Washington has cast a critical eye towards China’s growing commerce with Israel. As a consequence, Israel’s ability to walk between the raindrops without getting wet is under strain.
Once again the Middle East, in its own predictable way, is outshining other troubled regions of the world by proving to be a harder egg to crack, even more so than reclusive North Korea.
Finding a solution to the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weaponry, until recently, was believed to be an impossible mission, yet it may turn out to be not so impossible after US President Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s Dictator, Kim Jong-un, at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ).
It is far too early to make concrete predictions as to what may ensue from these timid first steps taken by an American President into North Korea, 20 small steps in the DMZ.
One certainty is that the outcome will be looked at through very different lenses in the Middle East, particularly in Iran and the Palestinian territories, two very different sets of problems.
Iran is struggling to develop its own nuclear program, despite strong objections from the international community, particularly the United States and Israel, which worry that a country accused of supporting terrorism should acquire nuclear arms.
Any step towards the peaceful resolution of a conflict is highly commendable. Nevertheless, one should not give the store away in exchange for the opportunity to take some very expensive selfies with one of the worst dictators in history.
If Iran had any doubt about the value of obtaining a nuclear capability, Trump’s visit with Kim dissipated those doubts.
As Trump proved by his stopover to meet with the North Koreans, having nuclear weapons buys a certain amount of respect.
However, Trump’s visit to the Korean Peninsula, for the sake of publicity for himself, belittles the symbolism and the prestige of the American presidency.
Besides, taking such first steps into politically uncharted territory and in the charged atmosphere of global tensions will not go unnoticed.
There is no escaping that, had the North Koreans not had nuclear weapons, the United States and Trump in particular would not have given them the attention they received.
There are two ways one can look at Trump’s brief incursion into North Korea.
One is whether this highly publicised photo opportunity is just that, a brief re-election campaign stop made by a publicity-hungry presidential candidate?
Or two, as one observer put it, “is it just political theatre” that may or may not lead to significant and serious diplomatic follow-up?
The jury is still out but the clear lesson from Trump’s Korean foray is the more means you have to scare others the more attention and respect you will get.
There should be no denying that the only reason that North Korea managed to wriggle itself onto the world political stage is because of its nuclear arsenal.
As imperfect as it might be when compared to the US and Western European nuclear arsenals, it still represents a great peril to the international community.
When it comes to a nuclear weapon, it does not matter how perfect or precise the device may be. One bomb is more than enough. One can serve as a “dirty bomb” and, within seconds, a city the size of Washington, Paris or London can be incapacitated.
“This could have implications for Trump’s attempt to break the logjam in the Middle East,” wrote Herb Keinon in the Jerusalem Post.
There may be some comparisons with North Korea when looking at Iran and its nuclear ambitions as well as the reasons that pushed both countries to pursue this highly volatile path.
It may be harder to detect any such similarities in the Palestinian territories where Trump has taken away what few cards they may have held in future negotiations with the Israelis.
The only real similarities in both conflicts is that, unlike the Korean Peninsula, where Trump will be pushing to remove all nuclear weapons, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli dispute the American president will join the rest of the international community in hiding their collective heads in the sand if attention is drawn to the fact that the only nuclear power in the Middle East is Israel.
That is one very big taboo subject. The international community should not embarrass Trump about it.
In the long term, Trump’s North Korean whistle stop could give him much to brag about. Between now and Election Day he will embellish his achievement tenfold, even if this North Korean photo-op may or may not win him additional votes.
However, securing a fair and lasting settlement of the Palestinian issue will certainly not endear Trump to his ultraconservative and Evangelical support base.
That kind of achievement might require more political courage that a last-minute adjustment of his Asia tour’s itinerary.
It’s doubtful that US President Donald Trump understood the implications of his suggestion that China and others relieve the United States by sending warships to secure oil supplies transiting the Strait of Hormuz, where recent engagements between Washington and Tehran raised fears of war and the interruption of oil supplies via the strategic waterway.
The Chinese Navy has not visited Hormuz since Cheng Ho’s Treasure Fleet set anchor there in the early 15th century.
