Israel-China relations are currently experiencing massive turbulence, with top US administration officials warning Jerusalem against investments by companies controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, and the sudden death of Beijing’s ambassador in Herzliya.
But ties between Beijing and Jerusalem will remain strong, because China ultimately understands that Israel’s first allegiance will always be to the United States and will be able to work with that, according to Carice Witte, a leading expert on Israel-China relations.
“Israel and China want to continue to do business together,” she said. “There is much that China wants from Israel and I believe, if presented well, the Chinese would cooperate in steps designed to take US concerns into consideration if it meant certain business relations could continue.”
It is true that Washington is pressuring its allies to pick a side in its ongoing trade war with Beijing, acknowledged Witte, the founder and director of a nonprofit called Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, known as SIGNAL.
“Israel already has a side. There is no choosing here. And China knows it,” she said in a wide-ranging email interview. “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.”
In fact, the Chinese are closely allied with Iran and even help Israel’s main regional foe in its project to entrench itself in Syria, Witte said.
“The Chinese know we are not the 51st [US] state and hope we will continue cooperating as we have over the past decade. On the other hand, I get the sense that in the constellation of US-China-Israel, they realize where Israel’s alliance is.”
Trade relations between Jerusalem and Beijing have made headlines in recent days as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his whirlwind visit to Israel last week, repeatedly stressed that the Jewish state should think twice before getting in bed with Chinese-owned companies.
“We do not want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure, Israeli communication systems, all of the things that put Israeli citizens at risk and in turn put the capacity for America to work alongside Israel on important projects at risk as well,” the US top diplomat said on May 13. “We think these risks are very real, and we shared with them information about that so that they could make good decisions for themselves.”
One particular project Pompeo may have brought up with his Israeli interlocutors was a China-linked firm’s bid to build a $1.5 billion desalination plant in Palmachim.
Hutchison Water International, owned by Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison Holdings, is one of two companies to have reached the final stage of the tender to build the Sorek B plant, set to be the world’s largest desalination facility. After the US made known its disapproval of the deal, Israeli officials reportedly reconsidered it. The winner of the tender will be announced on Sunday.
Witte, who after moving to Israel from the US in the late 1980s worked in the fields of international real estate and tech, including internet security and electronic cash, noted that the plant is near a nuclear site and a military base with American troops.
“But let’s say there is no intrinsic security problem,” she assessed.
“If Israel can show the US that it understands how China does things, that it is aware of Chinese culture and how it impacts working together, if Israel has a plan that takes US sensitivities into consideration and can even bring benefits to the US as well as to Israel, I believe engagement with China can thrive on a range of fronts” she said. “But it requires taking US national security concerns to heart.”
What follows is a transcript of our conversation.
The Times of Israel: Let’s start with the unexpected death of Ambassador Du Wei. He’s the second Chinese diplomat to pass away while serving in Israel in recent years, and Beijing reportedly considered sending a team to investigate the circumstances of his death. Do you think anyone suspects foul play?
Carice Witte: Anytime an ambassador dies in the country where he is serving, there will be questions. Add COVID-19, US-China tensions, Pompeo’s recent visit here and the article the ambassador penned in last Friday’s paper before his death and you have a recipe for conspiracy.
But sadly, sometimes people just die unexpectedly. Given the good cooperation between the Chinese embassy and the Israeli police, I do not think anyone actually suspects anything untoward. There are those who would like to conjure trouble between the US and Israel, or China and Israel, or even China and the US, who would raise the question of criminality. But there is enough good sense among them not to fall into that mindset.
Cooperation between the Chinese embassy and the local authorities was smooth in the immediate aftermath of his passing. Do you think this tragic event could negatively impact bilateral relations?
Given the fact that from the outset, medical experts said that the ambassador died of natural causes – likely cardiac arrest – this is a personal tragedy for Ambassador Du Wei and his family and friends and a great national loss for the people of China who lost a top diplomat.
On behalf of Israel’s FM & @IsraelMFA I participated in the memorial service, in honor of the late Ambassador of the People's Republic of #China to Israel, H.E. Du Wei, to express our sorrow & bid farewell.
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— Yuval Rotem ???????? (@Yuval_Rotem) May 20, 2020
Bilateral relations between Israel and China are based on a clear set of interests revolving around business, innovation, technology, infrastructure, joint research, et cetera. Those interests remain. The central factor that has always impacted Israel-China relations, almost since the founding of the modern states of Israel and the PRC [People’s Republic of China, in October 1949] is the USA.
But Israel may also want to be paying close attention to China in the Middle East, given our regional security concerns. While signs show that the US wants less presence in this region, China business, investment, infrastructure and in some cases military is growing here.
I believe engagement with China can thrive on a range of fronts. But it requires taking US national security concerns to heart
It is building cities in Egypt, the UAE signed $3.4 billion worth of deals and CNBC reported last April that China views the Port of Jebel Ali [in Dubai] as a valuable hub for shipping Chinese products to the world using the UAE’s position as both sea and land trading center.
In Syria, Iran and China recently agreed to do an energy development deal. And Chinese troops deployed in Syria are there because of the Uyghurs but also to scout reconstruction opportunities for Chinese SOEs [state-owned enterprises].
Ok, so let’s look at the bigger picture now. It’s no secret that these are complicated days for Israel-China relations, not least due to the Trump administration’s efforts to get Israel to reduce Chinese investments in major infrastructure projects. What did you think of Secretary Pompeo’s visit to Israel last week, during which he repeatedly stressed how unhappy the US is about Israel’s China policy? What exactly do you think the administration wants Jerusalem to change?
