America’s China Policy is Wrong. Israel Shouldn't Pay The Price
Washington’s ongoing campaign to limit Israel’s ties with China should come as no surprise: The United States has been intervening in Sino-Israeli relations for over seventy years. However, Israel is not the only state being pressured by Washington on this issue, and does not need to bow to it. Instead, Jerusalem must guard its national interests, demand compensation in return for concessions – and attempt to mediate between the rival superpowers
Illustration: Thomas, C. &. C. (1852) Persia Arabia &c. [Philadelphia: Thomas Cowperthwait & Co] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress; Pixabay
Relations (or their absence) between two sovereign states are usually a bilateral issue that directly reflects their national interests. However, that is not the case for Israel-China relations, which have been affected by interventions by third countries and entities from the very beginning.
Apparently, there was no reason why the State of Israel and the People’s Republic of China, founded within fifteen months of each other (in 1948 and 1949, respectively), could not establish diplomatic relations. There were no geographical, historical, cultural, and religious rivalries between them, and no Jewish community that could influence relations one way or the other. Moreover, a different political and ideological outlook did not prevent Israel from establishing ties with Communist bloc states, primarily the Soviet Union. In fact, the CIA considered Israel’s first government somewhat “leftist,” raising concerns that Israel might join the Communist bloc. This was one of the main reasons that the United States pressured Israel not to engage with China.
Indeed, Israel and China did not formalize relations until early 1992. This act, and the delay, were largely affected by external factors. These include Arab and Muslim countries, the Palestinians, Iran, the Soviet Union, and later Russia (most of which, unsurprisingly, often aimed to prevent or undermine progress in Israel-China relations). However, it was the United States whose impact – mostly negative – has been the longest-lasting.
Washington has played a key role – sometimes positive, but usually negative – in Israel-China relations since the 1950s
In recent years, the prevailing opinion amongst researchers, policymakers, and the media is that U.S.-China tensions are the primary reason for the slow progress, and even obstruction, of Israel-China relations. However, American involvement is not a new phenomenon. Washington has played a key role – sometimes positive, but usually negative – in Israel-China relations from the early 1950s to the present day and probably in the future.
This article will review America's impact on Israel-China relations and examine its motives. It will demonstrate how such interventions, past and present, are primarily driven by Washington’s interests – even when those interests do not align with Israel’s. The article concludes that in order to cope with current U.S. pressure on its relations with China, Israel should attempt to bridge the gaps between Beijing and Washington by practicing subtle diplomacy. In any case, Israel should underline that it will always take Washington’s concerns into serious consideration, but at the same time emphasize that its own interests take precedence over those of the United States.
1950-1970: Red light
Although the United States is perceived today as Israel’s closest ally and most important supporter, its attitude toward Israel (and Jews in general) has been ambivalent throughout history, and to some extent remains so today. In the late 1940s, many in America – including then Secretary of State George Marshall and the State Department – opposed the establishment of the State of Israel and warned that, if indeed established, it would be isolated from the world.
Washington recognized Israel immediately after its founding, but only de facto; it wasn’t until 31 January 1949, roughly eight months later, that it recognized Israel de jure, and only after several other states had done so. The first was the Soviet Union, which did so two days after Israel’s declaration of independence.
Even after establishing relations with Israel, and being fully aware of the war between Israel and its Arab neighbor states and the continuous hostilities that followed, the United States nevertheless imposed an arms embargo on Israel, preventing it from acquiring certain defensive weapons, also from NATO depots in Europe. Eventually, the United States, which imposed an arms embargo on China in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, encouraged Israel to help Beijing circumvent the embargo – but only when it began serving American interests in its rivalry with the Soviet Union (see below).
Israel recognized the People’s Republic of China on 9 January 1950 – the first in the Middle East and seventh in the non-Communist world to do so. Jerusalem, which at the time was trying to avoid aligning with one of the blocs and never recognized the “Republic of China” that had retreated to Taiwan, saw the communist takeover of China as a fait accompli, practically and legally.
