Israel-China relations, which have focused on cooperation in high technology, have shown signs of widening over the last several months to encompass closer defense and security ties, and academic exchanges, people in the small community of bilateral specialists say.
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Ehud Barak visited China in June, the first time in over a decade by a defense minister of Israel, which at one time sold over half a billion dollars of weapons to China annually before US squeezed Israel to halt those ties in the late 1990s.
Earlier in that month, Admiral Wu Shengli of the People’s Liberation Army Navy was in Israel. Two weeks ago, Sichuan International Studies University (SISU) announced the launch of China’s first ever Israel studies program.
"The Israeli side values the development of military exchanges and cooperation with China and wishes to work together with our Chinese friends to raise military-to-military relations to a new level," China's Defense Ministry quoted Barak as saying during the visit.
In the economic sphere, ties are showing signs of deepening as well. On Sunday, Israel’s Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry signed a pact with National Development and Reform Commission, which will enable Israeli officials to cooperate and consult closely with China’s top economic-planning body. A week ago state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) reached the second stage of a competition to set up a joint venture factory in China to build executive jets with Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC).
Scores of other smaller events also attest to deepening relations. Last December, a delegation of Likud Party officials led by Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein met with their Communist Party peers in China. This autumn, the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Institute’s Center for Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) will host Chinese scholars on regional geopolitics.
Trade has been growing enormously, expanding 28% in the first quarter of the year, compared with the same time in 2010. Still, it remains small – at $1.28 billion in the first quarter, China took just 4% of Israeli exports – but experts say that belies trade that reaches China through third countries and the extent of research and development cooperation.
The two countries formally established diplomatic relations in 1992, nearly half century after the two states were founded. Defense ties actually flourished before that. Shrouded in secrecy, the Israeli defense sales to China were estimated at about $5.7 billion between 1984 and 1994, according to the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
This was to culminate in a $1.2 billion deal to sell Beijing an early airborne radar system and drones, which Washington blocked in 1999. Israel paid $300 million in compensation to the Chinese. Shunning military deals in the years that followed, Israel and China embarked on cooperation in civilian technology – Israel contributing innovation and China manufacturing.
IAI still has to beat out Canada’s Bombardier, as well as Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft of the U.S. to win the contest to produce executive jets at a joint venture production plant with AVIC slated to be based in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. While the joint venture is for civilian aircraft, both IAI and AVIC are principally defense aeronautics companies.
But, said Ilan Maor, a former Israel consul-general in Shanghai and now a business consultant advising on doing business in China, the possible tie-up points to areas on the outer edges of the defense sector where the two countries can cooperate without upsetting Washington.
“A lot can be done without alarming the U.S. or causing damage to the U.S. interest. A lot of what Israel is doing isn’t in offensive technology, such as homeland security,” Maor told The Media Line. “China and Israel are a perfect match when it comes to defense technology even if at the same time there are limits because of the China-Israel-U.S. triangle.”
After the U.S. botched the deals for Israel to build Phalcon airborne radar aircraft and upgrade Harpy drones, Jerusalem promised not to sell China defense technology or anything that might have dual military-civilian applications. But the Calcalist economic daily reported this week that Washington has approved IAI’s bid.
Academic exchanges with China carry more weight than they do with many other countries because academics play an important role in advising the government, said Carice Witte, executive director of Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership (SIGNAL). SIGNAL has been involved in Sichuan University’s Israel program and the Herzlya conference.
Initially limited to technology and innovation, China’s interest in Israel has expanded to learning from Israel about dealing with minorities and relations with Diaspora communities, Witte said.
Witte said the Chinese have “great respect” for Israel’s handling of relations with Jewish communities abroad and would like to form similar ties with overseas Chinese. They are also impressed with how the Jews and Israel have succeeded in educating the world about their history, in particular the Holocaust.
“They would like to memorialize the Nanjing massacre with the same kind of power and impact that the Jewish people have done memorializing our history,” Witte told The Media Line, referring to the mass murder and rape that occurred after the Japanese captured the Chinese city in 1937.
Observers say that China’s growing interest in Israel comes hand in hand with its emergence as a major world power. It has a growing interest in regional stability in the Middle East above and sees Israel as a critical player.
Witte said she believes the initiative for deepening ties is being led by both Beijing and Jerusalem, because both believe they have much to gain through increased relations.
“The business community is very attuned to China’s status as a developing great power, if not a great power already. The China Desk in the Foreign Ministry is equally aware of China’s importance. However, the rest of the Israeli government from my understanding has yet to form specific policy regarding its relationship beyond the business level,” she said.