Navigating the U.S./China/Israel Triangle | Opinion

The U.S., China and Israel form an odd triangle. The tiny sliver of a Jewish state under constant threat of genocide seems out of place in the company of the two continent-sized superpowers that dominate the global economy. What makes their three-way interrelationship interesting, however, is that many small countries will soon find themselves where Israel sits today: as a theater in which great-power relations play themselves out.

In 2013, China announced its "Belt and Road Initiative" to better connect itself to Western Europe. Israel, a stable country on the Eastern Mediterranean boasting a trustworthy business environment and a trained workforce, posed a highly attractive investment target.

The attraction was mutual. As a country that has been the victim of economic and diplomatic boycotts since its birth, Israel has long sought to integrate itself into the regional economy and improve its foreign relations. Cooperation with China's infrastructure project promised significant improvements on both fronts.

For its part, the U.S. spent eight years pushing Israel away. If a president believes that it serves American interests to hold Israel—or France or Australia or any traditional ally—at arm's length, then that is the policy that the president will pursue. An ally repeatedly humiliated, challenged and distanced, however, will eventually take the hint and pursue its own interests.

Barack Obama put Israel on notice that it could not rely on his America. Though military aid continued, his administration repeatedly leaked intelligence to thwart Israel's self-defense in Syria and blamed Israel when the Palestinian Authority rejected American overtures. In 2010, the U.S. recognized Turkey's right to smuggle armed terrorists into Gaza aboard the Mavi Marmara. In 2014, he banned commercial flights to Israel and threatened to withhold military equipment, rather than support Israel's defensive actions against Hamas terrorism, and then turned to Qatar and Turkey to mediate. In 2015, Obama pushed through his Iran nuclear deal that posed an existential threat to Israel. Finally, in its waning days, Obama helped the U.N. brand Jews living in the historic Jewish heartland as international criminals.

The message was clear: Israel could not rely on the United States while Obama was president. Furthermore, the active participation of Vice President Joe Biden, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry and others relayed to Israel that Obama was not a personal anomaly. Put simply, until the Democrats repudiate Obama's foreign policy, Israel cannot count on support from Democrats.

Meanwhile, China ramped up its regional investments. A state-run Chinese company bought Tnuva, the most important player in Israel's domestic food industry. China won a 25-year contract to manage the port of Haifa and announced a $2 billion investment in a rail line linking Ashdod, on the Mediterranean, to Eilat, on the Red Sea. Bilateral Sino-Israeli trade approached $14 billion in 2018. Chinese investment in Israeli tech exceeds $300 million per year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with wife
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his wife, Sara Amir Levy/Getty Images

These investments give China a stake in Israel's stability, security and success. Israel has not deluded itself into thinking that China will replace the U.S., but given the increasingly antagonistic anti-Israel attitudes among Democrats, it would be suicidal for Israel to forego such gains with China.

Nevertheless, Washington is uncomfortable with the burgeoning friendship between Jerusalem and Beijing. It's raised red flags even with President Donald Trump and Secretary Mike Pompeo—two of the warmest friends Israel has ever had. Last March, the U.S. encouraged Israel to pull back on its intelligence and security coordination with China. A second warning issued last June suggested that Chinese investments might hamper America's own intelligence and security sharing with Israel.

All of that was before the coronavirus worked its way from the Wuhan virology lab into a global pandemic—while Chinese government machinations sent the global economy into a tailspin. Earlier this month, the U.S. warned its allies about China's efforts to secure infrastructure investments at bargain-basement prices.

As more and more Americans come to acknowledge that President Trump has been right about reducing America's reliance on China, the U.S. will undoubtedly lean on its allies to follow its lead. China will exact a steep price from those who comply.

That catches Israel in a vise. President Trump simply cannot assure Israel that his successor will preserve the warm relationship he has forged. If nothing else, Israel will need decent relations with China (and Russia) to survive the next Democratic presidential administration.

The U.S./China/Israel triangle is thus not as odd as it may seem. Throughout history, rising powers have disrupted alliances and altered the balance among existing powers. China's goal is to disrupt the Pax Americana that emerged at the end of the Cold War. Israel's goal is to survive the disruption. America's goal should be to reassure its allies. The Trump administration has made a point of standing with Israel. But the Democrats have created so much daylight that a Biden victory in November would inevitably push America's most important Middle East ally closer to China.

Bruce Abramson, Ph.D. J.D., is a senior fellow and director at ACEK Fund and the author of American Restoration: Winning America's Second Civil War.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.