“While we are not asking Israel to avoid dealing with China entirely, we have open discussions with all our closest allies and partners on the national security implications of Chinese investment,” said Michael Mulroy, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, in a written statement to The Atlantic.
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Mulroy noted that within three years, a Chinese state-owned company is expected to operate part of the Haifa port, near an Israeli naval base that serves as a frequent port of call for the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet. China’s investment in the port prompted a rare objection from the U.S. Navy to Israeli counterparts when it was first disclosed last year. As Amos Harel, a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noted in the paper, “China is acquiring vast influence over essential infrastructures in Israel and, indirectly, also a closer look at some of Israel’s military capabilities.”
“The Department of Defense is concerned about China’s desire to erode U.S. military advantages, as well as China’s push for access and basing, use of economics to intimidate through the One Belt One Road initiative”—a worldwide campaign of infrastructure investments—“and technology and intellectual property theft, acquisition and penetration,” Mulroy’s statement said. (The Israeli Embassy declined to comment.)
Why worry? As Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood put it during a recent visit to Israel: “China wants to own the road, and wants to control the belt.”
Yet Israel is in a different position than, say, Sri Lanka, which couldn’t pay back a Chinese loan to develop a port and ended up having to hand it over to China on a 99-year lease. Israel is not in danger of such a “debt trap,” according to Galia Lavi, a researcher in the Israel-China program at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. She noted that a Chinese company is on contract to operate only one dock of the Haifa port—it isn’t loaning money to Israel. And the dock at issue wouldn’t host the Sixth Fleet or any fleet; the naval base does that.
“You cannot see the navy base” from the dock the Chinese company will operate, Lavi, who visited the port recently, told me. “Even if you have binoculars. Even if you stand on stop of a big building.”
But U.S. defense officials’ concern is not just about China’s physical access to a sensitive region where the U.S. has for decades been the dominant outside power. It’s also that certain commercial deals, particularly in the technology sector, could be a back door to Chinese spying in sensitive national-security realms. “The openness of the U.S. and Israeli economies is a strength for our countries, but malign actors can take advantage of that if we are not cautious,” Mulroy said.
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