Israel’s recognition of China was not coordinated with the U.S., which immediately objected it. Washington’s displeasure should be seen in the broader context of the beginning of the Cold War and its growing rivalry with the Soviet Union, as well as concern about Israel’s “leftism.” The disagreement over Israel’s recognition intensified when the Korean War broke out in June 1950, and even more so when China intervened in the war in October of that year.
Following Israel’s recognition, meetings between Israeli and Chinese diplomats were held in several European capitals but did not lead to the establishment of official relations. In fact, declassified documents show that in July 1951 Zhou Enlai, China’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, informed the Soviet ambassador to Beijing that his country did not intend to establish relations with Israel due to detrimental effects on China’s future relations with Arab and Muslim countries.
At the same time, the United States – which was not aware of China’s unwillingness to establish diplomatic ties with Israel – exerted heavy pressure on Israel, including threats on Israeli diplomats in Washington, to discard relations with Beijing. Some senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials, who also did not know of Beijing’s attitude, vehemently denounced the U.S. policy toward China and considered it a serious political mistake. They were right.
Several other Western countries also defied America’s anti-Chinese policy. Britain recognized China in 1950 and opened an embassy in Beijing in 1954. The Scandinavian countries also established ties with China: Sweden, Finland, Denmark in 1950, and Norway in 1954.
Israel’s situation, however, was different. As Israel’s economic dependence on the United States and its Jewish community increased, the Sino-Soviet alliance peaked and China’s relations with the Arab and Muslim countries expanded. Consequently, the chance to forge official relations between Jerusalem and Beijing effectively decreased.
Moreover, China’s hostility to Israel intensified for several reasons. These included the bomb which exploded at the Soviet embassy in Tel Aviv in 1953; The Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in April 1955, where Chinese representatives first met with delegates from several Arab states (Egypt and Syria) and learned of the Palestinian issue; Israel’s participation alongside Britain and France in the October 1956 attack on Egypt, which the United States halted; China’s ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which sent a delegation to Beijing in 1965; and finally, the radicalization of the “Culture Revolution” (1966-69) and the Six-Day War in June 1967 – all of which caused Beijing to implicitly question Israel’s right to exist.
In the second half of the 1960s, China began supplying small arms, as well as military and ideological training, to Palestinian organizations fighting Israel. It was only when it was already involved in Vietnam, which was then receiving Chinese military aid, that the United States began to supply arms in significant quantities to Israel.
However, this was by no means a unilateral act. Although American circles tend to deny it, Israel transferred advanced Soviet weapons and military technology to the United States, which did not have access to them before. This contributed greatly to maintaining the balance of power between America and the Soviet Union. Some believe that the arms and intelligence that Israel gave the United States exceeded the American military aid it received.
In the late 1960s, official relations between China and Israel seemed more inconceivable than ever. However, within a decade that would change significantly.
1970-1990: A Green Light
Sino-Soviet tensions peaked toward the late 1960s with a series of violent confrontations across their border. These occurred just as Richard Nixon was elected U.S. president, pledging to withdraw American forces from Vietnam and improve relations with Beijing. By that time, the United States had concluded that China had become a potential partner and should be armed against the Soviet Union, which was the primary concern. To strengthen China and make sure it could hold its ground against Soviet armed forces, the United States secretly encouraged Israel to sell arms to Beijing.
Having been cut off from Soviet arms supply since 1960, China was seriously weakened militarily and had to rely on outdated, locally produced, and reverse-engineered weapons. Despite the Sino-Soviet conflict, China could not acquire Western arms due to several limitations – geopolitical, technical (Western weapons and ammunition did not match the Chinese arsenal), and legal. These problems ultimately paved the way toward the improvement of its relations with Israel.
American officials recommended that the Chinese acquire weapons and military technology from Israel, and even urged Beijing to establish diplomatic relations with Jerusalem
After China was admitted to the United Nations in October 1971 (and Taiwan expelled), informal relations between China and the United States were established. Henry Kissinger, the U.S. National Security Advisor, was probably the first to suggest, on his first visit to China in July 1971, that Beijing should obtain weapons from Israel. The “secret” visit, which became public almost immediately, took place roughly two years after the worst military clash between the Soviet Union and China in 1969, which left hundreds of casualties on both sides. Consequently, China urgently needed advanced weaponry to face the Soviet Union.
