US scrutiny of Israel's China ties expands to universities

US scrutiny of Israel's China ties expands to universities

Israeli academics' ties with China are on the US' radar, according to two people familiar with the matter, adding new pressure on its Middle Eastern ally to cool relations with Beijing.

Academic projects involving technology research and development are a focus, one of the people said. While there has been no discussion of possible penalties or incentives to get Israel to dial down relations with Chinese universities, the person said, the US is Israel's top benefactor and cannot be ignored. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private.

A spokeswoman for the US Embassy in Israel and a spokesman for the Israeli government declined to comment.

The scrutiny is further complicating the Israeli government's plans to develop economic ties with China. China is Israel's second-largest commerce partner, ranking only behind the US, with US$11.9 billion (S$16.88 billion) in annual bilateral trade.

That figure has more than doubled over the last decade, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had singled out commerce with China as a major target for expansion.

But those dreams have butted up against President Donald Trump's trade war with Beijing, which is rooted in concerns about economic espionage and intellectual property theft.

American officials have already warned Israel to restrict China's major role in the Israeli economy. And with already fraught US-Chinese relations now souring further over the coronavirus, relations with the Chinese were on the agenda again last week when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Israeli officials during a visit to Jerusalem.

Scrutiny of US universities' ties with China has been going on for some time. Efforts to root out economic espionage in academic institutions escalated sharply in January when a Harvard University chemistry professor was arrested for allegedly lying to investigators about his role in recruiting people to pass along scientific research to the Chinese government.

By pivoting to Israel, which has exchange programmes and research cooperation agreements with China, the US is trying to globalise that effort. While the US hasn't publicly raised Israeli-Chinese academic ties as an issue, and discussions still appear to be in preliminary stages, Israel counts on it for economic and defence support, and to back it in diplomatic circles.

The US is far and away Israel's most important trading partner, with US$31.8 billion in annual bilateral sales. Washington also provides an unrivaled US$3.8 billion in annual defence funding, security cooperation and close technological collaboration.

A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Israel didn't respond to a request for comment.

"There are definitely opportunities to increase academic cooperation, but there are risks too," said Ms Shira Efron, a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies. "There are the espionage, human intelligence concerns, and also the issue of knowledge transfer - both from the perspective of economic competitiveness and national security concerns."

Academic cooperation between Israel and China has grown in recent years.

In 2015, the two countries set up scholarship funding for Chinese students to study in Israel, in addition to research cooperation agreements between seven universities each from the two countries. Today, about 1,000 Chinese students study in Israeli universities every year, most in technology, science and engineering, according to Ms Emma Afterman, head of international policy for Israel's official Council for Higher Education.

A few hundred Israeli students study in China annually.

"There's been more cooperation with China, more exchange, more research," Ms Afterman said. "I'm not worried about it becoming a delicate issue, we have the ability to manage it and I think we can define how we want to do it."

Ms Carice Witte, founder of the Signal non-profit organisation focused on Israel-China ties, thinks the Israeli government has to be more vigilant about keeping China from putting that cooperation to military use.

"The results of the university academic research can be seen as dual use, supporting technology that clearly has dual-use potential," Ms Witte said. "In Israel, university academia is funded to a great extent by the government, so the government here does have the potential to say something but they don't."