The presence of Chinese state-owned companies at Israel’s seaports is acting as a thorn in U.S.-Israeli relations. According to China’s Ministry of Transport, a total of 52 ports in 34 countries are managed or were constructed by Chinese companies.

This includes Haifa’s new private seaport, which the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) will begin to manage from 2021 for 25 years. The project is drawing the concern of the U.S. Navy, which often docks at the Israeli naval base in the northern coastal city. That cooperation could change if the nearby civilian port comes under Chinese management, American officials have warned.

“There is no doubt that this has reached a crucial junction,” professor Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told JNS. “The American antagonism is clear to all.”

Asked whether Israel can find a path that would let it enjoy the economic benefits of relations with Beijing, Rabi said Israel will have to “dedicate a lot of energy and creativity” to ensure that China does not “take control of central pillars of the local economy, or taint relations with the U.S.”

Washington has made no secret of its displeasure over developments at Haifa. During his visit in mid-January, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton conveyed the Trump administration’s concern about China’s involvement.

“The possibility of withdrawing from the deal is possible and essential to Israel’s security,” said Dr. Ofer Israeli, a geostrategist and international-security policy expert. He argued that giving away the keys to a strategic port to any foreign party means a loss of Israeli control. He is is also concerned by reports of China taking advantage of the infrastructure it builds in other countries for surveillance, intelligence gathering, or cyber warfare.

“In my view,” he said, “Israel will not be able to deal with the security risks — not just in terms of spying, but also on other matters, such as the Chinese desire to bring ships to the port that could be on their way to train or assist Syrian forces or Hezbollah.”

Roie Yellinek, a doctoral student at Bar-Ilan University, recently published a paper in which he placed the Haifa-port tension within the wider context of growing American-Chinese competition.

Yellinek, a fellow at the China-Med Project, which monitors relations between Beijing and regional countries, wrote that “while the direct implications of the port’s management are of interest to China and the U.S., their concerns are more related to a Cold War-type struggle.”

“The question of influence over Israel is very important to both countries,” said Yellinek. “From Beijing’s perspective, the opportunity to increase its influence on a country that maintains such close ties with the U.S. can have deep implications for China’s international status.”

Speaking to JNS, Yellinek said that he believed that Israel could deal with the potential security challenges created by the Chinese company’s presence at Haifa. But the strain it would cause to relations with the U.S. would be too costly.

“My personal view is that we need to satisfy American expectations because they guarantee Israel’s security, while China has few sentiments for Israel’s security needs,” Yellinek said. “I think the government will have to act. … Ultimately, China is closer to Iran than it is to Israel.”

In September 2018, Rear Adm. Oded Gour-Lavie (Res.), a former head of the Israeli Navy’s Strategic Task Force, told JNS that given its location in the eastern Mediterranean, and coastline on the Red Sea, Israel is well suited to benefit from China’s initiative. But in a situation in which economic interests clash with security interests, Israel will have to make future decisions differently, “so that we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” Lavie said. JN

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