Unlike other countries, Israel had unique advantages when it came to selling weapons to China. Moscow, had it known about the deals, could not apply pressure on Israel – since it had cut off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967. Furthermore, Israel, which was not party to the COCOM agreement, was not bound by Western restrictions on arms sales to Communist countries. Most importantly, Israel had by then accumulated a large stockpile of Soviet weapons used by Arab countries. Some brand new, captured Soviet arms were significantly upgraded by Israel. Consequently, Israel was practically the only country capable of selling arms, parts, and military technology to China.
President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in February 1972 was followed in the next years by visits of senior American foreign affairs and defense officials. Among them were James Schlesinger, Donald Rumsfeld, Harold Brown, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Senate committee leaders and members. Each recommended that the Chinese acquire weapons and military technology from Israel, and even urged Beijing to establish diplomatic relations with Jerusalem.
In February 1979, an Israeli delegation of senior officials from the Ministry of Defense, Israeli Foreign Intelligence (Mossad), and military industries left for China. They used Saul Eisenberg’s private jet. A Jewish Israeli businessman who had fled Europe on the eve of World War II to Shanghai and then to Japan, Eisenberg became wealthy doing businesses in East Asia, including China – and had some ties with its leadership. Though having never previously engaged in diplomacy, Eisenberg served as liaison and intermediary in Israel's arms deals with China, most of which took place in the 1980s. These deals created interest groups in China’s defense establishment that sought to strengthen ties with Israel, and eventually laid the foundations for diplomatic relations. However, by 24 January 1992, when Beijing and Jerusalem officially established relations, Washington’s position toward China – and toward Sino-Israeli relations – had again been overturned.
After 1990: The Light Turns Red Again
Former Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu arrives for an official visit in Beijing, 2013 | Photo: Avi Ohayon, GPO
Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, American hostility and suspicion toward China have grown considerably, for two main reasons. First, Beijing’s violent crackdown on protestors at Tiananmen Square in June 1989 convinced Washington that the nature of China’s authoritarian regime had not changed. Throughout the 1980s, American leaders and scholars expected that the adoption of free-market policies and a capitalist economy would lead China toward democracy. Unfortunately, they were proven wrong, and after Tiananmen, the United States imposed a series of sanctions on China – mostly military, but also political and economic.
Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 "relieved" the United States of its biggest threat – or so its leaders wished to believe. Concurrently, China achieved significant technological, economic, and military advances without changing its ideology. This created – at least through American eyes – a new threat that has grown over time, and is perceived, to this day, as the principal threat to the United States.
These changes in the American attitude have significantly damaged Sino-Israeli relations. Ultimately, Israel was forced to stop arms sales to China, establish an arms export control system, and face growing U.S. pressure aimed at reducing, or even blocking, Chinese investments and presence in Israel.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of Russia led to the revival of Beijing's political, economic, and military relations with Moscow. As already mentioned, much of China’s military system had anyway been based on Soviet technology, and it was easier and less expensive to restore military procurement from Russia. However, China was by then already using, at least partially, advanced weaponry that Russia could not provide or did not want to, but which Israel could and did – until it was blocked by Washington.
Though Israel's arms sales to China shrunk significantly following the revival of Beijing-Moscow ties, China was (and still is) interested in innovative Israeli arms and technologies. However, the United States, which had previously encouraged Israel to sell weapons to China to use against the Soviet Union, was now firmly opposed. Indeed, Washington began to strongly discourage Israel from selling arms to China and, on three occasions, even forced Israel to cancel existing deals.
