CHINESE PREMIER Li Keqiang meets with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Great Hall of the People last March..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It is a new era for Israel-China relations, and as ties deepen and become more multifaceted, it is important and understand just how profound the change has been in the past few years.
As the two countries across the Asian continent celebrate the 26th anniversary of bilateral ties, the huge potential going forward is evident. Both Israel and China are ancient civilizations but new countries, established within a year of each other (modern Israel in 1948, the People’s Republic of China in 1949). While Jewish presence in China dates back to at least the 10th century CE, it was not one of the better-known Jewish Diaspora communities. In our time, it took some decades before modern Israel and China established diplomatic relations, on January 24, 1992.
It took two more decades for the relationship to come of age, but in the past several years, the growth has been exponential.
From academia to tourism, from business to culture, relations on both the government and non-governmental level have been developing at an astounding pace, creating a sea change not only in bilateral ties, but in Israel’s position in Asia in general.
Despite the wide gap in size and population, the relationship is a win-win.
As China continues its shift from an economic model based on heavy industry and manufacturing to one reliant on technology and innovation, and with China aiming to become an innovation powerhouse, it is highly interested in Israel’s areas of strength such as agricultural technology, water, energy, medical technology and artificial intelligence. As Robin Li, CEO of Chinese Internet giant Baidu said when meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “investing in Israel is investing in technology.”
The influx of Chinese investment into Israel since 2011 demonstrates the interest in Israeli technology. Investment from China in Israeli technology (including food tech) clocked a total of $15 billion in the past seven years – from practically zero before that. Already some Israeli start-ups position themselves exclusively for the Chinese market.
Market estimates talk about $500 million to $600m. in Chinese venture capital coming into Israel annually as China becomes an important funder of Israel technology. If that’s not enough, the Chinese Internet and retail giant Alibaba, which had invested in Israel in the past, included Israel as the location of one of its seven planned research laboratories worldwide. And December saw the launch of Israel’s first university in China when the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology opened its campus in Shantou, southern China.
Trade and investment, important though they are, are only parts of the growing relationship. In November, the first China Cultural Center was opened in Tel Aviv, the 35th of its kind worldwide and the second in the Middle East (after Cairo). The China Cultural Center will facilitate cultural exchanges and will bring China even closer to the Israel public.
Chinese studies are popular in Israel, with hundreds of students registered in East Asian Studies departments or in Confucius Institute classes.
The growth in tourism from China has been equally impressive – from less than 20,000 Chinese tourists only a few years ago, 2017 was the first year when the number of Chinese tourists broke the 100,000 mark (a total of 113,600, according the Tourism Ministry), a 43% increase from 79,268 Chinese visitors in 2016 and more than doubling from 47,007 in 2015.
This “discovery” of Israel by Chinese tourists, spurred by the opening of new flight routes (including the first ever direct route from Shanghai), modern marketing campaigns, and easing of visa regulations are not only giving the tourism industry a boost, but completely redefining the way the local industry adjusts to visitors from a very different cultural background.
Further, China’s attractiveness for Israel as a market also belies China’s true importance. At the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China in October, President Xi Jinping proclaimed a “new era of building socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as well as an “era that sees China moving closer to center stage and making great contributions to mankind.”
China’s ambitious Belt & Road Initiative, a proposal to link Asia and Europe in a network of infrastructure and trade, is not only an example of a change in Chinese foreign policy, but also provides an opportunity for Israel to cooperate with countries with which it doesn’t have diplomatic relations.
China is also becoming more ambitious in the Middle East. In December, China hosted a symposium for Palestinian and Israeli peace advocates in Beijing. President Xi made a new four-point proposal on the Palestine issue, but for now China limits its involvement to a role of facilitator.
As structural tensions between the US and China increase in areas including trade, the South China Sea and others, Israel can be a source of technology for China when deals in the US are nixed by regulators. And Israel hopes for a balanced role for China in the Middle East.
The great strides made in the bilateral relationship, and the potential between Israel and China in economic and political areas, ensures the prospects for the future are bright.The author is the founding director of The Chinese Media Center (CMC) at the School of Media Studies of The College of Management Academic Studies, Rishon Lezion, and a senior adviser to the Silk Road Group.