Arthur Herman concludes his excellent essay in Mosaic by urging Israel to take a more cautious approach to its burgeoning relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Herman is correct. In fact, the point deserves to be put more strongly: Israel’s embrace of the Chinese Communist party (CCP) under Xi Jinping is morally and strategically misguided. This has become increasingly evident as Xi has transformed the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the “soft authoritarian” developmental state created by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s into the “hard totalitarian” state it is today, both at home and abroad. In turn, Washington is gradually changing its own strategy to one of vigorous competition with China as its main great-power rival. As Washington shifts course, Israel would do well to align itself accordingly.
A little history, some of which is also ably rehearsed by Herman, would be helpful here.
Historically, Israel’s upbeat attitude toward China is understandable. Indeed, from the late 1970s to the 2000s it largely echoed that of the United States, which in 1972, under Richard Nixon, welcomed China into the “family of nations” and adopted a policy of positive engagement.
In the following decades, post-Mao China was liberalizing its economy and joining the existing structures of international trade. Taking a page from Japan’s Meiji Restoration, Deng Xiaoping aimed to turn the PRC into a “rich nation, strong army.” Among his reforms were a limited form of capitalism that, among other things, allowed farmers to sell their surpluses; commercial laws encouraging market-based business practices; and free-trade zones in certain key Chinese provinces. The last-named initiative attracted massive foreign investment and provided China with valuable managerial and technical know-how. Deng also introduced some reforms into the political system, creating a party cadre and an evaluation system that rewarded party leaders for hitting growth targets.
Washington embraced this new China. Indeed, the U.S. did more to encourage China’s growth than any country other than China itself. Far from treating it as a competitor, America was its chief enabler, opening itself up to waves of academic exchanges meant to strengthen Chinese science and technology, help modernize China’s economic, market, and financial institutions, and develop its rule of law. On the international stage, the U.S. expended considerable diplomatic energy in helping China join and rise within the World Trade Organization. The result of these efforts was China’s massive boom over the past three decades.
Historically, great powers have tried to undermine the growth of a potential rival before it becomes too strong. Not so the American strategy, which reflected the country’s liberal view of international politics and its confidence that, given the proper incentives, others would choose to join the post-World War II international political order, itself largely a product of American thinking and values.
Within this context, it was natural for Israel to join the American bandwagon and conduct a similar engagement strategy vis-à-vis China. When this caused friction with Washington, most saliently (as Herman relates) in the early 2000s over Israel’s sale of certain weapons to China, thereby provoking the anger of U.S. defense officials and causing Washington to block the sale—by then, the U.S. was harboring concerns about China but was still unwilling to go public with them—Israelis were confused but acquiesced. Turning instead to India as a customer for its arms exports, Israel continued the upward trajectory of its relationship with Beijing.
What had changed in China to arouse Washington’s concern? Deng and his successor Jiang Zemin had passed from the scene. Hu Jintao, a far weaker leader who proved unable to withstand the attacks by China’s “New Left” on Deng’s economic reforms, began to allow the state-owned sectors to recapture the economy and cripple the next scheduled round of reforms that would have encouraged real, sustainable private entrepreneurship.
At first, few American policymakers and analysts noticed how much China was rolling back its economic reforms. Instead, interest continued to focus on its commodities boom and its activist diplomacy—even as, in actuality, the economy was entering a period of slower growth. By now, arguably, it has reached the point of stagnation.
Nor were the CCP’s rollbacks confined to the economic realm. Alarmed at first by the populist “Color Revolutions” in the former Soviet Union, and later by the turmoil of the Arab Spring, the CCP also undid Deng-era political reforms, turning increasingly to the creation of a high-tech security state or what the CCP calls its “Weiwen” regime.
Under the aegis of this regime, the party has developed repressive internal-security organs like the People’s Armed Police, censorship and propaganda bureaus, and a sprawling surveillance apparatus. Most recently, it has introduced the use of artificial-intelligence-enabled cameras and social-credit systems to track and suppress any China citizen who may become, or be suspected of becoming, troublesome.
This is the China of Xi Jinping, under whom, as secretary general of the CCP, all national-security affairs have been centralized. Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has created a ferocious, de-facto purge of potential political rivals, hastening the party’s longstanding program of transforming the PRC from a developing state into a security state. And as Xi and the CCP’s power has grown, so has China’s hard power. Three decades of slow but steady military modernization have allowed China to change the regional balance of power decisively in its favor.
This, then, is the background against which to place the shift in U.S. strategy from one of engagement to one that deems the PRC a strategic competitor and main great-power rival. Since the publication of its 2017 National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, Washington has aimed to compete with China in all domains of national power. While it is too early to assess the ultimate success of this strategy, there’s no mistaking the fact that America has changed course.