I do not believe that the secretary of state flew to Israel in the midst of the coronavirus crisis in the US, his first trip since it started, because of US-China tensions. In my opinion, only something time-sensitive would motivate this trip. Whatever issues the US has with China, they are not going to be addressed in an urgent visit. They are long term and very wide ranging. They go to the core of global governance, values, and issues that are deeply intertwined.
However, while Pompeo may not have come because of China, it is to be expected that while here, he would address Israel-China relations as the US is doing with all its allies. Given the global scale of personal and economic destruction wreaked by the pandemic, and against the background of the trade war and the deep-seated issues that it stemmed from, the US, as the world’s superpower, seems to be forging its position and that includes enlisting the cooperation of allies.
It seems that the US administration is asking Israel to make a choice: It’s either us or China. Are there any other options to square the Israeli-China-US triangle that would not entail Israel dramatically reducing its economic engagement with Beijing?
You are right: Washington has been asking allies to make a choice on a range of issues. 5G [an advanced technology standard for cellular networks that is at the core of the US-China trade war] is a major one. But Israel was never going to use [Chinese tech giant] Huawei for 5G. Given our security concerns, an outside supplier was not realistic.
But in other areas — tech, infrastructure, joint research — Israel wants to continue doing business with China. If Israel can show the US that it understands how China does things, that it is aware of Chinese culture and how it impacts working together; if Israel has a plan that takes US sensitivities into consideration and can even bring benefits to the US as well as to Israel, I believe engagement with China can thrive on a range of fronts. But it requires taking US national security concerns to heart.
What are the Chinese saying about Israel’s position? Do they understand that Jerusalem’s first allegiance will always be to Washington, or are they angry that Israel doesn’t stand up to the administration to safeguard its own economic interests?
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.
China is, if nothing else, a practical-minded people. When Israel reminds China of these factors and that by contrast, China votes with 100 percent consistency in all international fora against Israel, China understands.
Israel and China want to continue to do business together. There is much that China wants from Israel and I believe, if presented well, the Chinese would cooperate in steps designed to take US concerns into consideration if it meant certain business relations could continue.
Do you think that China-US relations would continue to deteriorate even if a Democrat wins the White House in November?
[Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe] Biden has criticized Trump for being too soft on China. This does not portend an easier time for China-US relations if the Democrats win.
China is touted in DC as the one solid bipartisan issue. Once business, historically the ballast in the US-China relationship, began to see China as a problem, this became a national issue. And, in fact, the core issues will equally impact both parties – to what extent will the US invest in itself again – in R&D, in its people, in its schools?
The world looks to successful models and wants to engage with them to reap the benefits. We see this with Israel. With a very strong economy, hugely robust currency, powerful innovation and tech ecosystem, not to mention our famously strong military, more and more countries are drawn to Israel from Africa and Asia to Latin America.
What do you make of the latest brouhaha regarding CK Hutchison Holdings’s bid to build the Sorek B desalination plant in Palmachim? Is there any danger for Israel letting this conglomerate build and manage major infrastructure projects?
It is not for me to say if there is any direct security issue with Hutchison winning that tender. But let’s say there is no intrinsic security problem. The fact that it is near a nuclear site and a base with American troops raises the parallel to the Haifa Port that has caused an uproar between Washington and Jerusalem for over a year.
The port became an issue long after the deal was signed and sealed. Since the desalination project is still in the bidding stage, it seems that here Israel wants to be taking US sensitivities into consideration. And after 35 years of being in and around China, I believe that, if presented properly to the Chinese, they will understand.
There was a lot of brouhaha over the Israeli government letting the Shanghai International Port Group operate Haifa port’s container terminal starting in 2021. Is this a done deal? What has been done to alleviate US fears?
You know, this issue was a great lesson for me in the importance of communication. I recently learned from a talk [former US] Ambassador [to Israel Dan] Shapiro gave at the end of last year that when Israel finally, after 20 years or more of duking it out with the port union, was able to hold tenders for private ports in Haifa and Ashdod, that [former] Mayor [of Haifa Yona] Yahav came to Ambassador Shapiro and asked him to please bring US bidders. Shapiro explained that it would be difficult but he would try.
In the end there was only one company that was relevant and it was based in Seattle. It considered Haifa to be too far away and the planned port too small a project. The Seattle company declined. So Yahav explained to Shapiro that the mayor of Haifa’s sister city in Shanghai might be able to help and asked Shapiro to clear it with the Obama administration. The reply was a green light.
On top of that, there was a robust security study done at the outset. After the port became an issue for the Trump’s administration, I understand that further security studies were done and accepted.
As far as you are aware, have Israeli officials started explaining to their Chinese interlocutors why they may have to withdraw previously given commitments? How are the Chinese taking this?
Israel has an outstanding set of China experts in our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The officials at the China desk are adept and experienced and are certainly addressing the issues as needed. While I am not privy to what is happening on that front, I trust they are handling it.
We should remember that China understands interests. They work with Iran, do business there, cooperate abroad, such as in Syria as I mentioned earlier. So on the one hand, the Chinese know we are not the 51st state and hope we will continue cooperating as we have over the past decade.
On the other hand, I get the sense that in the constellation of US-China-Israel, they realize where Israel’s alliance is.
In March 2017, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told The Times of Israel, during an interview in Beijing, that Israel-China relations are “superb” and that he wants to see China invest more in Israel. Do you think he’d still say that?
In a word, no. I don’t think he would say superb. But not because our direct relations have devolved but because now there are serious extenuating factors to China-Israel relations. As China’s global footprint grows and its efforts to take a leading role in international institutions expand, Israel will have to play this game of Wei Qi, or Go, as it is known in the West, with sophistication and savvy.
Israel is square on the side of democratic values and the personal freedoms they entail. So while doing business with China, Israel will likely also be standing up for its values where necessary.