The world order created by the United States is under great strain. Russia continues to change the territorial status quo in Europe and now in the Middle East; Iran competes with Islamic State for hegemony in the Persian Gulf; China is busy asserting its sway in East Asia. All of this threatens the sine qua non of American grand strategy: maintaining a favorable balance of power on either side of Eurasia as well as in the Persian Gulf. The consequences for small democratic nations like Israel are profound.
“Revisionist” powers are known to alter territorial boundaries, rules of international diplomacy, and political configurations with which they are unhappy. But Russia, Iran, and China are not only nationalist powers. They are also imperial powers, making imperial claims; they are challenging the idea of the nation-state system itself.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin justifies his actions—annexing Crimea, starting a civil war in Ukraine, allying with Iran to intervene in Syria—by appealing both to the Russian national interest and to the concept of Noviarussia, a refashioned Russian imperialism led by Putin as the defender of all ethnic Russians. In the Middle East, Sunni and Shiite factions are competing to define a new regional order based on ideological and religious extremism and superior force. The most threatening player is Tehran, a major energy producer that supports proxy groups to project and increase both its power and its version of Islamic supremacy. Acquiring nuclear weapons would solidify the Iranian imperial dream.
If unchecked, these two imperial projects, the Russian and the Islamic, will undermine the American order in two historically critical regions. Of the two, Moscow’s universalism, being mainly ethnic and racial in nature, appeals to a relatively small constituency. Tehran, on the other hand, as the legatee of the Persian empire, espouses a form of Islamic universalism that could well have greater staying power.
And then there is the People’s Republic of China (PRC): a different and potentially even larger story than either of these two. Here is a country with the size, wealth, and ambition to pose a truly global challenge to the U.S.
In some ways, to be sure, the contemporary PRC resembles a classical nation-state practicing classical statecraft. Thus, it has been a great defender of the principles that sovereignty is sacrosanct and that countries should not interfere in each other’s internal affairs. It employs balance-of-power diplomacy and resorts freely to that diplomacy’s ultimate tool: the threat (though not yet the use) of military force.
But if this is the external face of Chinese foreign policy, lurking just beneath is another China altogether: the civilizational empire. Tehran and Moscow may have imperial pretensions, but the People’s Republic already governs territory populated by “imperial subjects” from ethnically Turkic and religiously Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang to Tibetans chafing under its sway. On its periphery, it is slowly increasing its control over Hong Kong, despite promises of autonomy, and insists to this day on its political sovereignty over Taiwan, a de-facto independent nation. And that is not even to mention the issue currently commanding headlines, namely, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Nor does the People Republic make a secret of its ultimate ambition: to upset and replace the post-World War II American-made global order, or what Walter Russell Mead calls the “Anglo-American international system”: arguably the greatest force behind the greatest expansion of global prosperity in history.
What does the resurgence of the Chinese imperial mindset have to do with Israel? At first glance, not much. Traditionally, China’s empire was relegated to Asia. For its part, Israel’s national security is predominantly understood through the lens of its neighborhood; its enemies are Arab states and radical Islamic movements.
Moreover, China appears friendly to the Jewish state. The two have enjoyed robust diplomatic and economic relations for over two decades. China is Israel’s third largest trading partner, with volume increasing from $50 million in 1992 to over $10 billion in 2013. At least 1,000 Israeli firms now operate in the PRC, and China is the second leading source of joint high-tech ventures with Israel’s office of chief scientist. The two countries have a thriving scientific-exchange program.
Of greater strategic consequence is Israel’s role in the “One Belt One Road” initiative, a network of land- and sea-based infrastructure projects stretching from China to Europe and designed to expand Beijing’s geopolitical and economic influence. In 2014, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fast-tracked the approval of the “Red-Med” project, a Chinese-funded, high-speed rail line that, by connecting Eilat on the Red Sea to the port of Ashdod on the Mediterranean, will provide an alternative to the Suez Canal as a shipping route. (The project is a second iteration of a high-speed rail project that Netanyahu first proposed as Finance Minister in 2003.) Further increasing its influence in the sector of Israeli infrastructure, China has also won a bid to build the future Ashdod port and a license to operate a new deep-sea port in Haifa.
Finally, China has assumed an increasingly prominent role in the larger Middle East: Israel’s immediate neighborhood. It is a large importer of energy from the Persian Gulf states. And, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it enjoys automatic geopolitical leverage in the region.