Israel-China relations deteriorated for a long time after the cancellation of the Phalcon deal
The first occasion began with a U.S. accusation that Israel had secretly handed China American technology installed in the “Patriot” anti-missile missile system, which the U.S. had delivered to Israel. Israel and Saudi Arabia first used the missile system, with limited success, against ballistic missiles fired at them from Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. Lacking any factual basis, the accusation partly originated in U.S. bureaucratic in-fighting regarding who controlled weapons exports. An American review committee exonerated Israel, but the direction of U.S.-Israel relations regarding China has nevertheless remained unchanged.
The second occasion related to the “Phalcon” controversy. Phalcon is an Israeli-made airborne warning and control system which contains no American components. The system can be installed on various aircraft and was previously mounted on Boeing 707s that Israel sold to other countries. Interested in this system, the Chinese prepaid $250 million, planning to buy three more if proved successful. They demanded that the system be assembled on a Russian IL-62 aircraft, which Israel was forced to buy from Russia, which now became involved in the deal.
The United States did not initially object when Sino-Israeli negotiations on the Phalcon sale had begun. However, once progress was made, Washington changed its stance and tried to abort the deal. During professional talks I held with U.S. military attaché officials in Beijing and Hong Kong in the 1990s, the Americans strongly objected to the Phalcon deal. They believed that the system would likely destabilize the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait and target American forces in case of a military confrontation with China.
In response, I pointed out that the Phalcon is defined as a defensive system. When similar airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) were sold to Saudi Arabia in 1981, the United States also claimed they were "defensive" systems, despite Israeli protests. I added that one Phalcon system would not alter the military power balance between China and Taiwan and that if Israel does not provide the system, China will get it from Russia or develop its own. The Americans replied that China’s acquisition of a Russian AWACS was of less concern because "the Russian systems are not as sophisticated as the Israeli ones."
I then further emphasized that China’s acquisition of the "Phalcon" is not an isolated event but rather an on-going deal. I added that over the years it will also include supplying spare parts and repairs, which will provide Israel with a presence in China’s military industries (as was in the 1980s), and, therefore, with intelligence that it could share with the United States.
Unfortunately, my arguments fell on deaf ears. Under continued American pressure, Israel was forced to cancel the deal, return the down payment, and pay $100 million in damages. If that wasn’t enough, the timing of the cancellation couldn’t have been worse – mere days after Jiang Zemin, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and President of China, visited Israel and was assured that the deal would take place. It was the first and last visit of its kind to date.
The Chinese publicly blamed the United States, rather than Israel, for the cancellation, relying on traditional Chinese values according to which a younger brother must obey his older brother. Still, Israel-China relations deteriorated for a long time afterwards, and the Israeli Ambassador to China at the time, Yitzhak Shelef, was denied access to China’s leaders and even to senior officials. After the Phalcon deal fell through, China purchased an AWACS from Russia and eventually developed its own system, which was of similar quality to the Israeli one.
Third is the “Harpy” affair of the 1990s. “Harpy” is a lethal Israeli-made unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed to destroy radar stations. A decade after a deal was struck between Israel and China, Washington learned that China had sent some of these drones back to Israel – allegedly for maintenance, but the United States claimed it was for upgrades. Whatever the reason, even though the “Harpy” contained no American components, Washington insisted that Israel cut all “Harpy”-related service deals with China. Apparently, all the drones were returned to China untouched.
American pressure had far-reaching consequences. Major-General (Ret.) Amos Yaron, then Director-General of the Ministry of Defense, resigned after facing U.S. allegations that he lied about previous deals with China. Under U.S. pressure, in 2007 the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed its first law regulating arms exports. Then, the Ministry of Defense was compelled to establish the Defense Exports Control Agency (DECA), which was charged with overseeing military exports, even though these were already covered by International Defense Cooperation (SIBAT) department. Subsequently, Israel ceased selling weapons and military technology to China, despite Beijing’s interest (which persists to this day).
Although Israel-China military ties were blocked, cooperation in the field of homeland security continued
But although military ties were blocked, cooperation in the field of homeland security continued. Beijing hired private Israeli security companies to assist in the 2008 Olympics, despite objections from the United States. Furthermore, the Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (PAP) sent troops for training in Israel, and Israeli instructors (from Israel’s Border Guard and from the private security sector) trained PAP units in China. Israel also sold China surveillance and monitoring technology to assist in its fight against terrorism.
