Relationship between Jerusalem and Beijing is blooming due to China’s growing self-confidence, its understanding that battle against Israel is no longer a uniting factor in Muslim world, and its desire to maintain close ties with a regional power whose crisis with Washington is deepening.
A renewed affair has been developing for the past three years between Israel and China. About 10 years after their relationship experienced a crisis following an American demand that Israel cut its security ties with China, Beijing has begun working to renew the close relations between the two countries.
The first clear sign was the resumption of high-ranking visits between Israel and China, including visits by chiefs of staff, defense ministers, and finally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to China in May 2013, which created a great buzz. The Chinese foreign minister, deputy prime minister and politburo members have also visited Israel since then.
In addition, Israel and China have raised the level of the diplomatic dialogue between them and Israel has decided, despite the United States’ resentment, to prevent a member of the security forces from testifying in a trial taking place in New York against the involvement of a central Chinese bank in funding Islamic terrorist activity.
At the same time, Israel and China are cooperating on a certain level against the Islamic terror, which is increasingly troubling China as its influence on separatist Muslim groups within the country grows.
The economic ties between the countries have also blossomed in an unprecedented manner. In addition to the rise in trade between the countries (in 2014, China was Israel’s fourth export destination and the first in Asia), Chinese investments in Israel are growing rapidly and have reached, in less than four years, an accumulated investment scope of some $4 billion. In addition, Chinese companies are increasingly involved in the establishment of national infrastructure projects in Israel and the countries are currently discussing the creation of a free trade zone.
Finally, the academic, social and cultural relations between the countries are also growing stronger. In addition to hundreds and millions of dollars in donations and investments in Tel Aviv University and the Technion by Chinese bodies, the Israeli government offers dozens of grants to Chinese doctoral candidates studying in Israel, and Israeli universities and organizations are promoting the establishment of centers and programs for Israel and Jewish studies at Chinese universities. And there is of course extensive cultural activity between the countries which the page is too short to review.
The extent and breadth of the developing ties between Israel and China in the past few years point to the difference between the countries’ relations today and their relations until 2000, when they were largely based on the security connection.
Beyond that, the scope of relations between the countries remained limited and China appeared to be keeping its relations with Israel at a low profile so as not to raise objections among Middle Eastern countries which Beijing has years-long relationship with and from which it acquires a significant part of its energy resources.
Today, however, China is tightening its relations with Israel in a wide variety of areas, and is not concealing it. The main reason for the change stems from its growing self-confidence and understanding that the battle against Israel is no longer a uniting factor in the Muslim world.
In addition, as the Muslim world is falling apart with blast waves being felt within China as well, Beijing appreciates Israel’s stability and regional strategic importance and sees it as one of the regional central pillars in the foreseeable future. In circumstances in which China is securing its position in the region and in the entire world as a world power, good relations with regional powers are an important asset, especially when those powers are the traditional allies of its main rival – the US.
‘Chinese card’ against US
This last point is the heart of the Israeli dilemma. In as early as 2012, with the appearance of the first signs of a crisis in Israel’s relationship with the US (and the European Union) on the backdrop of the problems in the negotiations with the Palestinians, Israeli state officials began pointing to Asia’s economic powers as a possible alternative to the economic dependence on the West.
As the crisis with the US deepened, the voices in Israel calling for tighter relations with China grew louder, explicitly addressing the fact that China has not put any significant pressure on Israel over the Palestinian issue. These calls fell on fertile ground both in Israel and in China, which both have economic and diplomatic considerations for tightening their relationship.
At the same time, warnings were issued in Israel against overusing the “Chinese card” against the US, noting that China could not serve as an alternative in light of Israel’s considerable dependence on the great diplomatic and security-related support it receives from Washington. These voices also mentioned the strategic conflicts of interest between Israel and China, especially in light of the Chinese support for the Iranian regime.
As great as the economic and diplomatic potential of the relationship with China may be, even Israel’s greatest supporters will find it difficult to claim that it can replace the deep relationship with the US.
Nonetheless, America’s conduct vis-à-vis its friends and allies raises difficult questions in this context. While putting a lot of pressure on its allies, the US is making them question the depth of its commitment towards them and making it difficult for them to stay on its side. Both Japan and Taiwan, two countries whose security relies on the US, have raised doubts over America’s willingness to defend them in case of a military conflict between them and China.
Indeed, Washington has failed in preventing Japan and South Korea, its clear and most significant allies in Eastern Asia, from increasing their economic cooperation with China: The three countries are expected to launch negotiations on the creation of a free trade zone. Similarly, the US has failed in its efforts to prevent many of her allies, including South Korea and Taiwan, from applying to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a body initiated by China as a counterbalance against the World Bank and largely against the American leadership of the global economy.
In Israel’s case, apart from aggravating the crisis between the White House and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the US policy on the Iranian issue raises heavy concerns regarding its commitment to Israel’s security and the Middle East’s stability. The US has even adopted a tough stance on the Palestinian issue – a much tougher stance than China, which has been officially pro-Palestinian for many decades.
All this does not change the fact that the current conditions are far from allowing Israel to replace its alliance with the US with close strategic relations with China. Nonetheless, Washington’s actions appear to be giving Israel plenty of reasons to strengthen its relationship with China – including joining the AIIB – and deepen China’s presence in a region which was subject to America’s absolute influence up to not so long ago.
Courtesy Dr. Yoram Evron, a member of the academic staff at Haifa University’s Department of Asian Studies.