How COVID, Hong Kong, 5G spying broke Israel’s US-China balance

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There have been reports of China trying to hack foreign research for arriving at a coronavirus cure.

Previous transportation minister Israel Katz and employees of the China Railway Engineering Corporation take part in an event in 2017 marking the beginning of underground construction work of the Tel Aviv light rail, using a Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

Previous transportation minister Israel Katz and employees of the China Railway Engineering Corporation take part in an event in 2017 marking the beginning of underground construction work of the Tel Aviv light rail, using a Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM)

(photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

During an official visit of Israeli government officials and Israeli media, including The Jerusalem Post, to China in July 2019, the atmosphere was full of celebration because of a skyrocketing partnership.

How a year can change things. In one year, after multiple crises with corona, Hong Kong and 5G spying allegations – the carefully balanced relations are no longer recognizable.

Last year, Jerusalem was thrilled to be doing NIS 15 billion in trade with Beijing.

Twenty years earlier, Israel had to wade through an embarrassing diplomatic mess when the US strong-armed Israel into backing out of a done-deal advanced radar sale to China. But as of last year, Israel had found a way to walk the tightrope of developing a strong relationship with the Chinese, while still holding tight to its main alliance with the US.

During last year’s China visit, officials from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry permitted the Post to ask some tough questions about China’s relationship with Iran and allegations of Chinese backdoor spying on countries it provides infrastructure to.

But their clear emphasis was on supporting the skyrocketing relationship, and the Chinese seemed astonishingly open to a range of debates, including interest in discussing religious differences and diversity. Walking between the raindrops seemed possible.

To be clear there were tensions. Yet even through years of US-China trade wars, Israel managed to keep its head down and reap the positives of a new thriving relationship with Beijing.

Despite some general US threats about removing its navy from Israel’s Haifa port if Jerusalem allowed the Chinese to build and operate the new port around Haifa, Jerusalem did not cancel the deal, sufficing with promises to be more careful about US interests in future deals. There was a distant conflict between the US and China over whether Israel would use Chinese technology for a future 5G communications network, but this could also be papered over – or so it seemed.

Corona changed that all.

Not only did the US turn on China in a long-term and far more demanding way, but the Chinese handling of the issue exposed a degree of self-centeredness at the expense of the rest of the globe that shocked Israel and many other international trade partners.

Conspiracy theories aside, almost no one debates that once China was hit by the coronavirus, it made a conscious choice to downplay the virus’ impact to the rest of the world and to conceal its full scope to avoid personal embarrassment (even assuming the majority view that all of this started as an accident).

Countries which cut off flights to China for their own citizens’ safety were threatened. This slowed the process of cutting off flights and allowed large numbers of Chinese citizens or residents to travel worldwide and quickly infect a myriad of countries.

Israel and other countries had come to expect China to act more responsibly since it has broadened trade with Western democracies and taken on global leadership positions. Hong Kong was already a problem during the Post’s visit to China last year. The media and Israeli government officials were not comfortable, to say the least, with China’s crackdown on protesters at the time.
But back then, China had withdrawn the national security law, that it has now just recently passed, and appeared to be searching for some middle ground with the protesters to allow Hong Kong to have a special level of autonomy, even if less than what the protesters wanted.

There is an ongoing debate about why China finally changed course and passed the draconian law. This law convinced most Westerners that democracy in Hong Kong had ended and led the West to start treating Hong Kong the same as China in terms of trade and extradition. Whatever the reason, Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong once again convinced the West that China will only keep its word and follow international norms until it feels strong enough to ignore them.

All of these issues flowed into 5G and made European and other Western countries take a U-turn about using China’s 5G networks. They stopped ignoring the warnings about how China might use installation of its 5G networks to spy on them and to hold them hostage in future global disputes. For one, there have been reports of China trying to hack foreign research for arriving at a coronavirus cure.

Now the US has started to close Chinese Foreign Ministry offices and taken other strong measures to reduce potential Chinese spying, though some measures may also relate more to domestic US politics.

Last year, even as the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and some other national security officials warned about Chinese investment or control of certain aspects of Israeli infrastructure, there was a tremendous counter-wave. Even knowing the risks, the majority of Israeli cyber officials and even some prominent Israeli national security officials told the Post they supported these deep connections with Beijing due to the potential diplomatic and economic gains.

China was not a democracy, but it was an immovable fact of world relations going forward and could be counted on to be fair in the areas it dealt with Israel. Post-corona and Hong Kong, all or nearly all of those officials have flipped. It is now almost impossible to find Israeli cyber or national security officials who support increased Chinese investment in critical infrastructure.

China’s leaked long-term potential deal with Iran has not helped things. It seems Israel will continue with deals it has signed to date, but new major deals are in question and there is both a ceiling and doubt now in the relationship.

China is still an immovable player in international affairs and Israeli officials still want to make that relationship as positive as possible, but the starry-eyed era may have passed.

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