By P R Kumaraswamy,
Earlier it was Pakistan and now China. So whatever India does and does not do externally has to be linked to China. The latest to join this is the mini-Quad announced during the Israel visit of External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. Going by the opinion of some otherwise informed Indian elite, the new forum is part of an anti-China strategy of the Biden Administration, happily endorsed by India, Israel and the UAE. So let’s take a closer look at the logic.
Since the early 1990s, Washington sees China as its new strategic threat but lacks the political will and economic clout to replicate its Cold War strategy vis-à-vis an assertive Beijing. China’s global ascendance may not be as peaceful as projected, but it is firmly based on a resurgent economy and transformation as the second-largest global economy after the US. The Indian optimism vis-à-vis Beijing turned sour in recent months; but would the other partners play along with an anti-China Quad even if one were to ignore India?
This takes us to the central question. How do Israel and UAE view China? Both these countries look to China as a partner in their economic growth. The Israeli hesitancy in the 1950s proved disastrous, and China took more than four decades to recognise the Jewish state in January 1992. This incidentally forced Israel to explore military diplomacy since the late 1970s to smoothen the process. However, the normalisation of relations was accompanied by new American strategic concerns vis-à-vis Beijing, which impeded Israeli export of arms and technology to China. After prolonged pressures and amidst the Camp David summit with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, in June 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak accepted the American diktats to cease military sales to China. As a result, though there were issues over repairs, refurbishment and upgrading, the Sino-Israeli military ties largely stopped by the 2000s.
At the same time, Israel can’t ignore China and its economic ascendance and growing political clout. Before long, China was actively involved in various infrastructure programmes in Israel, including the expansion of the Ashdod Part, construction of a new terminal in Haifa port, light rails in Tel Aviv, Carmel tunnels and the possible Ashdod-Eilat railroad. In addition, two recent reports by the Rand Corporation highlighted investments by global Chinese brands Alibaba, Huawei, ZTE, Baidu, Tencent, Xiaomi and Lenovo in Israeli hi-tech companies.
Likewise, the UAE is also benefiting from Chinese investments. As part of its efforts to lessen the dependence on the US dollars and internationalise its currency Yuan, China has been concluding bilateral swap agreements with several countries; and in January 2012, it concluded a ¥35 billion deal with UAE, and a Yuan clearing hub is functioning in the Emirates since 2015. In addition, both countries are collaborating in the petrochemical sector. Above all, both Israel and UAE are active players in the BRI network. Then why would Israel and UAE want to jeopardise their future by antagonising China?
However, it is true that the US is not happy with the Chinese engagement with Israel and UAE in certain sensitive areas and is especially concerned over the involvement of Chinese companies in Israeli infrastructure projects and strategic technologies. Thus, despite its bonhomie with the then Prime Minister Netanyahu, the arm-twisting of the Trump Administration resulted in a Chinese company, seen as the clear winner, losing a US$1.5 billion contract in 2020 for the world’s largest desalination plant near Tel Aviv.
Of course, both Israel and the UAE are unhappy with the pace and extent of the Chinese engagements with Iran. Much-publicised 25-year US$400 billion Sino-Iranian deal would not please them. But they are mature enough to recognise and reluctantly admit the political and economic opportunity that Iran offers for China. Indeed, the years of US sanctions worked in China’s favour and brought it closer to Tehran. So despite their displeasure, neither Israel nor UAE could offer an alternative opportunity, market or diplomatic space to dilute the Sino-Iranian partnership.
Above all, should the Middle Eastern Quad take an explicitly anti-China posture, the latter has a vast arsenal at its disposal. While the US is keen to limit Israel’s security and hi-tech cooperation with China, it does not seek Israel’s isolation from China. Such a path would be dangerous as Beijing could provide political and military support to countries and groups hostile to the Jewish State. Israel witnessed the first-hand consequence when in July 2006, one of its naval vessels was sunk off the coast of Beirut in an anti-ship missile fired by Hizballah. According to experts, the Chinese-origin C-802 missile was sold to Iran but was passed to the militant group and sank the Israeli ship.
Conspiracy theories only need imagination and not sound logic. Framing the mini-Quad against China (also to Iran) misses the larger point. It is still possible for India and other countries to forge multilateral economic forums for mutual benefits even without a declared or hidden adversary.
(The author teaches contemporary Middle East in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)