Trump, as is his won’t, almost surely did not consider implications of announcing Washington’s unprecedented willingness to share the burden of securing the Gulf’s critical maritime routes with China.
Elsewhere in the administration, however, the campaign to limit the expansion of Chinese influence to maintain Washington’s global ambitions is escalating and growing more shrill.
“China wants to be the dominant economic and military power of the world, spreading its authoritarian vision for society and its corrupt practices worldwide,” declared US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a recent tour of European capitals aimed at warning Europeans of the perils of accommodating China’s global aspirations.
In a similar vein, Washington has cast a critical eye towards China’s growing commerce with Israel. As a consequence, Israel’s ability to walk between the raindrops without getting wet is under strain.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that, under his leadership, Israel is fast becoming “a rising regional and global power.”
China may not share Netanyahu’s exaggerated vision of Israel’s global reach but Beijing and its all-important regional governments do see Israel as a growing market for China’s infrastructural expertise, a technological hothouse in need of strategic Chinese investment and an important Mediterranean station on the route of the Maritime Silk Road.
The visit of Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan in October 2018 and his appointment as China’s representative to the Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation attest to China’s interest in cultivating good and mutually profitable relations with Israel, whose exports to China are second only to those sold to the United States.
Washington, however, is growing more impatient with relations that Israel and China see as “win-win.” During talks in Israel in late June, US national security adviser John Bolton once again raised US objections to Israel’s growing ties to China, including China’s increasing presence as a source of funding and technology to Israel’s much-vaunted tech sector.
Bolton’s central and more immediate focus, however, remains Washington’s opposition to Israel’s 2015 decision to award China’s Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) a $2 billion tender to modernise and operate the port of Haifa.
The company’s management of the facility commenced last year.
Israel views China’s role in Haifa, Minister of Transportation (now Foreign Minister) Israel Katz, said, as
“an expression of confidence in the state of Israel on the part of a superpower, which has decided to invest billions of shekels in Israel and turn it into an international cargo centre for all the world.”
In contrast, Washington views China’s management of the Haifa port, where the US Navy’s 6th Fleet occasionally visits, and the subsequent agreement of another Chinese firm to run Israel’s other port in Ashdod, as a growing security threat to US naval forces in the Mediterranean.
In testimony to Congress this year, US Central Command commander US Army General Joseph Votel warned that expanding relations between China and Israel comprise an evolving threat to American security.
“China,” he warned, “uses its One Belt-One Road initiative as an economic lever to provide access and influence across the Central Region. China invested in Suez Canal development, the port of Haifa in Israel and Jordan to provide access, relationships and leverage… For China, economic power is the primary tool, and while many One Belt-One Road projects do not pose direct threats to US national interests, burgeoning Chinese economic power could support and mask longer-term military and political objectives.”
The US Senate has joined the chorus of American voices demanding that Israel renege on its port agreement with China’s SIPG. Opponents have legislated an admonition to Israel, advising that, “It is the sense of the Senate that the United States;
(1) has an interest in the future forward presence of the United States naval vessels at the Port of Haifa in Israel but has serious security concerns with respect to the leasing arrangements of the Port of Haifa… and
(2) should urge the government of Israel to consider the security implications of foreign investment in Israel.”
China has derided these American warnings. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the United States
“has been abusing ‘national security’ to smear and strike down normal business activities of Chinese enterprises… Even its allies find it ridiculous.”
Ridiculous or not, there are indications that the American campaign to remove Chinese management of the Haifa port is gaining traction.
Local Israeli officials are slow-walking efforts to facilitate the port’s construction and a growing number of politicians and security experts are sounding the alarm about the perils of crossing Washington.
The port issue is not the first time that Israel’s relations with China have sparked tension in US-Israel relations.
Previous Israeli efforts to sell advanced military equipment and technology, notably the sale of the Phalcon airborne radar system in 2000, were opposed by Washington, which forced Israel to cancel the sale.
China’s ties with Israel are strong and broad enough to whether an Israeli retreat on Haifa. More significant, however, is the degree to which US concern about China’s growing presence on the world stage has become a central factor in Washington’s policy considerations.