Israeli companies target China_311.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twenty years ago today, China and the Jewish state established official
diplomatic relations. But long before January 1992, there was extensive, albeit
secretive, cooperation. The Chinese were allured by Israeli military prowess and
by “Jewish genius” exhibited in men such as Karl Marx and Albert Einstein. Sun
Yat-sen – one of the founding fathers of the Chinese national movement who died
in 1925 – was said to be empathetic to the Zionist movement. In the 1950s China
produced a stamp with a picture of the Yiddish writer Sholem
Until Mao’s death in 1976, China’s foreign policy was driven by
Communist ideology and the championing of “oppressed peoples” and “victims of
imperialism” which included the Arab nations. But starting in 1979, China began
conducting major arms deals with Israel, who was represented by businessman
In 1999, The New York Times
noted that “Israel has long
had a close, secretive military relationship with China.”
The end of the
Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union’s influence among Muslim
states in the region helped facilitate China’s embrace of a pragmatic, flexible
diplomatic strategy in the Middle East driven primarily by the supreme economic
interest of maintaining political stability.
During the first decade of
relations with Israel, the Chinese were guided to a certain extent by the
mistaken notion – held, ironically, to this day by critics of Israel such as
John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt – that Jewish and Israeli lobbies had
inordinate sway over decisionmaking in Washington.
This misconception was
soon dashed after the US, contrary to Israeli interests, put pressure on
Jerusalem to cancel a number of highly lucrative military deals with
In October 1999, US president Bill Clinton formally opposed the
sale to China of Phalcon airborne early-warning and surveillance systems worth
$1 billion. In December 2004, the Bush administration objected to the Israeli
government’s decision to repair and upgrade the Harpy unmanned aerial vehicle
that Israel had sold to China in the 1990s.
During the Cold War,
Washington did not oppose Israeli arms deals with China because Beijing was
needed as a counterweight to Moscow. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union,
it began to see China as a threat to its strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific
region. US opposition has essentially put an end to all significant military
trade with China.
One of the main challenges facing Israel, therefore, is
developing non-military trade with China, which will soon become the world’s
largest economy, even if it grows at just half of the present rate of 8.7
percent annually. Bilateral trade, which in 1992 was worth $60 million,
is now worth about $8b. a year, one-third of which is Israeli exports to
More than 1,000 Israeli companies operate in China and there is
cooperation in the fields of industrial R&D, water, biotechnology and
pharmaceuticals. A consulate was opened in the southern city of Guangzhou, and
another is planned for Chengdu, in the underdeveloped western province of
Sichuan. Both locations offer unique opportunities in parts of China with
untapped economic potential.
A Chinese firm built the Carmel tunnels,
ChemChina acquired a controlling stake in Makhteshim Agan Industries and Chinese
chemical companies have opened R&D facilities here.
one area in which China’s interests are at odds not only with the US’s but also
with Israel’s involves Iran’s nuclear program. But according to
Prof. Yitzhak Shichor of University of Haifa’s Department of Asia
Studies, China’s ties with Iran must not be misconstrued as expressing Beijing’s
identification with Iranian belligerence. Rather, it is a tactical move against
US influence in the region.
According to Shichor, there is nothing that
China wants more than quiet and stability so that its economy can continue to
grow unheeded. Iran’s threat to block the Hormuz Straits is seen by China as
extremely counterproductive. Chinese foreign policy in the region has
troubling elements. Beijing maintains strong trade relations with Iran while
conveniently ignoring the threat posed by an Islamic Republic with nuclear
But China is an economic powerhouse that Israel simply cannot
afford to ignore. Hopefully, the Iranian crisis will be resolved peacefully so
that mutually beneficial economic interests shared by Jerusalem and Beijing can
be pursued against the backdrop of a stable, safe Middle East.