When US National Security Adviser John Bolton was in Israel last week, he expressed concern to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about growing Chinese investments in Israeli infrastructure.
Foremost of those concerns, as first reported by The Jerusalem Post’s Michael Wilner, was that Israel has an agreement with the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG), in which the Chinese Government has a majority stake, to privately manage the Haifa Port starting in 2021.
The US Navy’s Sixth Fleet often docks at the port, but it may change its longstanding operations in Haifa, Wilner revealed, out of concern that China will use it togather intelligence on the US and improve its standing in the Middle East.
Bolton also raised concerns; that Israel uses Chinese telecommunications equipment in sensitive areas, which China could then use for spying. The US would consider use of Huawei and ZTE equipment to be an obstacle to intelligence sharing with Israel. Both companies have expressed interest in the Israeli tech sector, and Huawei bought two Israeli companies in 2016.
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In addition, China is eyeing involvement in the Mount Carmel tunnels, the underground tunnels for an eventual Tel Aviv light rail, and other public transportation systems. This is an especially sensitive area, because it would mean China could have control over thousands of cameras around the country, as well as emergency services.
These investments in infrastructure have an impact on military matters, businesses, food supply and other basic areas of life.
China is not only targeting Israel in this way. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road Initiative, unveiled in 2013, is meant to create Chinese footholds throughout Asia (including the Middle East), Europe and Africa.
Israel should be wary of outsourcing so much control of its infrastructure to a sole foreign country, no matter which one it is, because of security concerns. With China potentially come other problems: It is a known hacker and it is hard to imagine that a government controlled company won’t take advantage of surveillance opportunities elsewhere.
In addition, none of these investments are worth risking the invaluable intelligence-sharing and alliance between Israel and the US. The tension with Washington over Chinese involvement in Israeli projects should have been easy to predict, since this is not the first time this has happened. For example, Israel cancelled the sale of an advanced intelligence plane to China in 2005, due to US pressure.
Experts told the Post’s Eytan Halon that Israel – China relations are strong enough to withstand a bump in the road if the Haifa Port deal is cancelled. Israel needn’t be concerned that cancelling the deal would hurt Israel – China business and trade ties, because when it comes to Israel, China is far more interested in investing in technology than in infrastructure. In addition, much of the investments are done by provincial governments, which send delegations to Israel. For them, the port issue which involves the National Government will be less of a problem.
These factors should remove any impediment Israel has to scuttling the problematic agreement allowing China to manage the Haifa Port.
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While foreign investments are hugely important for Israel’s economy, there must be greater caution exercised when it comes to the industries in which China is permitted to influence and the extent of its funding. In addition, Israel should not overly depend on any single country when it comes to its infrastructure. Putting all its eggs – ports, light rails, tunnels – in one Chinese basket could undermine the country’s ability to build its own infrastructure if that need arises in the future.
Israel should look for other options – including domestic ones. These investments are not worth risking our security or our alliance with the US.