Olmert leaves for China Monday

China's envoy: visit "to promote good relations"; trade and Iran on agenda.

ahmadinejad in china 298 (photo credit: AP)
ahmadinejad in china 298
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert heads to China on Monday to mark 15 years of normalized diplomatic and trade ties between the two countries - but he will not focus on China's role in blocking Iran's looming nuclear capability. While Iran will be on the agenda, Olmert will explore ways to further expand Israel's trade relations with China to $6 billion by 2008 compared with $4b. in 2006, according to the prime minister's spokeswoman Miri Eisin. China's Ambassador to Israel Chen Yonglong, who has returned home for Olmert's visit, told The Jerusalem Post by phone that the trip is "to promote the good relations between China and Israel." He added, "We want to cooperate further economically and culturally." In particular, he said that China was interested in Israel's expertise in technology and agriculture. However, he avoided questions about the political differences between Israel and China and said he had not yet been briefed on issues relating to Iran or to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor did he comment on the unique position China has held in maintaining relations both with Israel and Iran. Olmert arrives in China less than a week after Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani visited the country. China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which last month voted to impose sanctions on Iran until it halts its uranium enrichment program. According to an Israeli official, China also does not want Iran to develop a nuclear weapons program, but at the same time it maintains its ties with Iran, which is also its trading partner. On Friday, China urged Iran to comply with the sanctions and to try and resolve its differences with the international community through diplomacy. Iran has rejected the call. Israeli officials have spoken in glowing terms of their growing trade relationship with China, which according to Eisin, grew 27 percent in the last year alone. But Israeli officials have been more circumspect regarding the differences between the two countries. Chinese energy interests in the Middle East as well as its desire to cull international support for its own struggles with neighboring Taiwan keep it from aligning itself diplomatically with Israel, said one Israeli official. There have been a number of flare-ups between the two countries in the last seven years. Israel infuriated China in 2000 when pressure from the United States forced Israel to cancel the sale of sophisticated Phalcon reconnaissance aircraft to Beijing. More recently, Israel aborted a deal to upgrade drone aircraft sold to China, also under US pressure. China, meanwhile, upset Israel last year by inviting the foreign minister from the Hamas-led Palestinian government, boycotted by Israel and the West, to attend a conference in Beijing. It also hosted Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this year. China has shown interest in raising its profile in the Middle East, recently announcing it will increase its peacekeeping force in Lebanon to 1,000, making it one of the largest contributors to the multinational force dispatched in the aftermath of last summer's war between Israel and Hizbullah. On July 25, a Chinese peacekeeper in a UN outpost in Lebanon was killed by an Israeli airstrike. China is a major arms supplier to Iran, and Israel alleges that Chinese-made weapons were used by Hizbullah in last summer's Lebanon war, including an anti-ship cruise missile that was fired at an Israeli vessel on July 14, killing four servicemen. But in spite of China's differences with Israel, the visit is expected to focus mostly on the economic, cultural, agricultural and military ties between the two countries. AP contributed to this report.