Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at China-Israel Innovation Conference.
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Cai Mingzhao, the president of China’s Xinhua News Agency, will begin a visit to Israel on May 12 in a trip viewed as a significant sign that Beijing is intent on pressing forward with developing ties with Jerusalem despite opposition from Washington.
Jon Taylor, a political science professor and China expert at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, called Cai a “key state media leader” who is not only the president of Xinhua, the largest news agency in the world, but is also a member of the 19th Central Committee of China’s Communist Party.
“This provides him a rank equivalent to that of a provincial-ministerial leader,” Taylor said. “He previously served as the editor of The People’s Daily and director of the State Council Information Office. He’s pretty important because he’s at the forefront of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to enhance the global impact of China’s state media entities.”
Alexander Pevzner, the founding director of the Chinese Media Center at Rishon Lezion’s College of Management Academic Studies, said the visit was “very important on several levels.”
First of all, he said, as the highest-level senior visit by a Chinese official since Vice President Wang Qishan visited last October, “this demonstrates that from the point of the view of the Chinese – despite the tensions between the US and China, and US pressure on Israel to cool its ties with China – it’s business as usual.”
Pevzner also said that the visit is “part and parcel of regular high-level exchanges between Israel and China, which are important in demonstrating to party officials in the world’s second-largest economy that ties with Israel are important.”
Under the Trump administration, where Israel-US ties have generally blossomed, one area of friction has been over Israel’s relationship with China, with the US articulating on a number of occasions – including during US President Donald Trump’s meeting in March with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House – its concern that Chinese infrastructure investment in Israel poses intelligence challenges not only for Israel, but for the US as well.
Washington has said that the US Navy may change its long-standing operations at the Haifa Port because of intelligence concerns when the Shanghai International Port Group takes management control over the port in 2021.
Under US pressure, Israel is reportedly in the process of setting up a new mechanism to monitor Chinese infrastructure investments, but nothing has been finalized yet.
Taylor said that Cai’s visit indicates “that China is becoming concerned that the US under Trump will push Netanyahu and his new coalition to move Israel away from what has been relatively friendly relations with China. The US is deeply concerned that China will entice Israel, much like it has enticed other developed nations such as Italy and Switzerland, to join the Belt and Road Initiative and contribute to greater cooperation with China on technology and software development.”
The Belt and Road Initiative is a mega infrastructure project that runs through parts of the Middle East, and which Beijing hopes will revive the ancient Silk Road.
Taylor also put the visit into the context of efforts to complete an Israel-China Free Trade Agreement (FTA), something Netanyahu said he hopes to be finalized this year.
“I would assume that this visit is part of a larger effort to both jump start and underscore China’s interest in completing the proposed Israel-China FTA, as well as publicizing the potential for investment and infrastructure development efforts under the Belt and Road Initiative,” he said.
Pevzner stressed that Xinhua, as China’s official state news agency, is an “extremely important organization in China,” and that “it is good for Israel to maintain good ties with it.”
With some 24,000 employees and bureaus spread out throughout the world – including a bureau of between three to five people in Israel – Xinhua has “an extremely important, though not exclusive role in shaping public opinion in China toward Israel,” he noted.
Regarding the balance of Xinhua’s coverage of Israel, Pevzner said it is important to understand that the news agency is an arm of the Chinese government, representing its views on international affairs and reflecting China’s foreign policy goals, including toward the Middle East.
“With that in mind, Xinhua frequently carries stories that emphasize the Arab/Palestinian narrative,” he said. “But, Xinhua also carries many positive stories – about Israeli society and technology, for example. In fact, the pro-Arab stance notwithstanding, one could argue that Xinhua carries more positive stories on Israel than some Western news agencies.”
Cai’s predecessor, Li Congjun, visited Israel in 2013.