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.
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
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.
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
“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,”
Israel has the technology, China has the scale.
as he made clear in Shanghai Pharmaceutical’s boardroom, the two in tandem could
“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
If we join our efforts, we can have competitive dominance in
And pursuing that goal is why Netanyahu went to
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
And Israel, while obviously happier for the diplomatic
process to be led by the US, was careful not to discount the proposal out of
“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.
that as part of a greater Chinese presence in the diplomatic process, China
could get involved in projects that boost the Palestinian economy.
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.