CHINESE VICE President Wang Qishan at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound in Beijing, earlier this year.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The visit of Vice President Wang Qishan of the People’s Republic of China, one of the most senior Chinese officials to visit Israel in nearly two decades, is significant because of its agenda – and in the context of global and regional tensions, it may create headwinds for one of Israel’s most important bilateral relationships.
Wang will visit Israel October 22 to 25 and together with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will co-host the fourth meeting of the Israel-China Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation (JCIC). The JCIC, which convenes annually, alternating between Beijing and Jerusalem, was established in 2014.
The JCIC is one of the key government-to-government platforms between Israel and China – the others being a political dialogue at the level of deputy foreign ministers and an economic dialogue with the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China’s top economic planning body. The JCIC has a broad agenda. For example, the start of the free trade talks and the signing of a 10-year multiple entry visa agreement for tourists and business-people were announced at the 2016 JCIC.
The JCIC acquired additional significance after Israel and China upgraded their relationship to an “innovative comprehensive partnership.” This was announced when Netanyahu visited Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March 2017, the second such visit since May 2013, which helped kick-start a wide-ranging relationship.
However, Wang’s visit is important not simply due to any new agreements to be signed or the attendance at the summit of business luminaries such as Alibaba CEO Jack Ma. It’s also because China decided to upgrade the ranking of its representative co-chairing the JCIC vis-à-vis the prime minister of Israel.
It used to be headed by a Chinese vice-premier and a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of China (CPC). There are four vice-premiers in China’s State Council, one of them an executive vice-premier who also sits on the Standing Committee, the highest decision-making body in China. The Chinese co-chair of the JCIC was one of the three vice-premiers. In this case, it was Mme. Liu Yandong, responsible for science and technology and the only women in the top-25 party hierarchy.
While Wang is not currently a member of the Politburo (nor even on the Central Committee of the party), he is ranked No. 8 in the Communist Party hierarchy (above a vice-premier) and is, of course, a state leader. This demonstrates the importance with which China views its technology and innovation cooperation with Israel, especially in the context of rising US-China tensions.
Secondly, Wang enjoys the trust of Chinese President and Party Secretary Xi Jinping. Wang was on the Politburo Standing Committee (ranked six at the time) 2012- to 2017 and headed the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the party’s highly respected anti-corruption body. He is known in China for his financial expertise (he’s nicknamed the “firefighter” for his ability for dealing with crises) and his experience vis-à-vis the US.
Finally, Wang is one of the most senior Chinese officials to arrive in Israel since Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited in April 2000. Chinese speaker Zhang Dejiang, who visited Israel in September 2016, was ranked number three in the party hierarchy, formally higher than Wang, but he was nearing the end of his career and wasn’t seen as close to Xi as Wang is. According to Brookings, Xi and Wang have known each other for 40 years.
The role of a vice president in China used to be considered a ceremonial one, but not in Wang’s case. Wang, 70, had to retire from the standing committee in 2017 due to commonly accepted age limits, but with recent removal of term limits on the position of China’s president and vice president, he clearly wields a larger role in China’s policy formulation.
Israel-China ties have flourished in recent years. Only this summer, two new destinations for direct flights – Chengdu and Guangzhou – were added to the broadening network. There are growing ties in science and research, trade and tourism. In recent years, China has become an important, if still relatively modest, investor in Israeli technology and a source for venture capital.
Still, China is careful to balance between its burgeoning ties with Israel and its traditional ties with the Arab world. In addition to Israel, Wang is scheduled to visit the Palestinian territories, Egypt and United Arab Emirates. Chinese top leader Xi Jinping has already visited the Middle East twice since 2012, both times omitting Israel from his schedule.
Nor did China mince words when US President Donald Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, a decision seen as acknowledging reality by Israelis but opposed by China, which supports a two-state solution as a resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Belt & Road Initiative, China’s most important foreign policy effort in decades and a blueprint for a Chinese model of development, includes both Israel and Iran.
Some American sources have recently voiced concern over the growing profile of Chinese investments in Israel, especially in critical technologies like artificial intelligence. Israel faces an all-too-common dilemma – how to balance its security cooperation with the US, its main ally, against the growing economic cooperation with China.
The writer is the founding director of The Chinese Media Center (CMC), at The College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon LeZion, Israel, and a senior adviser to the Silk Road Group.
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