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Photo illustration by John Lyman

By embracing China, Benjamin Netanyahu is showing that his loyalties to Washington are questionable.

The Middle East, a consistent focal point of global powers, is in the throes of a geopolitical shift. As the United States lessens its emphasis on the region, Israel has embarked on deepening diplomatic relations with China, underscoring the latter’s ascendance in the region. In 2023, China orchestrated the thawing of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the wake of these developments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pivot to China is being interpreted as a clear thumb in the eye of the Biden administration. The implications of this strategic repositioning extend to both U.S.-Israel diplomatic ties and U.S. domestic politics.

Global geopolitics has seen a dramatic reshaping in recent years. The reverberations of China’s diplomatic and economic maneuvers in the Middle East alone affirm its rising influence in the region. Meanwhile, the United States is recalibrating its national security assessment, reevaluating strategic foreign policy objectives in the Middle East, and reassessing alliances. In 2022, it earmarked $8.5 billion for the region, matching that figure in 2023, signaling its recognition of the region’s strategic importance.

China has asserted its economic and technological prowess in the Middle East, solidifying its stronghold in the region. Boasting an economy worth roughly $17.8 trillion in 2022, China holds the title of the second-largest global economy, outpaced only by the U.S. It has become the key trading partner and a significant investor for numerous nations in the region. As U.S. tensions escalate, Beijing has bolstered its ties with the Global South, using this alliance to counterbalance the United States. The Middle East is a key component of this strategy.

Recently, Middle East countries have shown increasing interest in joining Chinese-led multilateral groups like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the BRICS. In December, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a China-Arab summit with 14 Arab leaders. Beijing has concurrently maintained a 25-year strategic partnership with Iran, playing an integral role in ongoing nuclear negotiations. In June, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Beijing for a four-day tour. The nations formalized a strategic partnership agreement during his visit, and Chinese companies and Middle Eastern investors penned nearly 30 new agreements totaling more than $10 billion.

In contrast to other countries in the region, Israel’s trade and investment relations with China are diverging. In 2018, Israeli exports to China reached a record-breaking $4.77 billion, dipping slightly to $4.5 billion in 2022. 2018 marked the zenith of Chinese investment in Israel. There has been a steady rise in Israeli imports of Chinese goods, with the value escalating from $6 billion in 2020 to $13 billion by the end of 2022. Israel has significant potential to aid China in areas such as water and food technology, which are China’s Achilles’ heel. Beijing is also likely to push Israel to eliminate non-economic barriers to bilateral cooperation, such as U.S. pressure to prevent Israeli involvement in major infrastructure projects with Chinese companies.

Netanyahu’s potential visit to China carries unambiguous diplomatic weight. The gesture signals to the U.S. that Israel has options. This approach from Israel voices dissatisfaction and opposition to U.S. policy in the region. Saudi Arabia boasts considerable oil reserves, Turkey is a NATO member, and Iran has voiced its appetite for arms acquisition and substantial infrastructure investment. Israel, however, lacks these attributes. Hence, Netanyahu’s tilt toward China and his latest strategic maneuvers indicate that Israel, as a middle power, is assertively crafting strategies to protect its interests, increase its flexibility, and preserve its strategic autonomy in the region.

Netanyahu is also seeking to bolster collaboration in non-military tech sectors, such as health, agriculture, food, and water technology, with China. This collaboration could yield benefits for Israel by creating opportunities to leverage its technology sector to influence China’s perception of, and actions towards, Israel and the broader region. Beyond a specific interest in certain Israeli technologies, China does not regard Israel as having substantial strategic value.

In the present global context, Israel has strategically fortified its connections with China. This falls within the legitimate and customary boundaries of multifaceted foreign policy. Netanyahu’s maneuvers mark a fresh diplomatic approach. Israel views its partnership with the U.S. as an enduring advantage it aims to maintain, while also working to intensify its ties with China. Regionally, China has fostered a strategic partnership with Palestine while simultaneously nurturing an innovative, comprehensive partnership with Israel. Israel and China’s relations with Iran pose a strategic challenge to U.S. dominance in the Middle East. Israel is also making concerted efforts to strengthen bilateral relations with China as a means of rebalancing regional power dynamics. However, the ever-changing nature of U.S.-China relations and shifting perceptions between the two nations make this geopolitical balancing act perilous for smaller countries navigating a global order that is potentially in flux.

The U.S. and China are enmeshed in strategic rivalries, with China vying to challenge U.S. hegemony and the U.S. viewing China as a competitor. This rivalry could potentially escalate to a state of open enmity or confrontation between the two economic and military superpowers. As such, China would likely welcome Netanyahu’s visit, seeing it as an opportunity to stir the pot in the U.S., particularly by sending a message to President Biden who is running for reelection. Furthermore, Beijing’s interest in engaging with an increasingly autocratic government, concerns about the creation of a Palestinian state, apprehensions about Israel’s constitutional predicament, or contemplations about the deployment of Huawei’s 5G network in Israel could introduce tension into U.S.-Israel relations.

Both Israel and China recognize the potential for mutually beneficial collaboration in the current geopolitical climate. China could assist Israel in brokering peace efforts with Saudi Arabia, a regional adversary of Iran and a potential Israeli partner against the Iranian nuclear threat. Israel can offer China technological assistance, and China could help Israel assert its sovereignty and safeguard its interests, laying the foundation for a robust bilateral relationship.

Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Associate at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD). She is a research analyst in security studies. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in International Relations from the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh.