July 7, 2023 | Policy Brief

Israel Should Strengthen Ties with Taiwan 

July 7, 2023 | Policy Brief

Israel Should Strengthen Ties with Taiwan 

I recently visited Taiwan as the guest of its president, Tsai Ing-wen, with a delegation comprised of leaders from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank based in Washington, DC, and some Israeli ex-officials. My key takeaway: Israel and Taiwan, as two democracies threatened by dictatorships, should strengthen their ties in all areas, including defense. In the event of any conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan, Israel’s message should be clear and sharp: The Jewish state stands with America, its greatest ally.  

My visit included in-depth meetings with senior Taiwanese officials from the military and the ministries of foreign affairs and defense. We received presentations on Taiwan’s national security and its preparations to face the Chinese threat, including important upcoming changes to the national service model that entail moving to a one-year compulsory service and building a substantial reserve force. 

The potential confrontation between China and the United States will be as intense as the Cold War was between Moscow and Washington — perhaps even more intense. Israel has no room and flexibility to accommodate China and its ambitions in the region, and strengthening relations with Taiwan would signal to America where Israel’s loyalty lies. While Israel is obviously and wisely not a direct participant in the U.S.-China clash, Washington rightly expects Jerusalem to back the United States, just as Israel expects support from America in conflicts in the Middle East. 

Growing tensions between the United States and China could deteriorate very fast into a broader conflict. Recent sources of controversy include U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s unsuccessful visit to China, the launch of Chinese missiles over Taiwan that fell in Japan’s economic waters, Chinese efforts to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran by procuring Iranian oil, and China’s support for Russia in the war in Ukraine. Any conflict is likely to begin in the Pacific region but may spread beyond it. Chinese war games forecast Chinese preemptive attacks on U.S., Japanese and Taiwanese forces. 

It is clear that China is not Israel’s friend, but the Jewish state has not always recognized this reality, and some Israelis don’t admit it even now. Some 20 years ago, as Beijing carried out missile tests and Washington sent destroyers to the region, Israel continued to sell military equipment and sensitive technologies, including loitering suicide drones and early warning air systems, to China, prompting fierce American opposition. The crisis ultimately ended when Israel changed its export control system and opted to limit most of its defense exports to China. 

More recent developments, however, have made it undeniable that Israeli ties with China runs counter to the Jewish state’s interests. 

In 2021, Beijing and Tehran signed a 25-year agreement that entails a $400 billion Chinese investment in the Iranian economy in exchange for cheap Iranian oil. The Chinese money would give Iran access to sensitive and advanced Chinese technologies, boost Iran’s defense industry, and support the development of conventional and nuclear weapons. Chinese money would also finance Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a U.S. designated terrorist organization, and would enable continued Iranian financing for terrorist groups in the Middle East, including Hezbollah and Hamas. 

Furthermore, earlier this year, China brokered — and probably initiated — an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, another development inconsistent with Israeli as well as U.S. interests. The deal empowers Iran as a regional hegemon, weakening the U.S. role as Riyadh’s major security partner. Indeed, the Chinese president is always looking for ways to challenge American dominance, both in the Indo-Pacific region and in other parts of the world. 

In this context, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly received an invitation by Chinese leaders to visit China later this year. Netanyahu plans to accept the invitation, as expected between world leaders. But Netanyahu should send a clear message to Washington that the trip seeks in no way to defy U.S. policy or challenge the strong U.S.-Israel alliance. On the contrary, Netanyahu’s visit could improve U.S.-Israel relations if he boldly sets forth Israel’s positions to the Chinese, including its commitment to the United States, its support for U.S. leadership in the Middle East, and its hostility to Iran. Israel can also use this visit to present Chinese leaders with an unequivocal demand to stop assisting Israel’s enemies with advanced technologies and weapons systems, if the Chinese would like Israel to do the same in the pacific. 

Israel should adopt a similar policy vis-à-vis Russia, as Prime Minister Netanyahu recently stated. If Putin continue to ask Israel not to provide sophisticated capabilities to Ukraine, he must do the same and stop supplying weapons and advanced technologies to Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. 

Israel now has a real opportunity to strengthen both Israeli and U.S. interests in Taiwan, at China’s expense. If Israel acts wisely and cautiously, a resource-intensive market may open for Israeli industry, directly or via the United States. 

As I observed during my recent visit, Taiwan has a free and advanced economy that generates about $800 billion in GDP and is ranked 22nd in the world. Taiwan is dominant in high-tech industries and a world leader in producing advanced computer chips and components. Taiwan also develops major defense technologies and systems, since few countries in the world are willing to sell Taiwan advanced weapons systems, including sophisticated air defense systems.  

Critics, particularly high-tech and academia sectors in Israel, may argue that reducing Israeli ties with Beijing would risk tens of billions of dollars in Chinese investments. But investments from China in Israel’s economy have already declined dramatically in recent years, some due to the coronavirus pandemic and some due to changes in Israeli and Chinese policy. 

In fact, the risks of continued investment are considerably worse. China’s investments in Israel seek to gain control of Israeli critical infrastructure as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, posing a security threat both to Israel and to American forces in the region.  

Moreover, continued investments would threaten Israel’s ability to enhance its technological cooperation with the United States, especially by participating in the technology working groups between America and Israel. Recently established by the U.S. and Israeli defense departments, the working groups aim to boost U.S.-Israel technological cooperation in some of the most advanced futuristic fields such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic missiles, supercomputing, robotics, and more. As I stated during my meeting with Taiwan’s president, the two countries have much to learn from each other. 

But U.S.-Israel technological cooperation initiatives will not mature if the United States sees continued collaboration between Israel and China without total confidence that the knowhow will not spillover to China. The critics must understand that cooperating with China would close American markets, investments and cooperation opportunities to Israel. 

Some may argue that Israel is not a superpower like China and the United States, and therefore cannot afford to alienate any potential ally. But the comparisons are wrong, and American policy contradicts such assumptions. The United States is demanding reduced Israeli ties with China precisely because it regards Israel as a major power and ally with significant influence in the region. The Jewish state must act accordingly, standing proudly with the United States and strengthening ties with Taiwan. 

Brig. Gen. (Res.) Prof. Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at FDD and a professor at the Technion. He previously served as the national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and as the head of Israel National Security Council (Acting). FDD is a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.