On the military and diplomatic fronts, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has been unleashed to challenge China’s excessive territorial claims in its surrounding seas, and the Departments of State and Defense have been working to improve ties with such emergent Asian partners as Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, India, and Indonesia. Correlatively, Washington has changed its conventional arms-export policies to help support its allies and partners, especially in the realm of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).
To compete with China economically, the U.S. is creating a new development finance agency as an alternative to China’s One Belt One Road initiative. It is also adopting a more aggressive policy to protect U.S. intellectual property and businesses from cyber espionage, strengthen investment reviews to keep China out of key high-tech sectors, and implement broad tariffs to punish unfair Chinese business practices.
In some areas—trade policy in Asia, the sustainability of the defense budget—America is undeniably still falling short. But no foreign official visiting Washington today can help noticing the transformation in the executive branch’s approach to China or in attitudes toward this issue in the legislature.
Why, then, has Jerusalem not been adjusting its own approach? A number of reasons come to mind.
First, Israel’s diplomatic strategy has always been to seek friends on its periphery. And in China’s case, as Herman points out, there is an added incentive: China does not carry the baggage of anti-Semitism that is endemic in the Middle East and increasingly on display in Europe. To the contrary, Chinese officials publicly and effusively praise the Jewish people and Jewish civilization. (Unfortunately, the roots of this rhetoric lie in Communist-party tropes rife with racial and ethnic stereotypes.)
Second, and relatedly, unlike the case with other regimes that have to be nudged or wooed away from their specifically anti-Israel attitudes, China is not openly hostile to the Jewish state. This distinguishes the Chinese case from that of the Soviet Union. During the cold war, Israel’s (eventual) alliance with the U.S. against the USSR was based on common values, common interests, and a common foe. Not so at present with China—and besides, today’s situation is far more complicated than a cold war.
Third, despite its slowing economic growth and the rollback of reforms, China still has a dynamic and globalized economy with enough resources to be a valuable partner, particularly for small countries like Israel.
Fourth, the trauma of the Arab Spring sparked an acceleration of China’s outreach to Israel as the more stable and reliable partner in the region. Today, it continues to regard the Jewish state as a highly valuable source of high technology and scientific know-how, and a no less valuable geographical venue for investment in key infrastructure. All of this furthers China’s larger geopolitical goal of developing new routes into the Mediterranean. For their part, Israelis rightly see that goal as of potentially great benefit to their economic interests as well.
But if these are understandable reasons for Israel’s continued engagement policy with China, the net result, at a time when Israel’s main great-power ally has shifted to a stance of competition, is a mistake.
Eventually, as it always does, the CCP will call in what it believes are its political chits. This usually involves bringing its partners into a state of increasing dependency on Beijing’s investments abroad and vast market at home, then pressuring them to side with China in its geopolitical disputes. This is entirely foreseeable in the areas of technology, in which, as Herman mentions, China is competing with the U.S. over who will set the standards for 5G wireless technology and will thus get a leg up in artificial intelligence, with all that that portends for global cybersecurity.
Washington is in the nascent stages of garnering international support to stop China from gaining an unfair advantage in this field through its global web of industrial policies. Israel, which is not part of this effort, could end up aiding China’s mercantilist tactics in the race for technological supremacy.
In another scenario, the CCP might exert its economic leverage to pressure Israel to act against U.S. interests by allowing the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) to make port calls in Israel and eventually create there a logistical hub in the eastern Mediterranean. Already China and Russia are conducting joint naval exercises in the surrounding waters; in the nearby Gulf of Aden, PLAN ships are already preparing to be homeported in the region.
In sum, Israel is finding itself on the wrong side of a shift in geopolitics, and is allowing itself to become too cozy with a viciously repressive regime (one sign, incidentally, of the profound dissimilarity between Jewish and Chinese civilization). Yet this does not mean that Israel has to go out of its way to antagonize China. Washington is not asking any friend to do that—and Washington, for its part, has a role to play in its outreach to Jerusalem, much as it is attempting to do with others throughout Europe and Asia.
Taking a cue from that playbook, Israel might adopt an approach more in tune with of Australia, Japan, or the smaller European nations—by, for instance, more actively aligning itself with U.S. policy on high-tech, on the One Belt One Road initiative, and on China’s attempts to build basing stations throughout the world.
In doing so, Israel’s vaunted diplomatic and national-security agencies would also be wise to engage in a major effort to understand Washington’s new approach to its chief geostrategic rival. Israel has been famously adept at protecting its national-security interests in its region; it has often fallen short in assessing and responding to major geopolitical changes. As China makes dangerous inroads into Israel and the region, time is running short for Jerusalem to mend this weakness.