The Symbiosis of China and Israel

Rising tensions in the North could not keep Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from a vital mission in the far east; Israel wants Chinese economic cooperation, the Chinese want an increasing role in the world.

By
May 11, 2013 07:12
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with Chinese President Xi Jinping, May 9, 2013.

Netanyahu with Chinese President Xi Jinping 370. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)

BEIJING – The scene in the boardroom of the sprawling Shanghai Pharmaceutical factory on Tuesday seemed detached from reality.

There, two days after foreign news reports attributed to Israel a dramatic attack on various arms depots near Damascus – the second in three days – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and a few top aides were in Shanghai, sitting across a table from the heads of China’s second-largest pharmaceutical company.

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With the world fretting over the attack in Syria and with concerns mounting about Syria’s biochemical arsenal, Netanyahu sat and watched a 15- minute promotional video on Shanghai Pharmaceutical.

A small, green plastic package containing moist tissues was set on the table in front of him.

Under the company logo, the package read, “No. 1 Biochemical Welcome.”

“Shanghai Pharma employs 40,000 people,” a deep-voiced narrator said in the video, over generic promotional music, and went on to explain the company’s subsidiaries and global holdings. Netanyahu, with Syria’s biochemical potential surely weighing on his mind, and just a few hours after a phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a day before meetings with the Chinese president and prime minister, sat patiently and watched.

On the surface, the 30-minute drive each way to the factory, the 20-minute promotional video, the explanation by the company’s chairman of what the firm does, and a 20-minute tour of one part of the plant – taken with Netanyahu dressed in a white lab coat – might not seem like the best or most effective use of time for a prime minister with more pressing matters on his mind.

But, Netanyahu would respond, that type of criticism comes from those only skimming the surface.

A deeper look would show that China is a necessary engine for continued Israeli economic growth, continued Israeli economic growth is necessary for an infusion of tax money, and an infusion of tax money is necessary to fund what the country – and especially its security – needs.

In this way of looking at things – indeed, in Netanyahu’s way of looking at things – spending a couple of hours talking with the heads of Shanghai Pharmaceutical about investing in Israeli biotechnology is important for Israel’s long-term security.

NETANYAHU CAME to China with business on his mind, and indeed business was the focus of three of his four days in the country. Only on the last day did he devote time in his meeting with new President Xi Jinping to discussing regional issues at length.

China, Netanyahu said during his visit, is a highly centralized economy, where companies do not act independently but according to government directives. He sees it as his job to work at the highest governmental levels in China to convince them to open their doors to Israeli business, and to convince them that doing business with Israel is in the Chinese interest.

Or, as he said at the outset of a meeting with new prime minister, Li Keqiang, “My main message in this visit is that I think Israel can be the perfect junior partner for China in its pursuit of economic excellence and competitive advantage, by offering our technological capabilities.

“We are a small country but have a great concentration of technological prowess in many disciplines, and I think we can cooperate by scaling up these technologies for the benefit of both countries,” he said.

Israel has the technology, China has the scale.

Together, as he made clear in Shanghai Pharmaceutical’s boardroom, the two in tandem could be unbeatable.

“We don’t need to compete,” he said, selling Israel to one of China’s top 500 firms with the same conviction generally seen when he talks before cameras about the Iranian nuclear threat. “We are not your competitors.

If we join our efforts, we can have competitive dominance in the world.”

And pursuing that goal is why Netanyahu went to China.

The Chinese, however, have other things on their mind. As the world's second leading economy, and one well aware of the innovative capabilities of Israel, the Chinese would obviously like to increase trade and cooperation with Israel, as they would like to increase trade and cooperation with every country in the world.

“I believe your visit will go a long way toward promoting the Israel-Chinese relationship,” Li said at the start of his meeting with Netanyahu. “And I am ready to exchange views with you on how to strengthen our bilateral relationship, how to enhance our bilateral cooperation, and also on regional issues – such as the question of Palestine, and the Middle East peace process.”

And therein lies the rub.

NETANYAHU WOULD have loved to come to China and only talk about business and the economy, and “scaling-up” technologies and marrying Israel’s innovation to Chinese production. But the Chinese have another agenda as well.

Even before Netanyahu set foot in China, Beijing let it be known – via their invitation to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to visit the country precisely when Netanyah would be there – what else was on their agenda, and that they were changing their previous modus operandi about leaving the Middle East peace process to the US and others.

Li and Xi formally took over China’s reins of power in March, and – according to Israeli China-watchers – are leading a subtle shift in its foreign relations. They realize that as China emerges as the leading economic power in the world, it cannot bury its head in the sand regarding world developments outside of its own neighborhood.

In the past, the Chinese position was that it did not have to fit the Western mold of a superpower: a nation actively involved in the affairs of the world. Instead, the Chinese were content with becoming an economic powerhouse, defining a superpower as a country that can feed 1.4 billion people.

Slowly, however, they realized that they needed to get involved. First, because China needs to ensure its supply of oil, the basic building block of the country’s immense economy. And second, because China needs to ensure stable markets – including in the Middle East – to ship their goods. A Middle East in flames runs contrary to both those interests.

As such, according to one senior Israeli diplomatic official, China has come to realize that it needs to begin taking a more prominent place on the world diplomatic stage.

And there is no better way to gain a more prominent place on the world stage than to demand a seat at the Israeli-Palestinian table. That was the message the Chinese sent by inviting Netanyahu and Abbas at the same time, and that was the message they conveyed by coming out with a fourpoint “peace proposal” following Xi’s meeting Monday with Abbas.

While there is nothing new in the proposal, which calls for a Palestinian state, an end to violence, an end to settlement construction and the immediate resumption of negotiations – all positions long promoted by various other world actors, including the US – what is significant is that it came from the Chinese.

And Israel, while obviously happier for the diplomatic process to be led by the US, was careful not to discount the proposal out of hand.

“I think that the Chinese are a positive force, and in the whole picture, this [China’s interest in involvement in the diplomatic process] is good because they will soon be the No. 1 economic power in the world, and our connection with them is very important in all spheres,” Israel’s envoy to Beijing, Matan Vilna’i, said during the Netanyahu visit.

Vilna’i said that as part of a greater Chinese presence in the diplomatic process, China could get involved in projects that boost the Palestinian economy.

“In the end, the name of the game is the economy,” he said. “There is tension here with Japan over the islands [in the East China Sea], but what decides in the end is the economy. There are billions of dollars of trade between China and Japan, and no one is willing to give up on that,” he said, hinting that China could help create a model of economic interdependence that would lead to a dampening of tensions between Israel and the Palestinian as well.

Whether that is pie-in-the-sky thinking is irrelevant. What is instructive is that Vilna’i was careful not to dismiss the Chinese proposal, but rather treated it seriously and with respect. Which is how the Chinese want to be treated on the world stage: seriously and with respect.

Netanyahu, ever mindful of China’s potential and importance to the future of Israel’s economy, made it abundantly clear during his visit that he intended to do just that.


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