Diplomacy: Our man in Beijing

Matan Vilna’i, Israel’s ambassador to China, is hopeful that exports to People’s Republic can double in the years to come.

Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilnai cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony for a coffeehouse at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilnai cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony for a coffeehouse at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
BEIJING – Ambassadors always want to promote their host countries, but just over three years into his tenure as envoy to China, Matan Vilna’i couldn’t possibly identify more. He talks jokingly of Xi Jinping as “our president,” bemoans the West’s – including Israel’s – lack of understanding of the People’s Republic, and appears in awe of the Asian dragon.
When first offered the job, Vilna’i – at the time home front defense minister and an MK for Ehud Barak’s now defunct Independence Party – was hesitant. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Vilna’i, who as a young paratroop officer was deputy commander of Operation Thunderbolt to free the Entebbe hostages and would rise to the rank of brigadier-general, that the Chinese look up to military heroes, but he was concerned about his lack of knowledge of the country and his lack of diplomatic savoir faire. Clearly, today he has no regrets about accepting the post.
Now, settled comfortably in an armchair, Vilna’i greets me in an expansive lounge on the top floor of the embassy compound, known as “the kibbutz,” overlooking the Chinese capital’s diplomatic quarter, which hosts some 150 embassies, a sign of its growing global power.
“How long are you staying?” he asks straight off.
When I reply just a few days, he responds: “Trust me, after a few days here, you will be Chinese. You will understand what China is all about and your perspective will change.
“Europe and the United States are very important – the US is a superpower that Israel is totally reliant on – but China’s place in the world is unique,” he continues. “We have to learn about China because China isn’t the next big thing, it has already arrived.”
Over a pot of Chinese green tea, Vilna’i launches into a primer – China in 60 minutes – from an explanation of the political system to China’s foreign policy, the urbanization that is sweeping the country and changing its very nature, and, of course, Israel’s relations with the Middle Kingdom.
Israel’s understanding of China is no less than a “tragedy,” says Vilna’i. “The only think tank in Israel that occasionally holds discussions on China is the INSS,” he states bitterly. “There isn’t a single think tank in Israel specializing in China. There is one researcher at the Foreign Ministry researching China, and then a few academics at the universities – and that’s it. Neither is there a single journalist dealing with China. There is a huge gap in understanding China, but we are in good company, as most of the world doesn’t understand China.”
The best way to gain that understanding is through people-to-people grassroots contacts, Vilna’i says.
“It is very important for me that people understand each other. There is a long way to go, but there is an excellent foundation. The Chinese are, along with us, the only nation in the word that has a historical memory that goes back thousands of years. It is something they talk about. Confucius from the 5th century BCE is a topic they talk about and a name that every kid knows. Just like Moshe Rabbeinu and Avraham Avinu are for us. So this is something we very much have in common.”
Unfortunately, Vilna’i admits, when it comes to politics and diplomacy, that commonality does not stand for much.
“They remember very well where their oil comes from,” he says. “Their identification with the Arab cause is clear-cut; they have never voted for us even once in any international institution.”
Is there a chance, I ask him, that given the upturn in relations between Israel and China, now in their 24th year, the Chinese will go down the same path as India and abstain on anti-Israel motions at the United Nations? “I think there is a chance they could abstain. I think we can reach that situation and I think that we will reach that situation, but it’s a long road, because they say, ‘You are the strong party in the Middle East, so go solve the problem.
What do you want from us?’ “The Chinese have a policy of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other countries which isn’t always understood correctly in the world. Their perspective is that each country is responsible for its own affairs, and they won’t be the ones to interfere in Israel, in Iran or in Syria.
That has been their policy since the days of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic.”
Vilna’i doesn’t give much credence to claims that the attempt to replace Europe with China is misguided and that the Chinese have only temporary material interests and no deep-rooted common bond with Israel, that they could be here today and gone tomorrow.
“The common bond we have with Europe is 2,000 years of anti-Semitism,” Vilna’i quips. “In China there is no anti-Semitism; the concept does not exist. There is enormous appreciation for the Jewish people. They think that Jews are smart because they are successful.”
He does, however, admit that the Chinese attitude to Israel is ambivalent and that Israel has to create interests for China in order for Beijing to see things differently.
“China’s attitude to Israel is ambivalent,” says Vilna’i. “On the one hand, China wants our know-how and technology; and on the other, they identify on the diplomatic side with the Arab world – although they say, with a measure of justification, that they are friends with both sides.”
Meanwhile, Israeli exports to China and Chinese investments in Israel are on the increase. Bilateral trade with China is around $11.5 billion, with imports of Chinese goods making up around twothirds of that figure.
“Chinese investments in Israel are growing at an incredible pace,” says Vilna’i.
What the Chinese are looking for in Israel is innovation. They understand that to move the Chinese economy forward, they need innovation.”
