When discussing Sino-Israeli relations, of which both countries are now celebrating 26 years, trade, commerce and innovative collaborations come to mind.
And why not? China is now Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and the third largest across the world.
In the first half of 2018, trade grew by 21.6%, which is five times faster than the global average, while at the same time, China’s imports from Israel have increased by 47.2%.
But a deeper, more emotional bond connects the two civilizations which each share a robust ancient history of their own.
Former Israel ambassador Moshe Ben-Yaacov recalls vividly the moment he witnessed this emotional connection.
At China’s grandiose Great Hall of the People in 1994, Ben-Yaacov witnessed the merging of two great cultures when the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra – under the conductorship of Zubin Mehta and with Itzhak Perlman as violin soloist – played in front of approximately 10,000 people in the Hall while millions more watched on Chinese TV. Reverberating off the ornate walls in a venue that means so much to the people of China, played the hypnotizing melody of “Hatikva” – Israel’s national anthem.
“It was a very emotional moment,” Ben-Yaacov said.
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Although the road to that moment took decades to come to fruition, the Chinese and Israeli people today are celebrating a relationship not just based on money, but mutual respect and friendship.
During his tenure as ambassador, Ben-Yaacov discovered the Chinese had a depth of love and respect for the Jewish people; two ancient peoples with long histories of both glory and despair.
While Sino-Israel relations began to flower at the beginning of 1950, the Jewish state became one of the first Western countries to open dialogue with the Asian giant.
In what now sounds like the understatement of the last century, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, predicted at the time that China would be a “state that is going to keep growing.”
And grow it did. In practically a blink of an eye, the once agrarian society has become a hi-tech and commercial powerhouse – with major investments around the globe. The Jewish state has followed a similar trajectory, albeit on a much smaller scale.
9 Since Israel and China forged diplomatic relations in 1992, the two countries have established a strategic partnership that spans across various sectors. From industry to commerce to innovation, China and Israel are maximizing the many opportunities for collaboration.
Ben-Yaacov recalls the early days of relations, when the two countries were beginning to navigate the waters of diplomatic ties. The 1993 visit of thenprime minister Yitzhak Rabin to China was instrumental, considering that the embassy was newly opened and occurred at a delicate stage of the two countries’ relations. It also came just before the Oslo Accords, which would continue the painful process of decoupling the Palestinians from Israel.
The Chinese, according to Ben-Yaacov, understood and appreciated Rabin’s efforts to secure peace, and his relationship with his Chinese counterparts was a cordial one.
The burgeoning relationship was further cemented by the 1994 visit of Zou Jiahua (who served as China’s vice premier from 1991 to 1998). Zou was among the first Chinese leaders to visit Israel and was the source of great celebration, both in Jerusalem and Beijing.
Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, formal visits at all levels of our governments have occurred. Recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid a successful visit to China in March 2017. During this visit, he met with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and other Chinese leaders.
In the past five years alone, there were more than 10 visits at or above vice-premier level, hitting a new high since 1992. The two countries have established the Intergovernmental Mechanism of Economic and Technological Cooperation and the Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation, which have only further solidified ties.
This visit marked a new phase in bilateral ties, where China-Israel relations were elevated to the Innovative Comprehensive Partnership. This is by no means a simple change of wording.
This new designation of relations opened a new chapter in exchange and cooperation.
Clearly, Sino-Israel relations have developed exponentially in the more than 20 years since Ben-Yaacov left his post as ambassador to China in 1996.
Bilateral relations were worth approximately $200 million then, and today are in the region of $13 billion.
Israel is also attracting more Chinese investment. China’s total investment in Israel, which was insignificant in the 1990s, has now jumped to more than $7 billion. Israel’s leading technologies, such as drip irrigation and water treatment, have been widely applied in many parts of China.
From a cultural perspective, Israelis travel to China in great numbers, and one eye-catching development is the number of Chinese tourists in Israel. In the late 1990s there were virtually none, but that number has now mushroomed to around 139,000 annually, necessitating the training of hundreds of Mandarin-speaking tour guides. Direct flights operating between Tel Aviv and Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Hong Kong are now in high demand.
Additionally, the China Cultural Center opened in Tel Aviv, providing another channel for Israel to learn about China and its culture. China and Israel have established 22 pairs of sister cities, and think tanks covering Israel-Sino relations are blossoming.
This year is of special significance to China’s growth. Specifically, 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of China’s Reform and Opening Up and the fifth anniversary of the Belt and Road Initiative. With this ambitious project, President Xi Jinping has reaffirmed that China will open its market wider and contribute more opportunities to the world.
Israel is among the first Middle East countries to support the initiative and is a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative and within the AIIB is unfolding steadily, with major projects set to bear fruit.
For example, China’s Pan-Mediterranean Engineering Co, Ltd. is playing a pivotal role building Ashdod’s new port. Additionally, China’s Sinohydro Corporation is building a pumped hydro-power station in northeastern Israel, which will contribute to the country’s national grid’s stability and may spare the need to build additional conventional power stations in Israel. Finally, China Railway Group Limited and China Civil Engineering Corporation are building Tel Aviv’s new light rail, which will be a game-changer for the White City.
Israel, renowned for its innovation, has the ability to create new ideas virtually out of thin air. And China, with a strong manufacturing capacity and a huge market, can magnify the distribution of those ideas a hundred-fold.
With the combination of those abilities, together, the two countries can achieve great things.
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