The prospering Sino-Israeli economic relationship triggered widespread U.S. opposition. Washington claimed that "Chinese presence" in the port of Haifa and construction of the metro line in Tel Aviv posed a security risk, both to the American navy ships that occasionally dock at the port and to Israel itself, because of their proximity to the Israeli navy facilities and to the “Kirya,” Israel’s central military headquarters in Tel Aviv. Similar allegations were made against permitting "Huawei," the Chinese hi-tech giant with roots in the Chinese military, to operate a branch in Ramat Hasharon. Some Chinese investments continued uninterrupted, while others were frozen under American pressure (such as the tender for the construction of a water-desalination plant and the acquisition of insurance companies).
Given these assertions, it should be noted that China has a presence and investments in ports in other countries, including the United States. However, none are targeted by the U.S. like Israel. For example, an Australian special investigation recently dispelled concerns of Chinese espionage in Darwin harbor, leased to China in 2015 for 99 years.
America has yet to present compelling evidence that Chinese investments in Israeli infrastructure have intelligence implications. One must remember that this is not the first time that the United States has based its foreign policy on unverified and wrong assertions. The most famous example was accusing Iraq of possessing weapons of mass destruction and using it as an excuse to invade the country in 2003. Contrary to the U.S. claims, one can say that Chinese involvement in Israel could in fact offer intelligence gains.
Summary and Recommendations
Opinions are divided over how Israel should manage its relations with China. Most think that we should not risk our special relations with Washington. If forced to choose, Israel will have to side with the United States for several reasons: Israel’s military and diplomatic dependence on the U.S.; the strong influence wielded by the American Jewish community (the second largest in the world, after Israel); China’s longstanding ideological and military support (to this day) for the Arabs, the Palestinians and Iran; and the political and ideological differences between Israel and China. Finally, since joining international organizations in 1971, China has also never voted in Israel’s favor in these forums.
Israel is by no means the only country confronted by these dilemmas; many - certainly in the third world but also in the West - face similar choices. However, not all yield to US pressure. Countries like Switzerland, Germany, and even Taiwan (which is facing the most serious Chinese threat), all sell China technologies that Israel is not “allowed” to. All these countries have national interests, yet welcome Chinese investments and economic relations - including the United States. But US pressure on Israel is by far the heaviest compared to other countries, including Taiwan, mainly because of Israel’s military and diplomatic dependence. U.S. claims that it “knows” China better, while Israel does not, is not only evidently false but outright insulting.
A US aircraft carrier near the coast of Vietnam, 2018 | Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Devin M. Monroe/Released (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Washington inexplicably maintains an uncompromising position that developing ties between China and Israel are harmful for Israel and for the United States. This assertion must be critically examined rather than unequivocally accepted. Since the Second World War, and even prior to it, the U.S. has accumulated a long list of foreign policy failures, blunders, and misunderstandings, for example in Vietnam, Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Washington, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s actually pushed China into Russia’s arms (literally speaking), may have better “intelligence” but not necessarily more knowledge.
Moreover, in the past, Israel defied U.S. demands on several occasions – which, in retrospect, affected mutual relations marginally, at worst. Ultimately, it often turned out that Israel was right in the case of U.S. doubts about Israel’s Declaration of Independence in 1948; warning Israel to avoid a preemptive strike in June 1967; reservations about Israel bombing the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and the Syrian reactor in 2007; and the annexation of the Golan Heights in 1981. In each of these instances, Israel held its ground. History is a great teacher.
Israel should not become a pawn in the superpower competition, but could instead try to follow its own rules
Consequently, Israel must maintain its relations with China, while carefully maneuvering between Washington and Beijing. No one doubts that the United States is an invaluable ally to Israel, but Israel is also important for the United States. Washington tends to downplay Israel’s contributions to its national security, ignoring Jerusalem’s role in providing valuable Soviet arms, technologies, and knowledge, and helping block the Soviet Union’s foray into the Middle East. Israel-U.S. relations are by no means a one-way street.
