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‘New Quad’ members Israel and UAE have good ties with China

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Halfway: Despite tough talk, China’s trade with the US and India is booming. PTI



Manoj Joshi

Distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation

There has been a facile assumption in India that the western Quad, comprising of India, UAE, Israel and the US formed last month, is also aimed at China. Two of its external actors — the US and India — may see it that way, but the other two — the UAE and Israel — do not share the zero-sum assessment of relations with China that are increasingly being held by New Delhi, and to an extent the US. Incidentally, both ‘Abrahamic’ countries are closer military allies of the US than is India.

China is not invulnerable. It faces demographic decline, massive debts, and a population that has growing expectations from the economy.

A recent conversation with some Israeli scholars brought out their nuanced view of ties with China and Tel Aviv’s concerns about the deepening US-China rift. ‘We have to understand China,’ said one scholar, ‘it has to be reined in’ but that can’t be done unless there is a better understanding of the drivers of its conduct. This view would surprise many Indians who probably believe that given our close ties with Israel and the US, Tel Aviv would be strongly supporting New Delhi against Beijing.

The point may have been missed in India, but China and Israel have had close strategic military ties since the 1980s when Tel Aviv used its prowess in military technology to get close to Beijing. The US eventually blocked these in 2004 and India was able to gain the Phalcon airborne early warning system which was originally made for China. Since then, economic rather than the military relationship has gained salience. Israel’s technology innovation prowess and China’s industrial capacity make for a thriving partnership. A major focus of the China-Israel relationship is Chinese investment in Israeli companies and startups. Their focus is life sciences, software and IT, Internet, communications, semiconductors and clean technology. More than 1,000 Israeli companies are operating in China, mainly in the Pearl River Delta area. The Chinese have also begun operations in a port terminal in Haifa that has been leased to them. Israelis believe that ties with China are a huge strategic opportunity for them, even as they battle US pressure to curb technology ties.

Then take the UAE, India’s closest friend in the Arab world. Dubai serves as a hub for Indian overseas workers, businessmen and as an entrepot for Indian trade. In recent years, the two countries have had close counter-terrorism cooperation.

But UAE’s relations with China are also excellent. There is, of course, the economic relationship, but there is a significant political one as well, manifested by the UAE being a signatory to a letter written by various Gulf countries to the UNHRC defending China’s treatment of Uighurs, as well as backing the Hong Kong national security law in the UN. The UAE has also bucked US pressure and installing the Huawei 5G network in the country. Unlike India, the UAE welcomes the Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing sees the UAE as a hub on which it is developing its commercial ties to the region, as well as Europe and Africa.

The UAE houses the US air base outside Abu Dhabi and has close military ties with the US, and was also the lead country in the signing of the Abraham Accords to formalise relations with Israel. But in recent times, tensions have arisen leading to some rethinking in the US over a sale of F-35 fighters to the Emirate. The US now wants conditions on the sale, including one which says that China should not be allowed to open a base in the country. In the wake of the US fiasco in Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi seems to be hedging its bets by partnering both Washington and Beijing.

The US, not unlike India, is flailing around for a sound China policy. The promised review of China ties by the Biden administration has yet to be revealed, even as hostility to China is being driven by the deeply divided domestic politics in the US.

Biden had articulated a strategy of ‘extreme competition’ where care would be taken so as not to slide into unintended conflict.

But the ability of the US to compete rests on a large-scale overhaul of the American system which is mired in deep political divisions, wage stagnation and a ‘red in tooth and claw’ approach towards the poor. Biden’s ambitious ‘build back better’ plan is stagnating.

As for India, the gap in the comprehensive national power with China widening, New Delhi has become uncomfortably dependent on American support. The Ladakh events, where the Modi government dropped the ball in 2020, has further deepened New Delhi’s discomfort.

Despite the tough talk on China, its trade with the US and India is booming. For India, it grew a spectacular 49 per cent in the first nine months of this. There must be benefits for all here, else this would not have happened. And that is what the dilemma on China relations is all about. Beijing possesses enormous destructive power and its behaviour crosses red lines in many areas. Yet, it also has enormous assets which can be of benefit to individual countries as well as the global community.

The Biden strategy of coalition building to oppose Chinese misbehaviour is the right way to go. But this is a strategy that must be carefully unpacked, one where the US and its partners must be willing to swiftly impose costs on Beijing for unacceptable actions, yet keep open channels for diplomacy, trade and commerce.

China is not invulnerable, it faces demographic decline, massive debts, and a population that has growing expectations from the economy. Well-designed incentives and disincentives can be made to work, with some degree of clear-headed thinking and leadership.


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