True, China is not adopting the role the great powers have traditionally played in the Middle East. It is not forging alliances, or significantly arming countries, or taking the diplomatic lead on major issues. Nevertheless, what should greatly concern Israel—and all small democratic nations seeking strategic autonomy—is what China’s resurgence means for the world geopolitical scene. From the beginnings of pre-state Zionist diplomacy, Israel has been profoundly affected by the larger trends at work in the international system. As China challenges the world made by America, the Jewish state would do well to fashion an appropriate strategy. After all, Israel has known no other order; it was born into and has thrived in the liberal environment fashioned and maintained by the United States.
Israel and the Global Order
Although most Israelis consider their country’s security exclusively through what is happening in their immediate neighborhood and in the Persian Gulf, historically Israel has always been deeply affected by geopolitical change. During World War I, long before the state came into being, Zionist diplomacy was focused on how the great powers would divvy up the remains of the then-crumbling Ottoman empire. Visionary Zionists like Chaim Weizmann developed ties with British leaders to win England’s support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. At the postwar Paris peace conference, Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion successfully parlayed this pledge into a more formal commitment from both England and the U.S.
The establishment of the state in 1948, the final success of political Zionism, was due in part to the global trend of national self-determination in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Israel came into being at a moment when the British empire was collapsing, the U.S. was becoming a superpower, and the Soviets were emerging as a geopolitical competitor. In this context, Israel might indeed be seen as a product and a stellar exemplar of the “Anglo-American international system.” From the start, and especially after its stunning military victory in the June 1967 war over the combined might of Arab states backed by Soviet arms and money, Israel has functioned as an active partner in that system, which has been upheld by American dominance, free trade, and liberal ideas.
Since the final collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Israel has not had to play great-power politics. Riding the wave of America’s unipolar moment, it has focused its diplomacy on Washington. The only big questions have been how much American support it can count on, how best to face down common threats like Iran and Iraq, and how to approach the issue of Arab-Israeli peace. Even the rise of jihadi terror has thus far constituted mainly a regional threat. And while the new Iran deal might herald a longer-term rift in U.S.-Israel perceptions, Iran, too, will likely remain a regional problem and not a true geopolitical threat to American primacy.
But this period—the unipolar moment—is now coming to an end.
Israel and the China Challenge
At least in the short term, anyone searching for evidence of China’s playing a great-power role in the Middle East will search in vain. The PRC is content with importing oil from the Gulf and developing friendly relations with as many Middle Eastern nations as it can. For Israel, which is one of those nations, this means that the China challenge is indirect. But it is no less serious for that.
Early on, Jerusalem’s strategic approach to China focused on countering the proliferation of Chinese weapons to countries like Iran. This Israel attempted to do by an end run: cultivating its own arms trade with the Chinese military. But that arrangement was cut off after Washington showed its displeasure with Israel’s plans to sell Beijing the Phalcon Airborne Early Warning System and then with Jerusalem’s sale of military-grade UAVs in violation of a 2003 pledge to suspend high-tech military transfers to Beijing. When the U.S. scuttled the deal and suspended its cooperation with Jerusalem on several joint military projects, Israel backed down.
In the aftermath of this episode, the Sino-Israeli security relationship cooled for a decade. High-profile exchanges resumed in 2011 as Israel grew concerned over China’s continued economic and energy relationship with Iran. But the resultant discussions bore little fruit; ultimately, Gulf oil is too important to China. Moreover, from the hollow U.S. response to North Korea’s nuclear program, and from its own recent participation in the P5+1 negotiations with Tehran, Beijing has no doubt concluded that the Washington will not present an obstacle either to Iran’s acquiring nuclear weapons or to China’s continuing relations with a nuclearized Iran.
Chinese indifference to Tehran’s moves toward nuclearization should not be mistaken for actual support, however. At least for now, there is little chance that an imperial China would endorse an imperial Iran in any real sense or condone its genocidal intentions toward Israel. Nevertheless, China’s larger challenge to the “Anglo-American international system” can disadvantage Israel in several ways.
First, any weakening of America’s position will inevitably harm Israel’s security. A resurgent China can force the U.S. to spend significant resources, time, and energy defending American interests in East Asia and thereby diminish American influence in other key regions like the Middle East.
Second, the creation of a new Sinosphere in Asia would undermine the nation-state model upon which Israel’s grand strategy and diplomacy are based. Israel’s natural grouping, after all, is with small democratic nation-states, especially those under threat of coercion, and its interests would be greatly harmed if territorial boundaries were allowed to be changed by aggression or if other small nations’ rights were ignored and violated with impunity.
