This interview was conducted via email correspondence between AugmentIC fellow Elan Ganeles and China-Middle East & Mediterranean specialist, Christina Lin on March 6th 2019. Previously, Ms. Lin served as senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. She has extensive U.S. government experience working on China security issues including policy planning at the Department of Defense, the National Security Council, and Department of State. Today, she is a visiting research fellow at the Center for Global Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of California, Irvine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Elan Ganeles: What are the first things that come to your mind when you think about the Sino- Israeli Relations?
Christina Lin: Opportunity, cooperation, convergent interests, and friendship.
EG: Historically, how has China viewed Israel from a diplomatic perspective?
CL: Historically, China has not paid much attention to Israel. China has viewed Israel as an extension of western imperial powers, and shared more affinity with the Global South and Arab states during the Cold War. However, with Deng Xiaoping’s reform and the opening up of China in the late 1970s, Beijing began to establish military ties with Israel which eventually led to full diplomatic relations in 1992. Since then, economic and commercial relations have flourished.
EG: What role do you believe Israel plays in China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI)?
CL: Israel plays a key role in helping to stabilize the Mideast as part of the BRI, which can foster an economic ecosystem that could promote regional stability by linking various trading and logistics hubs. For instance, Minister Katz proposed an Israel-Gulf Economic Corridor (IGEC) connecting Israel with Jordan and the Gulf countries, which would lead to closer economic ties and perhaps eventually positive spillover to formal political and diplomatic relations and a foundation for a Middle East Peace Process. China needs stability in order to implement the Middle East segment of the Eurasian BRI and consequently has a vested interest in mitigating the Arab-Israeli conflict, Saudi-Iran conflict, or Israeli-Iran conflict.
EG: Can you elaborate on current U.S. security concerns over military technology transfers and U.S. pressures to drive an economic wedge between China and Israel?
CL: The U.S. is concerned with the export of dual-use technologies that could enhance Chinese military capabilities or diversion to third parties such as Iran or other adversaries. Historically, these are legitimate security concerns.
However, under the Trump administration, national security is more broadly defined by the passing of Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act (FIRRMA) in 2018, which specifically targets Chinese investments. This casts a wide net and includes most economic transactions, including the purchase or lease of property near “sensitive” government property, such as U.S. ports and military facilities; non-passive investments in “critical technology,” “critical infrastructure,” and “sensitive personal data of United States citizens” that can impact national security. Thus, it seems U.S. objections to Chinese investments in Israel is based on its own definition of a “national security threat” under FIRRMA, especially as it pertains to controversies over Haifa port and other critical infrastructures.
Nonetheless, these categories are vague and Washington needs to explain to Israel where they draw their parameters for a “national security threat” and coordinate with Jerusalem’s own definition, since, after all, not all countries face the same threats. The U.S. also needs to take care not to abuse national security as an excuse to arbitrarily boycott any foreign companies that happen to be a competitor of U.S. companies. There are indeed cases of legitimate concerns which should be reviewed and possibly restructured or blocked if necessary, but these need to be reviewed on a case by case basis.
EG: How do you think Israel’s political environment affects relations between the two countries? How might this change after the Israeli elections in April?
CL: I think the current relationship between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government and the Trump administration is quite strong and this will likely continue after the April elections.
EG: How do you believe the U.S.-Chinese trade war will affect Sino-Israeli relations?
CL: I predict it will have negative spillovers for Sino-Israel ties and raises an interesting and increasingly more relevant question: How do U.S. allies balance their defense dependency alongside their need for foreign direct investment (FDI) and economic growth? Israel and East European NATO countries’ defense strategies depend on the U.S. Simultaneously, these early stage, developed countries require foreign direct investments, economic growth and alternative markets to attain total economic and defense dependency. Israel faces this challenge under incredibly adverse conditions; it must seek new markets in the face of the growing Boycott Divestment Sanction (BDS) movement in the West.
The Trump administration’s trade war against China includes the high-tech sector. Israel’s comparative advantage is in high-tech goods which require scale economies for continual innovation. This puts Israel in a tight spot, curbing trade with large economies such as China.
EG: As China becomes once again an increasingly dominant player in foreign policy, how do you view China’s role in the Middle East and specifically in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
CL: China could have a useful regional stabilization role in a post-conflict Middle East through the BRI. BRI provides much needed, fast economic relief and infrastructure. The BRI can reduce ungoverned spaces where terrorist actors thrive, and create economic and political stability. This supports the broader scope of Israel’s interests in the region.
For example, the collapse of Egypt’s Sisi government and rise of the Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic Jihad could be catastrophic for Israel. Beijing values Egypt’s importance as a node on the BRI and is pouring in long-term strategic investments to promote Egypt’s growth and stability. China’s building efforts in the Syrian Golan heights is also more palatable to Israel than, say, Iranian proxy, Hezbollah’s ongoing and terror-oriented infrastructure projects. As mentioned earlier, the IGEC could promote closer Israel-Gulf ties and jumpstart the Arab Peace Initiative.
EG: This past year, you’ve mentioned engaging China in mediation and stabilization/reconstruction of post-conflict Middle East. How is China getting involved in these efforts?
CL: There are many examples. For instance, China is helping to stabilize Lebanon, a country on the verge of economic collapse and a severe refugee crisis (sheltering 1.5 million Syrian refugees). China's motives lay in its fear that Lebanon could become a hotbed for Syrian/anti-Chinese Uyghur terrorists who would target Chinese interests. This is analogous to the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan; it was the U.S. effort to deter Al Qaeda from seeking a stronger foothold in Afghanistan and coordinating attacks against the United States from there.
Another example: similar to China’s active approach to the Iran Nuclear Deal (officially known as JCPOA or P5+1), Beijing's appointment of a Special Envoy to the Syrian Crisis indicates the tremendous strategic value China perceives in the resolution of the Syria crisis. China is floating its diplomatic (trial) balloon. This is not in an effort to replace Western mediation or conflict management, but to assist and support ongoing efforts to save its own skin in the game. As such, I believe this should be an opportunity for Western powers to engage China in these mediation and stabilization efforts and also consider Beijing’s legitimate interests and security concerns in the region.
EG: How do you believe China and Israel’s relationships with Iran affect the Sino-Israeli connection?
CL: Israel’s relationship and influence with China will have benefits for Israel-Iran relations. China has a platform with both countries, and can play a mitigating role in reducing Israel-Iran tensions.
EG: What do you believe are the most imminent future challenges for Sino-Israeli relations?
CL: Definitely the U.S. zero-sum/ Cold War approach towards China, increasing Sinophobia, and attempts to draw U.S. allies into an anti-China coalition to block all Chinese led-initiatives (even those which benefit allies). Not all non-western initiatives are anti-Western. They are just non-Western, non-U.S. led.