Indeed, in 2014 Chinese-Israeli tech deals totaled $300 million, up from $50m. the previous year. Figures for 2015 are slated to top that sum.
Innovation, though, isn’t the only thing the Chinese are looking for in Israel.
Vilna’i hopes that the Chinese market can save Israeli farmers who are suffering from a decline in sales to Europe. He says that one of his main aims for the coming year is to promote Israeli agricultural exports to China.
Vilna’i has also put an emphasis on grabbing a share of the over 100 million Chinese tourists who traveled overseas in 2014.
“I hope to see a figure of around 45,000 Chinese tourists traveling to Israel by the end of this year. That would be over three times the figure three years ago, so the graph is showing a consistent improvement,” he says. “Any further improvement requires streamlining the visa process, which is something we are already doing, and it requires direct flights. [Hainan Airlines, China’s largest privately owned airline, announced in September that it would fly three times a week from Beijing to Ben-Gurion, in addition to El Al which already operates three weekly flights on the same route.] By 2017 I believe we can reach a figure of 100,000 Chinese tourists.”
While Israel-China trade ties have come a long way, there is still a long march ahead. Vilna’i notes that Intel and Israel Chemicals together account for around 60 percent of exports, with dozens of small to midsize companies accounting for the remaining 40 percent.
Those companies, he says, have to deal with cultural differences and regulatory barriers.
“It isn’t easy at all to do business in China,” says Vilna’i. “First of all, there is the language barrier. The younger generation speaks English, but the older generation doesn’t, and won’t speak English. When a company wants to break into China, they really have to break their teeth.
“There are cultural differences. Israelis come across things that they are not used to and they don’t know how to respond to.
“But companies that don’t succeed come back because they realize the potential and say to themselves there is a learning curve. I can tell you there is a tuition fee to be paid for breaking into China.”
Vilna’i describes the potential for Israeli companies to do business in China as unlimited but notes that while Israel has six economic attachés at the consulates spread around the country, helping businesses open doors and deal with China’s ultra-strict, by the book regulatory barriers, Denmark, with a smaller population than Israel’s, has 30. He also has only two Chinese-speakers on his embassy staff.
“Israel has a tremendous advantage,” says Vilna’i. “When you say you are from Israel, you have an advantage, but what really matters is having a presence on the ground.”
While he won’t set milestones for Israeli exports to China, Vilna’i is optimistic that trade will continue to grow strongly.
“The important thing is that trade is on the rise. Obviously, there are many things that can happen that aren’t under our control, but we will reach $5b. in exports in the years to come. It won’t be easy, but we are in the right direction.”
Another potential avenue of economic cooperation is China’s New Silk Road project, an ambitious plan to connect the country, via land and maritime routes, with Europe.
“The Chinese are investing tens of billions of dollars on large infrastructure projects in the region between China and Europe, and every country [along the route] sees itself as being part of the project, and so do we,” he says.
“The Chinese set up a bank to finance the project, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which I believe will become in a short time one of the most important financial institutions in the world. We are founder members of the AIIB, which will fund projects in the region between China and Europe, including Russia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and a maritime route that will traverse the Suez Canal and is also connected to the Eilat-Mediterranean railway project.”
Back in 2012 Israel and China announced preliminary talks on construction of the Eilat-Mediterranean railway, which would act as a land bridge that could present an alternative to the Suez Canal. Since then, the Egyptians have completed a second canal, while even Vilna’i has no idea what is happening with the rail project.
With China investing enormous sums of money in the region in countries that have opposing interests and sometimes open hostilities, can China act as a stabilizing force? “If you ask me, they must be a stabilizing force and they are trying to be one,” he says, noting the Chinese concept of “stability and harmony.”
That concept, he adds, also applies internally.
“If there is one thing that causes the Chinese leadership to lose sleep,” he says, “it’s what happened to the Soviet Union under [Mikhail] Gorbachev, and they won’t let it happen to them.”
Vilna’i doesn’t touch on Western criticism of Chinese authoritarianism, but he clearly is impressed with the country’s leadership. In a clear snipe at Israel’s politicians, he says: “In China, you don’t become a minister because you play the guitar. Anyone who is in office here has taken a long path and proven themselves all along the way. The Chinese leaders are educated and calculated.
“If you ask me, they think much clearer than we do. They are free of the constraints of democracy; they don’t have to cheat all the time like our politicians, who say one thing and do something else, because they say what their audience wants to hear and then find that reality is stronger than everything. The Chinese are very sensitive to public opinion because they know what will happen if the public isn’t happy; because that will harm the party, and the party is above everything.”
As for Israeli politics, Vilna’i isn’t missing it at all. He says he has no plans to return to politics when his term is over.
How long will he stay in China? “In 2016, I will have been here for four years. Four years seems to me to be about the right term to be in China; two years is too little, and five years too long. Four years is a time in which you can learn and get to know the country and make things happen. After five years you start to become too much of an old-timer.”