History as important as business for Sino-Israeli relations

China’s expanding presence in Israel – and similarly in other Middle Eastern countries – is generating a lively debate about what future repercussions could be.

October 23, 2018 20:52
3 minute read.
Cyber Horse

A ‘CYBER Horse’ statue symbolizes Israel’s technological prowess. ‘Israel is continuously attracting the interest of Chinese companies, which envisage either investment or purchase of stakes in Israeli ones.’. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The visit of China’s Vice President Wang Qishan to Israel provides a new opportunity for the two countries to explore opportunities for closer collaboration. The gradual increase of bilateral trade volume is characteristic. Last year it exceeded $13 billion, while it had been only $50 million when the sides established diplomatic relations in 1992. Energy is a promising theme of joint interest, because China might become a customer for Israeli natural gas to cover its ongoing needs.

Further to this, as a start-up nation, Israel is continuously attracting the interest of Chinese companies, which envisage either investment or purchase of stakes in Israeli ones. Significant business deals are being frequently announced. One month ago, for instance, Chinese trans-catheter heart valve company Venus Medtech signed an agreement to acquire Caesarea-based Keystone Heart, which has developed a cerebral embolic protection device designed to provide complete coverage to all brain regions for patients undergoing cardiac procedures. Against this backdrop, Wang Qishan and Premier Benjamin Netanyahu will co-chair the fourth meeting of the China-Israel joint committee on innovation cooperation.

Additionally, the realization of the Belt and Road Initiative finds China interested in investing in key infrastructure works in Israel. Port diplomacy has the lions’ share of attention. Four years ago, China Harbors Pan Mediterranean Engineering Company (PMEC) was chosen to construct the new port of Ashdod. And in 2015, Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) won a tender to run Haifa’s Bayport Terminal for 25 years beginning in 2021, when the construction of Bayport is expected to be completed by an Israeli consortium. The so-called ‘Red-Med’ railway is another big Chinese project, but currently remains theoretical.

China’s expanding presence in Israel – and similarly in other Middle Eastern countries – is generating a lively debate about what future repercussions could be. While most Western scholars see a potential geopolitical vacuum caused by a US pivot to Asia and are concerned about Beijing’s potential motivation to fill it in the future, Chinese analysts employ a wait-and-see stance and diagnose more risks than opportunities. In the final account, although Israel closely follows the situation, it is able to put some limits on its economic cooperation with China when security issues are raised. In the past, for example, the former canceled the transfer of military technology to the latter.

Whereas the visit of Wang Qishan to Israel is generally placed in the framework of bilateral economic collaboration, a significant aspect of Sino-Israeli relations – albeit largely ignored by public opinion – is China’s stance vis-à-vis the Jewish people during the Nazi horrors. When Netanyahu visited Shanghai in 2013, he hailed the city’s role as a ‘haven’ for Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, Shanghai received more than 25,000 Jewish refugees from Europe.

The late Chinese diplomat Dr. Feng Shan Ho deserves a special mention. In 1937, he was sent to Vienna and appointed consul general of China one month after Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in March 1938. Feng Shan Ho attempted to save Jewish people’s lives by issuing them Chinese visas to Shanghai. More importantly, he put the Chinese city on the map and into the consciousness of Jews in other Nazi occupied territories as a refuge of last resort. In 2001, Israel honored him with its highest award for non-Jews, the Righteous among the Nations.

China has no tradition of antisemitism, but for some decades after the end of the Second World War knowledge about the Holocaust remained limited. In examining history, the principal priority of the Chinese was their own suffering due to the Japanese aggression. In recent years, this has started to change. China’s opening-up process has facilitated the establishment of centers of Jewish studies in universities as well as the development of partnerships with Israeli institutions and the writing of relevant books and articles.

The theme of Holocaust education can certainly be part of Sino-Israeli discussions. China is keen on including it, not only due to Shanghai’s historical role in the protection of Jews and its respect for Israel, but because it can draw on Israeli lessons about remembering the Holocaust and combating deniers. The country places particular emphasis on the importance of history, its contribution to peace during the Second World War and the remembrance of the Nanjing massacre.

The writer is a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and a senior associate and lecturer at the European Institute of Nice and the Democritus University of Thrace.

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