JERUSALEM — China’s control over a strategic port in Haifa is raising alarms in America and forcing Israel to balance its delicate relationship between the two world powers.
National Security Advisor John Bolton expressed US concerns over China's management of a Haifa port with Prime Minister Netanyahu on Sunday.
According to The Jerusalem Post, the US Navy is considering changing its operations at the port once the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) – a firm which the Chinese government has high stakes in – officially takes over Haifa's civilian port in 2021.
SIPG runs the largest port in the world in Shanghai and was the only bidder for a 2015 Haifa port deal which granted the company control for 25 years. In return, the company committed to invest $2 billion into the project and transform the port's bay terminal into Israel's largest harbor.
While the plan may be considered a good business deal for Israel, it's a big problem for the US. The United States does not trust China and suspects the Communist regime will use the port to gain strategic influence in the Middle East and spy on US military ships that regularly perform drills there.
"The Chinese port operators will be able to monitor closely US ship movements, be aware of maintenance activity and could have access to equipment moving to and from repair sites and interact freely with our crews over protracted periods," said retired admiral and ex-chief of US naval operations Gary Roughead during a conference at the University of Haifa last year.
"Significantly, the information systems and new infrastructure integral to the ports and the likelihood of information and electronic surveillance systems jeopardize US information and cybersecurity," he added.
Now, Israeli officials have the complicated task of deciding how to balance the delicate but strategic relationships between the US and China. Officials recently deliberated over a new system that could help minimize friction between China and America.
"The State of Israel is dealing with all aspects connected to the establishment and management of infrastructure by foreign companies in Israel," said Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who helped launch the project.
Dr. Eran Lerman, Vice President of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS) and a former deputy director at the National Security Council told CBN News that while Israel has a vested interest in Chinese infrastructure, its relationship with America is more important.
"We have to bear in mind that in some places the relationship between the United States and China has taken on the form of a zero-sum game and when that happens there's no question for Israel as to where our trust is going to be. To some extent, we can try to influence the American discourse, but at the end of the day when the American decision comes down, Israel's relationship with the United States is by far more important to us," he explained.
Lerman warns not to underestimate Israel's ability to manage Chinese activity in the region.
"I think Israel is robust enough and sophisticated enough to be able to manage the consequences of Chinese activity. I don't think that any American interest beyond the 'symbolics' of a zero-sum game will be jeopardized by Chinese presence here because Israel is very well-equipped to monitor and manage Chinese activity," said Lerman.
Matan Vilna'i, Israel's former ambassador to China and an ex-deputy defense minister, told the Post he thinks Israel needs to scrap the deal.
"We need to rethink the whole deal and see how to go in reverse and move everything backwards," he said. "It's crazy for the Chinese to manage an Israeli national security asset. It would be the same if it were an American firm, by the way, not just Chinese. A foreign country cannot manage an Israeli Strategic asset."
However, like Lerman, he does not believe Israel should distance itself from China.