Against this background, the Israeli policy of having it both ways should be carried out smartly, with finesse, and with minimal concessions. Israel should not become a pawn in the superpower competition; it could try to follow its own rules. One of the values shared by both the Chinese and Jewish cultures is seeking the “middle ground.” The Chinese prefer to avoid “either/or” options, in favor of “both”. Israel should follow the same rule. Despite some U.S. claims that Israel does not truly fathom China’s intentions, Jerusalem knows enough to define its own trajectory.
Actively rather than passively, Israel could propose to bridge the schism between the United States and China by setting up frameworks for joint academic and political discussions. Such dialogue would emphasize the benefits of improving U.S. attitude toward China, and the implications for U.S. allies in having constructive relations with Beijing. The goal would be to prevent another U.S. miscalculation, one that could prove to be its worst yet. Indeed, the U.S. could benefit from listening occasionally to other opinions on how to deal with China.
To some extent, the U.S. approach to China could be compared to Israel’s approach to Iran: though, in theory, nothing connects the two, both are borderline obsessive. If the struggle against China is so important to the U.S., and the fight against Iran's nuclear ambitions is indeed vital for Israel, there is no doubt in my mind that if Washington would unequivocally commit to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear abilities, Jerusalem would reciprocate by reducing its dealings with China. After all, Beijing is one of Tehran’s main supporters, and China for years was hostile toward Israel. However, the U.S. must return the favor by genuinely committing to thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
True, Israel could survive without China, but such a task would be much harder without American support. Nevertheless, this does not mean that Israel must remain passive in this trilateral relationship, since cowering to U.S. demands will only invite more pressure. Thus, Israel must make it clear to Washington that while it is, and always will be, attentive to American concerns, it must nevertheless act according to Israeli self-interest. Though Israel has little margin for error, it should nevertheless promote dialogue and, at times, resist American pressure, rather than giving up from the start and maintaining a reactive stance to current affairs.
Yitzhak Shichor is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Asian Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and at the Asian Studies Department, the University of Haifa. He had previously served, among other roles, as Head of Tel-Hai Academic College, Dean of Students at the Hebrew University, and Executive Director of the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He received his Ph.D. from the London School of Economics (LSE), and over half a century ago established the China section at the Research Department, Israel Military Intelligence Directorate (AMAN).
(Personal photo, courtesy of the author)
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 Arnon Gutfeld, “The 1981 AWACS Deal: AIPAC and Israel Challenge Reagan,” Mideast Security and Policy Studies, No. 157, 2018.
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 Ran Dagoni, “Harpy UAV Compromise with US: No Upgrades for China,” Globes, 25 May 2005.
 Avi Ashkenzai, “MAGAV [Border Guards] Instructors Train Chinese Commandos,” NRG, 8 August 2012 (Hebrew). https://www.makorrishon.co.il/nrg/online/1/ART2/393/417.html; Jonathan Lis, “Israeli Police Trained Chinese Counterparts Prior to Olympics,” Haaretz, 28 September 2008, https://www.haaretz.com/1.5038565.
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 Amy Sinclair, “Controversial 99-Year Port of Darwin Lease to Chinese Company Cleared on National Security Grounds,” 9 News, 21 December 2021, https://www.9news.com.au/national/china-news-port-of-darwin-lease-to-chinese-company-cleared-by-national-security-committee/293a5f9c-3425-49e8-b037-bd1d43f7bfa4
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 Ron Prosor, Undiplomatically Speaking: Around the World in Thirty Years, Rishon Letzion: Yedioth Ahronoth (Hebrew), pp. 286-288.
 Yoram Ettinger, “American Pressure – A Test for Israel’s Leadership,” Ettinger Report, 4 November 2021. https://bit.ly/3wh1PgC
 Yitzhak. Shichor, “Combining Contradictions: Jewish Contributions to the Chinese Revolution,” in: Chih-yu Shih (guest ed.), International Journal of China Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, December 2020, pp. 183-212.