Event Date: June 3, 2020
The bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship carries a new burden. Extra weight has come in recent years in the form of the trilateral U.S.-China-Israel connection, according to Douglas Feith, former undersecretary of defense for policy.
The United States faces an “unprecedented challenge” from China, a country that is simultaneously a major international economic player and a major aggressive threat, Feith said.
China’s more aggressive, militaristic posture has prompted concern in Washington about how Jerusalem relates to Beijing, Feith told a Jewish Policy Center conference call on June 3. But U.S. policy makers also fret over their own decisions regarding the world’s second-largest economy and, by personnel, its largest—and rapidly modernizing—armed forces.
“The U.S.-Israel-China relationship became pressing only recently,” Feith said. More nakedly aggressive Chinese policies under Xi Jinping, who took over as president in 2013, are the reason why.
After spending several years consolidating power over the Chinese Communist Party, government, economy and military, Xi resolved something of a debate among Chinese leaders, Feith told approximately 200 call participants. Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Communist China’s founding leader, Mao Zedong, pursued a “hide and bide, and don’t lead” strategy while the People’s Republic opened itself to Western trade without loosening the party’s grip on power. If Beijing became too assertive too early, Deng feared, “the great powers, particularly the United States,” would try to stifle it.
Feith, who served in President George W. Bush’s administration from 2001 to 2005, said U.S. officials noted “two schools of thought” among Chinese party and military officials on “what is the path to China’s national greatness?” Countering Deng’s more patient approach “was another school … more aggressive, more militaristic” that argued “the time has come for China to emerge from hide-and-bide … and take the lead in the region, demand deference” and be able to rival the United States.
Xi “has resolved that question” in favor of the expansionists, Feith said. His China insists on recognition as a world power, one offering a competing model of prosperous authoritarianism to Western democratic capitalism as embodied by the United States.
Beijing’s propaganda claims that America spent the last century trying “to keep China down” are false, Feith asserted. President Richard Nixon’s landmark trip to China and summit meeting with Mao was a Cold War stratagem to use the People’s Republic to offset the Soviet Union. But with Deng’s economic liberalization, U.S. policy makers wanted “to strengthen the hand of those [in China] who argued for integration” into international trade and diplomacy.
For several decades the United States and other Western democracies “helped China grow economically,” said Feith, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. Americans “transferred technology to China and … assisted it to join the World Trade Organization,” among other initiatives.
Policy makers and academics believed “the effect would be to increase China’s appreciation of integration into the world of more advanced economies.” China would become more prosperous; a middle class would emerge and pressure the country’s Communist Party for political and civil rights. Rather than try to suppress China’s development, Washington assisted it, even defending the country against accusations it wasn’t living up to its WTO and other international obligations, according to Feith.
This “convergence theory” proved illusory. Under Xi, China intimidates its neighbors, claims ownership of the South China Sea, ostentatiously deploys its military, challenges the United States and tries to push it out of Asia and beyond, Feith said.
Although President Donald Trump has been inconsistent at times on China, his administration incudes “a number of officials who have laid out a strong policy of resistance to China,” Feith observed. Since the Obama administration took “hesitant” steps to counter Chinese expansionism, support for firm American policies are one example, in “highly polarized” times, of consensus across the Republican-Democrat political spectrum, he added.
Part of the Chinese leadership’s post-Deng foreign policy has been “very aggressive political influence operations.” These rely on leveraging trade, aid, the presence of Chinese students on foreign campus and establishment of Confucius Institutes that conduct both benign cultural programs and malign disinformation campaigns to influence journalists and other opinion leaders, Feith said. Israel is among the countries in which China conducts such activities.
So “there are Israelis who’ve been saying … ‘We should push back against the United States’” when it presses Jerusalem to reconsider deals like that allowing a Chinese firm to run a new civilian port at Haifa.
When Israelis complain to Americans about such pressure, U.S. officials face “a new challenge” themselves, since “we can’t say exactly what we want,” Feith noted. That’s because of how close the American and Chinese economies have become. Washington faces a similar problem when it urges allies in London, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere to avoiding doing business with Chinese firms like telecom giant Huawei due to possible security dangers, he said.
Feith observed that it was “pretty obvious” that as a liberal democracy Israel “has much closer alignments with the United States” and other Western countries. And while the Israeli-Chinese trade relationship has grown, China also “has close, friendly, relations with some of Israel’s biggest enemies, like Iran.” It also consistently takes anti-Israel positions at the United Nations.
Since commercial technology advances largely have erased the distinction between civilian and military goods, Israel cannot be sure that items from its high-tech commerce with China don’t end up in Iran,” he said.