In that same connection, if one were to envision an optimal resolution of the current Middle East mess, it would surely be a regional nation-state system dominated by moderate elites. But achieving anything like this happy outcome would require the determined commitment of both the U.S. and other powers to what is still the world’s only legitimate and peaceful global order. Any such enterprise would likely be undercut, if not doomed, by the success of empire in Asia.
Finally, while China appears friendly now, as it grows stronger and its imperial impulses become more dominant, it will be no friend of Israel. Empires are by definition anti-democratic. They rule by subjugating peoples and other countries. In future Middle East crises, China would evince little sympathy for Israel’s needs or values.
Israel may not only fall victim to China’s attempts at changing the international system; it might also inadvertently find itself abetting the process. As China accrues economic influence within Israel, it will, if past practice is any guide, begin pressuring Jerusalem to back some of its diplomatic moves, including its imperial claims to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the rest of the regions on its periphery.
What, if anything, can Israel do about this large geopolitical challenge? First, it should be careful not to damage the already fraying U.S.-led order. That means avoiding the temptation to “bet on China” even when the U.S. itself is projecting weakness and behaving in a frustratingly indecisive way. Israel should certainly continue to avoid arms sales to China. It should also deflect China’s efforts to seduce it into “civilizational” dialogues. What the Chinese Communist party means by civilization is something far different from any recognizable version of either Western or Jewish civilization. The purpose of Chinese civilizational diplomacy is to reconstitute the world order in a direction that will inevitably be deleterious to the state of Israel.
But there are also bolder, more diplomatically active moves that Israel can make. One of the most effective would be to identify itself firmly as a liberal maritime nation, committed to the defense of the open maritime order.
Israel is in fact highly dependent on maritime trade and has fought wars and other engagements to defend that trade. (In 1967, Israel went to war after Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran.) In this connection, Jerusalem seems not to have considered the geostrategic implications of partnering with China on such critical initiatives as the “Red-Med” rail line, the building of the new Ashdod port, and the operation of a new deep-sea port in Haifa.
The rail project in particular is in Israel’s close interest, serving as a strategic hedge for a country that relies heavily on seaborne trade. But there are other Asian players—India, Japan, and South Korea, for example—who are looking to develop alternative outlets into the Mediterranean, who are available to partner with Israel, and whose geostrategic goals are less problematic than China’s. Israel could thus profitably diversify its current development of new transportation nodes and open them up to the free nations of Asia.
Israel’s small size limits its ability to participate in sea-based security endeavors, but the Israeli navy does actively engage in a range of critical missions, providing coastal defense and supporting firepower for land operations, insuring freedom of navigation, defending offshore natural-gas rigs, and disrupting smuggling operations in the Mediterranean. Asian nations facing Chinese encroachment can learn from Israel how to defend territorial waters and close-in sea lines of communication. This is particularly relevant to the Philippines and Vietnam (and more quietly to the Muslim-majority nations of Indonesia and Malaysia), which confront Chinese pressure almost daily. In addition, Israel and Singapore share a geo-strategically similar position and enjoy good relations, particularly in the area of counterterrorism. The two countries can expand their cooperation to maritime security as well.
In brief, Israel would benefit from lifting its strategic horizons and putting greater emphasis on its future as a maritime nation aligned with other free and like-minded nations of its kind. Such an approach does not mean needlessly antagonizing China. That, too, would be a fool’s errand. The commercial relationship should remain strong, and the diplomatic relationship cordial. But Israel’s engagement with Beijing must be conducted with eyes wide open.
After a temporary reprieve with the collapse of the Soviet Union, great-power politics is roaring back. Although Israel feels the resurgence of imperialism and religious-ideological universalism most acutely in its own Middle East neighborhood, China’s imperial impulses may present the greater menace.
In the end, of course, it is up to the U.S. to redefine and reinvigorate the defense of the liberal world order, updated to 21st-century needs. This task is especially urgent in Asia, but the nature of the challenge, the fact that China is powerful and has never fully made the transition from empire to nation-state, affects small nations everywhere. For Israel in particular, it will be tempting to accept not just Beijing’s money but also the diplomatic initiatives that are sure to follow. Before doing so, Israeli leaders must soberly assess the kind of power China is becoming, what a successful challenge to the U.S. order would really mean for their country, and how they can best act to avert coming threats to its strategic position.
In that enterprise, Israel has the opportunity to be ambitious and creative, defending freedom of the seas and of trade and the ability of smaller nations freely to pursue their interests, anchoring its own position as a participant in and contributor to the Anglo-American system and to the civilization that created it, and, finally and most critically, helping to focus its American partner on what needs to be done in order to stabilize the violently tumultuous Middle East.