Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Alexander B. Pevzner – Founding Director of the Chinese Media Center (CMC) at the College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon LeZion, Israel, and a senior advisor to the Silk Road Group – is the 175th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Explain the context of China’s heightened media coverage of U.S.-China-Israel relations.
Recently, an increasing number of articles focused on American displeasure over the close Israel-China ties and the resulting Chinese access to cutting-edge Israeli technology. U.S. officials also voiced concerns over Chinese investment in strategic infrastructure assets in Israel, especially in the new Haifa container terminal.
The avalanche of commentary came against the backdrop of the deterioration of U.S.-China ties, in which the arrest of senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou was but the latest salvo. From China’s military facility in Djibouti to investments in ports in Europe, the U.S. is concerned with the growing global Chinese presence.
What is the focal point of the controversy?
The project that found itself at the center of controversy is a new container terminal currently under construction next to the existing Port of Haifa. In 2015, China’s Shanghai International Port (Group) Co. (SIPG), majority owned by the Shanghai government, won a 25-year concession to operate the new Bayport terminal from 2021.The Haifa civilian port is next to an Israeli navy facility and hosts the U.S. Sixth Fleet when it visits the area. Media quoted U.S. officials as saying the Sixth Fleet may stop visiting the Haifa port because of Chinese presence there.
How have Israeli media outlets covered the controversy?
The report that started it all was a Jerusalem Post piece from August 2018, reporting from a joint Haifa University-Hudson Institute maritime conference. The article quoted Admiral (ret.) Gary Roughead, who served as the 29th chief of naval operations and commander of the United States Fleet Forces Command, warning that the Chinese presence in the Haifa port would allow them to collect military intelligence.
There had been media reports before warning over Chinese investment in Israel, but the Jerusalem Post article from August really opened the flood gates. What ensued was a veritable cascade of writing, though little of it was original. Most of the articles either rehashed previous reporting or were op-ed pieces by officials from the conservative side of the American political spectrum (for example, here and here).
The Hebrew media followed the topic with its own reports, but little was new, too — for example, Globes, a local business daily, interviewed Rear Admiral (Ret.) Prof. Shaul Chorev, who was also quoted in the original Jerusalem Post piece from August. In the Globes interview Chorev offered an expanded version of his original argument criticizing the Israeli government that let the Chinese gain a foothold in a strategic Israeli asset.
Another report in Hebrew quoted Nadav Argaman, head of the domestic intelligence agency, Israel Security Agency (ISA). Speaking in a closed session, Argaman warned that the increased Chinese investments in infrastructure and financial areas may pose a security threat to Israel. It is rare for the head of ISA to be directly quoted in the media, but even this report was simply repeating the arguments mentioned in previous reports.
In one interview, the head of the Israel Port Authority (that ran the tender for the new terminal), tried to dispel the concerns over Chinese investments, but the overall thrust of both English and Hebrew reports was negative toward the Chinese presence.
Israel-China relations indeed have been flourishing in recent years. Chinese tourism in Israel has been growing and academic ties are expanding. China is a significant investor in the Israeli high-tech industry, and has concluded several high-profile acquisitions of Israeli companies. In October 2018, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan visited Israel in what was the most senior visit by a Chinese official to Israel in 18 years.
Thus, Israel found itself in the unenviable position of a terzo incomodo (third wheel) in the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry. While some of the concerns expressed by U.S. officials are understandable, that U.S. officials are only now sounding the alarm over the Chinese presence in the Haifa port, even though SIPG won the tender bid already in 2015, reflects the changing perceptions of China in the U.S.
Analyze Chinese media coverage of U.S.-Israel-China dynamics.
China has been mostly silent over the recent debate, probably reflecting the fact that the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also avoided addressing American criticism in public. The Chinese media largely limited itself to translating some of the points made in the U.S. and local press, with most of the reporting appearing in Reference News (Cankao Xiaoxi), the Chinese newspaper that translates global media and adds some commentary.
The reports carried by Reference News stated that the U.S. was simply trying to curb China’s rise. An interesting point made in one of the articles explained Israel’s move toward greater cooperation with China as strategic diversification amid what is perceived as U.S. retreat from the region. Thus, as China’s global stature grows, the article stated, so does Israel’s ability to “say no” to U.S. demands to curb Chinese investment in Israel.
The first original piece of reporting in China’s official media came in an English-language op-ed published January 16 on Chinese government portal China.org.cn. While the article summarized the points made in previous reporting and rebuked the U.S. for meddling in China’s ties with Israel, in a first, the writer also criticized Israel, expressing Chinese impatience over official Israel’s silence on the issue.
Then came what was likely perceived by China as the first Israeli official rejection of U.S. concerns. On January 17, an Israeli business daily The Marker quoted (in Hebrew) an unnamed Israeli official saying U.S. claims the China would use its presence in the Haifa port to spy over the U.S. were “ a joke and absolute madness.”
That was the hook China was looking for. Reference News carried the “joke and absolute madness” quote in its own article on January 18. Then, in a regular press briefing at China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on January 21, spokeswoman Hua Chunying seized upon a reporter’s question referencing the “joke” remark by taking up the point made by the unnamed Israeli official:
“The U.S. has been ignoring the facts and is being extremely nervous, mistaking each bush and tree for the enemy and mistaking the shadow of a bow in one’s cup as a snake.”
“Even its allies find it ridiculous,” Hua said.
What message is Chinese media sending to U.S. and Israeli policymakers?
Beyond the obvious chance to needle the U.S., China was likely watching the debate over the Haifa port and the lingering Israeli silence in consternation, fearing that U.S. pressure on Israel to cancel the port deal might work. Hence, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs took the opportunity to express its displeasure over American interference in what is considered by China as an important node in its eastern Mediterranean “string of pearls.”