Chinese Deal to Take Over Key Israeli Port May Threaten U.S. Naval Operations, Critics Say

The USS Iwo Jima, is anchored in the northern Israeli port of Haifa, Israel, on March 15. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

A Chinese company is planning to take over management of Israel's Haifa port as Beijing continues to advance its global influence in the form of economic projects and big commercial deals.

The Haifa port sits close to the hub of the Israeli navy base that is reportedly home to the country's nuclear-capable submarine force, according to The Times of Israel. Israeli critics are calling for an investigation into potential security issues posed by the Chinese presence along the country's Mediterranean coast.

At the University of Haifa's Workshop on Future of Maritime Security in the Eastern Mediterranean conference at the end of August, Shaul Chorev, reservist brigadier general of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), former navy chief of staff, and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, said a new mechanism was required to keep an eye on Chinese investments in Israel.

According to a summary document of the meeting, sent to Newsweek by Chorev, one of the key concerns among those present was that the Chinese Haifa contract could "limit or preclude" regional cooperation with the U.S. Navy, which has become ever more valuable due to political developments in the Middle East.

The Shanghai International Port Group's management of the newly expanded Haifa port is due to be inaugurated in 2021, noted Ynet, and the contract will run for 25 years. Another Chinese firm won a contract to build a new port in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, reported Haaretz.

But, as the August conference noted, this project also has political and military dimensions. Chorev and his colleagues warned that Israel lacked a process to analyze economic investments for its national security implications, and must rapidly develop one.

China has been hard at work creating a network of infrastructure to extend its economic reach around the globe. Its mammoth Belt and Road Initiative hopes to establish a 21st-century Silk Road by 2049. Beijing will invest as much as $8 trillion in the undertaking, said the Center for Strategic and International studies.

Cranes at the port of the Haifa, in northern Israel, on April 23, 2013. A Chinese firm will operate the port from 2021 through 2046. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The "belt" refers to land corridors running from China into Russia, Turkey, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The "road" will be comprised of sea routes stretching all the way to central Europe via the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean.

President Xi Jinping has been vocal in his push for what he called the "military civilian integration policy,' by which the leader intends to combine "the ideas, decisions and plans of military and civilian integration" in "all fields of national economic development and defense building."

In that light, the commercial contract for the Haifa port would theoretically give the Chinese military a usable facility in the Mediterranean along one of the world's most vital trade arteries.

The deal could affect the relationship between the U.S. and the IDF. Retired Admiral Gary Roughead, the former chief of naval operations, said he was in favor of increased Israeli-U.S. cooperation generally, but a Chinese-run port in Haifa meant American ships could not regularly use the Israeli naval base nearby.

According to the summary provided by Chorev, Roughead explained, "The Chinese port operators will be able to monitor closely U.S. ship movements, be aware of maintenance activity and could have access to equipment moving to and from repair sites and interact freely with our crews over protracted periods.

"Significantly, the information systems and new infrastructure integral to the ports and the likelihood of information and electronic surveillance systems jeopardize U.S. information and cybersecurity," he continued. "These factors might not preclude brief port visits, but it would preclude homeporting and other protracted projects and initiatives."

The U.S. Navy has been gradually pivoting, noted Taylor & Francis, from the European theater and Middle East to the Persian Gulf and Asia, particularly because of the challenge posed by an increasingly powerful China. Europe is no longer the ultimate focus of American foreign policy.

Headquartered in Naples, Italy, the U.S. 6th Fleet is America's sea arm in European waters. But since the end of the Cold War, the importance and size of the fleet has diminished. Russia's navy has become more active in the region recently, due in part to its involvement in the Syrian Civil War and Russia's use of the naval base at Tartus, Syria. The Mediterranean is more open than it has been in decades.

But talk of a Chinese challenge to American hegemony in Europe may be premature. A vehemently anti-imperialist power, Communist China has traditionally been against establishing military facilities overseas.

Mathieu Duchâtel, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the European Council on Foreign Affairs, told Newsweek that as that country becomes a bigger world player, it must protect its global interests and investments, whether in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean Africa or farther afield.

He stressed that this was not the same as creating bases to challenge U.S. military dominance. Though that may take place in the future, "it would be a major break" from Beijing's established policy, Duchâtel explained.