Minister Yair Lapid ahead of their meeting in Rome, on June 27, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/AFP)

NEW YORK — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will have a “candid” conversation with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, during which he will caution against Chinese investment in the Israeli economy, a senior State Department official said Tuesday.

The comments — made during a briefing with reporters previewing the Wednesday meeting in Washington between Blinken, Lapid and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed — appeared to mark an uptick in US rhetoric against Israel’s warming ties with China.

Lapid’s one-on-one sit-down with Blinken and subsequent trilateral meeting with bin Zayed will cap off a two-day visit in the US, where he also met with Vice President Kamala Harris, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, senior congressional leadership from both parties, American Jewish community leaders, and pro-Israel activists.

In the Tuesday briefing, the senior State Department official said that “as the secretary has noted, with allies and partners worldwide, we’ll be candid with our Israeli friends over risks to our shared national security interests that come with close cooperation with China.”

“The US views China as a competitor that challenges the existing international rule-based order. And as we’ve said previously, our relationship with China will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be,” the senior official added, speaking on background.

Biden administration officials have raised their concern over Chinese investment with their Israeli counterparts in the past, but it was done behind closed doors, a senior Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

Chinese workers attend the opening ceremony of the construction works for the new Tel Aviv Light Rail on February 19, 2017. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had prepared to discuss the matter in his White House meeting with US President Joe Biden in August, but the issue was never raised, the Israeli official said.

The official said that Jerusalem is willing to modify its relationship with China, and has not shied away from criticizing Beijing’s human rights record in international forums. However, Israel, along with other allies, has been put off by US requests to reject tenders from certain Chinese companies when those same firms are operating on American soil, the Israeli official added.

Amid a US-China trade war that has ebbed and flowed in recent years under both the Trump and Biden administrations, Israel and China have seen warming relations and more interest in Israeli innovations, especially in medical tech, robotics, food tech, and artificial intelligence.

Chinese companies also handle major infrastructure and transportation projects in Israel, including winning the tenders to build and operate a private terminal in Ashdod, along with another one in Haifa launched in September. Chinese firms are also building a key section of the Tel Aviv light rail system, and bidding to build additional lines.

But US pressure has had an impact. It was cited as one of the reasons Chinese investments “waned” after reaching a peak in 2018, according to a report by the Institute for National Security Studies earlier this year.

Washington’s main concerns lie in potential dual-usage, where various technologies would have both civilian and military applications. At the same time, Israel has regulations in place to prevent the sale of sensitive military-related technology to China (and other countries), following a 1990s deal in which Israel had to scrap the sale of advanced airborne radar systems to China amid fierce US opposition.

View of the Haifa Bay on April 24, 2018. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The Palestinians and the Abraham Accords

The State Department official said Blinken would also use his meeting with Lapid to “underline the US enduring support for Israeli security, including the Biden administration’s commitment to Iron Dome replenishment.”

A bill to send Israel an additional $1 billion in funding for the missile defense system passed overwhelmingly in the House but has since been stalled in the Senate by Republican Rand Paul, a libertarian who opposes US foreign aid. It is still expected to pass overwhelmingly, though, once a vote is scheduled.

Blinken will also affirm US support for a two-state solution and express his appreciation for Lapid’s condemnation of recent settler violence in the West Bank, the State Department official said.

The official then reiterated long-held Biden administration talking points against unilateral steps by either side that hamper prospects for a two-state solution and in support of advancing equal measures of freedom for both Israelis and Palestinians.

“I expect the two sides to discuss the ongoing economic and security crisis in Gaza,” the official added, referencing US efforts to push Jerusalem to play a greater role in the reconstruction of the coastal enclave following the 11-day war Israel fought with Hamas in May.

The subsequent trilateral meeting of Blinken, Lapid and bin Zayed “highlights our continued celebration of the first anniversary of the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements,” said a second senior State Department official.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (left) shakes hands with United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, June 29, 2021. (Shlomi Amsalem/Government Press Office via AP)

The meeting will see the unveiling of two trilateral working groups featuring representatives from the US, Israel and the UAE. The first will focus on promoting religious coexistence and the second will promote water and energy cooperation, the official said.

“This reflects our belief that the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements writ large can help to achieve a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East,” they added.

The Biden administration has spoken in favor of the Abraham Accords since entering office but has not prioritized the issue as much as former president Donald Trump, who had a special envoy tasked with advancing the process and was willing to offer prospective countries significant improvements to their bilateral ties with the US if they agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

Nonetheless, Biden officials have spoken of their intention to bring the agreement of intent signed between Israel and Sudan to normalize relations “over the finish line.” Blinken hosted an event marking the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords last month with the foreign ministers of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

The senior US officials declined to provide information regarding progress in US efforts to solidify the Israel-Sudan agreement or to broker additional normalization agreements.

Ricky Ben-David contributed to this report.

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