Comment: why US allies Israel, Saudi Arabia are cosying up to China

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 10:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 March, 2017, 5:42pm

King Salman of Saudi Arabia and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were both in Beijing last week. The fact they did not meet there is not evidence of China’s lack of influence in the Middle East. Even if they were simultaneously in Washington, they would still ignore each other. It is much too early for the two to be seen together in public.

But their visit did indicate the growing Chinese presence in the Middle East and the recognition of Chinese prowess, certainly economically, by the political leadership in the Middle East.

Saudi Arabia is a major source for China’s energy demand for its expanding economy. Israel is an innovation powerhouse and can provide knowledge assisting China in developing its agriculture. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel are fertile grounds for Chinese construction capacity, mostly in infrastructure. In the case of Israel, China also has the ability to inject financial resources into Israeli start-ups and academic institutions.

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On the face of it, it’s a healthy platform for building mutually beneficial relations, except that the two visiting leaders from the Middle East have a somewhat different political agenda from that of Beijing.

Both are satellites in the United States orbit. For its strategic security, Saudi Arabia depends very much on American arms, the American military presence in the Persian Gulf and its projection of power. Israel relies on the supply of the most advanced American arms and American backing in international organisations, especially in the UN Security Council, where the US veto has often prevented anti-Israel resolutions.

The two-term Obama presidency caused Israel and Saudi Arabia concern and disappointment. Both expected the US to show more resolve and determination in dealing with Iran’s attempts to gain non-peaceful nuclear capability. They are also concerned by the serious problems in the nuclear deal reached with Iran.

The greatest concern has been caused by what they view as the wimpish response from Washington to gains on Middle East battlegrounds made by Iran itself and through its proxy Hezbollah, and Russia. Nonetheless, Israel and Saudi Arabia will continue to be guided mostly by the impact of US considerations of their relations with other states. China’s warm relations with Tehran and its soft attitude towards Iranian subversive policies in the Middle East will continue to irk Israel and Saudi Arabia. They will continue to hope for an American deterrence of Iran, but this will not slow down their efforts to build closer relations with China.

The dependence on the US is most noticeable in Israel’s relations with China and especially in the absence of military cooperation. After the US aborted the sale of an airborne warning and control system to China, Israel has maintained tight no-military hardware sales, losing a most lucrative market. Israel may find itself in yet another awkward situation in its relations with Beijing if indeed US President Donald Trump enters into a trade war with China in an attempt to reduce the huge deficit his country suffers in its trade with the world’s second-largest economy. Israel and China have been negotiating a free-trade area agreement and a China-US trade war may impact negatively on the negotiations.

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Beyond the divergent views on Iran, China and Israel do not see eye to eye on the Palestinian issue. China consistently votes against Israel in the various UN bodies which frequently debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although that bias could be preventing China from becoming a major broker in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, it has not prevented Israel from raising the idea that China gets involved in supporting the Palestinian economy.

Furthermore, the Chinese pattern of voting did not stop Israel from joining the two Chinese giant projects the “One Belt, One Road” trade initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Business is business and politics is politics and they do not always go together.

Oded Eran is a veteran Israeli diplomat and a senior researcher at the Institute for National Studies at Tel Aviv University