Leveraging China’s lack of knowledge about Israel

Because its interests in the region are relatively new, and this country is still largely a blank slate to most Chinese, there is a real opportunity to make an impact on how it views us and the wider Mideast.

By LAURA KAM
January 4, 2011 22:03
4 minute read.
Steinitz signs protocol with Chinese Deputy Financ

Steinitz Israel China deal 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

Israel and China are largely comprised of two ancient peoples confronting the challenges of a world changing at a dizzying pace, especially in finance.

While Israel’s diplomatic energies are mostly directed westward, particularly toward the US, its economic initiatives are increasingly moving eastward, especially to China – as they should. By the end of 2010, bilateral trade between the two countries would have more than doubled, to $10 billion, in just three years.

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The importance of China to this country’s growth and security cannot be overstated.

China has the world’s second-largest and fastest-growing economy, and the largest population. It is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Its government has an active interest in the Middle East, primarily because of its massive reliance on oil from Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, but also because of its growing markets. At the same time, it is drawn to Israel’s innovative industries – particularly in green technology – and pioneering hi-tech sector.

Yet the Chinese people have demonstrated relatively little interest in or knowledge about Israel the country. Fortunately, they do not have a history of anti-Semitism, and have long welcomed Jews fleeing persecution, such as in the 1800s and after World War II. The Chinese greatly admire Jews, and in a stereotypical, albeit positive, way, link accomplished Jewish personalities such as Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger to the Jewish people as a whole.

Newsweek’s December 29 issue featured an article describing the “affection for Jewishness” in China leading to the publication of “books purporting to reveal the business secrets of the Talmud.”

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, President Shimon Peres was one of only eight world leaders selected to speak with President Hu Jintao.

Business relationships with China are expanding, fostered by a series of trade agreements starting in 1995. Since promising to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 40% from 2005-2020, China has been exploring green technology ventures, and Israel’s innovations in the field have become attractive to Chinese companies, which have been investing in and collaborating with start-up companies.

As a result, bilateral trade exceeded $4 billion in 2007 and was expected to grow to $10 billion by the end of 2010.

China has even greater business interests in Iran, however, particularly in its energy sector. Bilateral trade was worth $21 billion in 2009 – a whopping increase from $10 billion in 2005.

ISRAEL SUPPORTERS must seriously address these dual, at times contradictory, components of China’s Middle East activities to advance Israel’s security and well-being.

These various factors led The Israel Project to conduct its first focus groups of educated opinion elites in Shanghai in June 2010, led by pollster Dr. Stanley Greenberg.

Initial findings indicate an awareness of and admiration for Israel’s strengths in technology, finance and military. Israel supporters should leverage these attitudes by pointing out the benefits of a strengthened relationship, focusing on security, technology and information-sharing. We should also employ various modes of communication with its leaders.

While the eastward shift of the global economic balance of power – China’s economy could overtake the US by as early as 2020 – makes continued expansion of economic relations essential, it is Beijing’s political power that is the most critical factor affecting our security needs.

As a permanent Security Council member, China can veto resolutions. Yet it has to act responsibly. Thus, while China ultimately voted in favor of the fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran (its third-largest source of petroleum), it only supported relatively weak measures to keep Iranian oil flowing. It did not want to risk tougher sanctions that might force Iran to shut down its oil exports. However, China may not have given serious enough consideration to the strong possibility that the risk of energy disruption would actually increase without strong sanctions, as military conflicts in the region become more likely.

Many dichotomies and inherent contradictions are at play. All affect Israel.

Because China’s interests in the Middle East are relatively recent, and Israel is still largely a blank slate to most Chinese, we have a real opportunity to make a significant impact on its decision-making and views concerning us and the wider Middle East. A deeper understanding of Israel and the context of its actions will lead to policies that will make us more secure and enhance prospects for closer bilateral relations.

This opportunity will not last long. The pro-Israel community must enhance our approaches to and ties with China now.

The writer is executive director for global affairs for The Israel Project, a nonprofit, educational organization that gets press, leaders and the public facts about Israel and the Middle East.


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