US Navy Could Abandon Major Israeli Port After Chinese Firms Begin Operations

The US and Chinese navies may find themselves unlikely neighbors in the Mediterranean as Israel's partnership with Beijing on constructing sea ports at two sites where the US 6th Fleet deploys is set to begin, which is raising eyebrows in Washington and could ultimately result in the Navy abandoning a key Israeli port altogether

The US Navy has acknowledged that its longstanding operations in Haifa may change once a Chinese firm takes over the civilian port in 2021, prompting Israel’s national security cabinet to revisit the arrangement, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Currently the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) is set to manage Israel's largest port at Haifa as part of a contract to be inagurated in 2021, which will run for 25 years, and a separate Chinese firm was recently awarded a contract to construct a new port in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, next to Israel's main naval base near Tel Aviv. Both deals are what both Washington officials and some Israeli generals have expressed deep concerns about of late, with the latter multi-billion dollar contract having been awarded to China Harbor Engineering, one of China’s biggest government-owned enterprises.

Israel's seaports are routinely used by the US Navy, via Newsweek

For example in September Israeli Brigadier General Shaul Horev, who had previously served as navy chief of staff and chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, loudly questioned the move in Israeli press, saying “When China acquires ports it does so under the guise of maintaining a trade route from the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal to Europe, such as the port of Piraeus in Greece. Does an economic horizon like this have a security impact?

And Israel Haaretz media recently reported of the growing controversy, “The civilian [Chinese] port in Haifa abuts the exit route from the adjacent [Israeli] navy base, where the Israeli submarine fleet is stationed and which, according to foreign media reports, maintains a second-strike capability to launch nuclear missiles.” Haaretz questioned further in an op-ed titled Israel Is Giving China the Keys to Its Largest Port – and the U.S. Navy May Abandon Israel, “No one in Israel thought about the strategic ramifications.”

America's Middle East theater and Mediterranean vessels routinely make port calls in Haifa — the most recent being the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Ross' Oct. 25 stop while supporting 6th Fleet headquarters operations based in in Naples, Italy.

Late last summer Israeli military officials who've been increasingly uncomfortable with Chinese economic expansion into Israel hosted a security conference with American military analysts. According to Israel's Haaretz

The Haifa conference was held in conjunction with the conservative Washington-based Hudson Institute. Several of the American participants were former senior Pentagon and navy personnel. The remarks of the senior figure Horev quoted were sharper than the polite tone he used. The Americans who were at the conference think Israel lost its mind when it gave the Chinese the keys to Haifa Port. Once China is in the picture, they said, the Israel Navy will not be able to count on maintaining the close relations it has had with the Sixth Fleet.

Following the conference Arthur Herman, senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank, noted the astronomical cost of the project, and the importance to Beijing for it's vaunted Belt and Road Initiative. “At $3 billion, this is one of the biggest overseas investment projects in Israel, ever, and also one of the biggest for the Chinese company, China Harbor Engineering,” he wrote. “Ashdod on the Mediterranean coast is the destination of fully 90 percent of Israel’s international maritime traffic,” Herman continued.

Prior 2013 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, via Getty

Critics have also noted that Israel’s Transportation Ministry and the Ports Authority went forward with construction of the Chinese ports at Haifa and Ashdod “with zero involvement of the [Israeli] National Security Council and without the [Israeli] navy,” according to Haaretz.

And an Economist magazine report from October called attention to an issue that Israel's civilian leadership appears aloof to address: “The first [concern] is over Chinese control of strategic infrastructure and the possibility of espionage,” given that “Israeli submarines, widely reported to be capable of launching nuclear missiles, are docked there [at Haifa]. Yet the deal with the Chinese firm was never discussed by the cabinet or the national security council, a situation one [Israeli] minister described as astonishing,” the Economist said.

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All of this should also worry Israeli leaders considering China's increased ties with Iran and refusal to abide by White House sanctions on Tehran and Trump's demand that countries should stop importing Iran's oil. 

China had jumped at the opportunity to be a prime mover in Iran's economy since international sanctions were lifted in January 2016 as part of the 2015 nuclear deal brokered by the United Kingdom, United States, France, Russia, China, and Germany, but which the Trump White House pulled the US out of last May. 

Relations between China and Iran began to thaw from the moment Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2012, and by January 2016 - at the moment sanctions were lifted - Xi visited Tehran, meeting with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani - which marked the first time a Chinese president visited Iran in 14 years. Critics of the Chinese takeover of Haifa port say this will grow increasingly awkward for Tel Aviv, which has an official position that Iran seeks to wipe Israel off the map. 

Israeli submarine at Haifa port, via AFP

Iran's President Rouhani and Xi have since the Israel-China Haifa port deal signed agreements related to the Belt and Road. This included 17 multi-billion-dollar deals covering areas of energy, finance, communications, banking, culture, science, technology, and politics, with a further ten year road map of broader China-Iran cooperation. In total this could see trillions pumped into the Iranian economy over the coming decades while physically connecting China with Europe and Africa on an infrastructural level and in an expanding trade relationship.

Yet China-Israel relations seem warm as ever considering in October Prime Minister Netanyahu hosted China’s Vice President Wang Qishan along with Jack Ma, CEO and founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, in Jerusalem, after which the Israeli PM commented the summit “reflects the growing ties between our countries, our economies, our peoples.” And followed Netanyahu's 2017 trip to Beijing where he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

And this all brings back a key question: if China is to play a crucial lifeline for Iran as it attempts to survive aggressive US sanctions, and if Israel is growing economically closer to China, won't such an alignment be dangerous to Israel's long term security and its tied-at-the-hip relations to Washington?

Or perhaps trade and free markets will produce the opposite effect: soften tensions, turn nations away from war and toward pragmatism, and bring greater regional stability.