Mike Pompeo’s Strange Trip to Israel

May 18, 2020 Updated: May 20, 2020


Even before Israel’s new government was sworn in, and despite all the other challenges facing the United States, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a lightning-fast trip to Israel, primarily to warn Israel about China.

His visit was seen in Israel primarily as a political mission, and while ostensibly the visit fits into the renewed U.S. pressure on relations with China, there are many questions surrounding the trip that have appeared to perplex Israeli leaders.

While Israel’s ties to China have long been controversial, America’s other allies, and the United States itself, have fueled China’s remarkable growth in technology and provided China with state-of-the-art weapons.

Pompeo’s visit had, as its backdrop, a paper prepared by the Rand Corp. under contract to the Pentagon’s Office of the Secretary of Defense. The paper, called “Chinese Investment in Israeli Technology and Infrastructure” reviews China’s effort to acquire Israeli technology and to position itself in Israel’s critical infrastructure, including ports, railroads, and water supply systems.

It’s quite legitimate for the U.S. government to be concerned about China’s influence in Israel, especially since China is emerging as America’s No. 1 global competitor and also as the top potential adversary.

Worry in the United States is primarily aimed at China’s growing military pressure in the Eastern Pacific and in the South China Sea, which sits astride what are regarded as vital sea lines of communication. But Israel’s activities, no matter what they are in technology or infrastructure, have little or nothing to do with the main challenge to America’s position in Asia.

Selling Tech to China

A peculiarity of the Rand study is that it’s openly published and not classified. America’s European allies have been selling highly sensitive military and civilian technology to China. While the United States has occasionally “advised” the Europeans on the subject, it has, in contrast with the Rand study’s discussion of the Israeli case, said nothing in public.

Among other items, Germany has supplied most of the engines for China’s growing navy, including MTU 396 SE84 series quiet engines for China’s latest submarines, Type 039 Yuan class. The Type 039s are also equipped with air independent propulsion that most likely also came from Germany, giving the submarines a level of performance and quietness that’s probably equal to nuclear submarines of similar size.

The Yuan class is a growing challenge to U.S. Naval operations in the sensitive South China Sea, Taiwan, and Miyako Straits, because their extreme quietness permits China to approach U.S. fleet operations in the area, and represents a significant threat.

France has supplied helicopter design and manufacturing that has gone into China’s military helicopter fleet in the form of the Airbus EC-175 helicopter, as well as others, including Britain, which supplied smooth-bore weapon technology. Even Ukraine sold China its T-10K-3 jet fighter (a clone of the Russian Su-33 prototype) now called the Shenyang J-15 and in use on China’s new aircraft carriers, the Liaoning and Shandong.

Similarly, the United States’ Asian friends and allies—Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore—have engaged in significant cooperative technology ventures with China, many of which have military and intelligence significance. Yet again, the United States hasn’t made any public complaints.

Nor has the United States been honest about the massive transfer of technology from its own industries, laboratories, and universities to China, in such sensitive fields as supercomputers, robotics, battery technology, and nanotechnology, including advanced coating materials. Indeed, the United States even allowed its rare earth mining and refining industry to be decimated by China, leaving U.S. industry and its military vulnerable to Chinese manipulation or coercion.

Israel’s Challenges

Israel, for its part, is facing some challenges of its own. One of them is pressure from the European Union on the Palestinian issue that could, at least potentially, harm Israel’s economy, which depends heavily on exports of agricultural and manufactured products to Europe.

There’s also a major divide between Europe and the United States over Iran, which Israel sees as its primary strategic threat. Europe on the other hand, led by the Germans, sees Iran as an important market for its industrial wares. It isn’t especially interested in Iran’s geopolitical ambitions, just as Europe has no special interest in China’s growing interest in expansion in the Pacific, and so long as it doesn’t hurt business for European industries.

It’s likely Israel will make some accommodation to the United States, although it will be done with some difficulty and with considerable internal opposition from Israeli industry and especially from the highly successful Israel high technology sector. Israel’s high technology sector is highly entrepreneurial and accounts to a large degree for Israel’s economic success and for its ability to rapidly develop new armaments to defend the country.

Israel’s new government will almost certainly face an internal struggle, and in a coalition government, it won’t be easy to arrive at any consensus that will please the United States.

Meanwhile, the United States must exercise care, as Pompeo understands. Israel is the main bulwark in the Middle East against both a rising and dangerous Iran and a rogue Turkish regime that may not stay in the NATO alliance.

The Trump administration, which wants to reduce its costly and unproductive deployment of U.S. soldiers to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, even to the Gulf states, depends on Israel to fill the gap. The administration will have to balance its fight with China with its needs in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

Stephen Bryen, Ph.D., is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.