Is China's new Middle East footprint good for Israel? - opinion

Over the decades, Israel has consistently prioritized its alliance with the US over ties with China. If Beijing wants to challenge this, it could promote normalization with the Muslim world.

 THEN-PRIME MINISTER Yitzhak Rabin reviews an honor guard during his state visit to China in 1993, as then-Chinese prime minister Li Peng walks alongside him. (photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)
THEN-PRIME MINISTER Yitzhak Rabin reviews an honor guard during his state visit to China in 1993, as then-Chinese prime minister Li Peng walks alongside him.
(photo credit: YAACOV SAAR/GPO)

The Chinese Revolution is commonly associated with Mao Zedong’s establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. While Beijing’s recent brokering of Iranian-Saudi normalization is not an analogous earth-shattering event, it nonetheless confirms a significant ongoing transformation – China is becoming a serious player in Middle Eastern diplomacy.

In 1950, Israel was the first country in the region to recognize the Communist-governed People’s Republic, while the Arabs and Iran retained their relationship with Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China on Taiwan (Chiang’s China abstained in the November 1947 UN partition vote on the establishment of a Jewish state).

But although Beijing agreed to reciprocal recognition, ties were not consummated. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, prime minister David Ben-Gurion prioritized ties with the US and refrained from opening an embassy in Beijing.

By the mid-1950s, Israel’s relations with the Communist bloc had soured, and China had built a diplomatic alliance with Nasserist Egypt; Beijing, Cairo and New Delhi led the 1955 Bandung Conference of newly independent Afro-Asian states – later known as the Non-Aligned Movement.

In the 1960s, Mao’s policy of championing anti-colonialist national liberation movements had Beijing embrace the Palestinians and condemn Israel as a “base of imperialism.” 

Chinese and Israeli flags are seen on a table during a signing ceremony in Tel Aviv, 2014 (credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)Chinese and Israeli flags are seen on a table during a signing ceremony in Tel Aviv, 2014 (credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

In 1965, China became the first non-Arab and non-Islamic country to allow the PLO to open a diplomatic office in its capital. 

With the growing Sino-Soviet rift, Beijing sought to demonstrate its superior anti-imperialism. It criticized the Russian “revisionists” for not being supportive enough of the Palestinian struggle and, unlike Moscow, even advocated Israel’s destruction.

Concurrently, the Chinese Communist Party forged close links with Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement and with the Marxist PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) and DFLP (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine). 

In 1974, a Palestinian embassy was opened in Beijing, and the following year China voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 3379 equating Zionism with racism. 

WITH MAO’S death in September 1976, and the adoption of a more pragmatic path by his successors, opportunities arose for contacts with Israel. 

According to various reports, the 1980s saw Beijing and Jerusalem develop clandestine military ties. Israel, which had extensive experience in upgrading captured Soviet military equipment, supposedly helped the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to modernize its tanks and aircraft.

In 1985, Israel reopened its consulate in Hong Kong, then still under British control, to serve as a forward position for contacts with Beijing (my first diplomatic posting abroad was as vice consul in Hong Kong). For its part, China eased travel restrictions on visiting Israelis and agreed to non-government exchanges: academics, businesspeople, cultural figures, and the like. 

In June 1990, the work of the Hong Kong Consulate was eclipsed by the inauguration of the Beijing office of the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, which served as an unofficial Israeli mission. In parallel, Beijing was represented in Tel Aviv by the office of China’s International Travel Service.  

When the October 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference brought the Arab states, Palestinians and Israelis together in face-to-face talks, China finally felt the time was ripe for the normalization of Sino-Israel ties. 

Embassies were opened in both Beijing and Tel Aviv in 1992. Liverpool-born Zev Sufott, who had been a student at Yale University’s Chinese studies program, went from being the senior Foreign Ministry representative in the unofficial Beijing office to Israel’s first ambassador to China.

In October 1993, during the immediate post-Oslo Agreement euphoria, Yitzhak Rabin became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Beijing. At that point, just as the hopes for Israeli-Palestinian peace were sky-high, so too was the confidence surrounding the future of Sino-Israel ties.

Israel’s second ambassador, Moshe Ben-Yaacov (who I worked under for three years), was charged with developing the relationship. Although China continued to vote with the anti-Israel majority at the UN, bilateral ties went from strength to strength, as was seen by the long list of Israeli ministers who visited Beijing and the growing Israeli business presence across the country. 

Crises in Sino-Israeli ties

THE FIRST major crisis in Sino-Israel relations occurred in 2000. Under American pressure, Israel pulled out of a signed contract with China for the supply of the Phalcon airborne early-warning system. Prime minister Ehud Barak had to choose between the highly lucrative deal and Israel’s relations with the US, and – like Ben-Gurion in 1950 – rightly prioritized Washington. 

Israel reportedly had to pay $350 million for the cancellation and Sino-Israel ties remained cool for almost half a decade. 

But following the Phalcon fiasco, understandings were reached with Washington whereby Israel could move forward on cooperation with China in all matters non-military.

As an adviser to the prime minister, I witnessed firsthand how, on his May 2013 visit to Beijing, Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for greater cooperation in trade, agriculture, green energy, water management and healthcare.

But over the following decade, China-US ties continued to deteriorate and the “anything-but-military” formula lost applicability. Successive American administrations raised reservations about Chinese investments in Israel’s hi-tech sector and the involvement of Chinese companies in Israeli infrastructure projects, concerns that were reiterated just last week during the visit of US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. 

Once again, Jerusalem gave preference to its alliance with Washington and reset the parameters for cooperation with Beijing – although China has remained Israel’s second-largest trading partner.

Other Middle Eastern allies of the US have adopted a more independent approach. In December 2022, Saudi Arabia hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping in Riyadh and, as mentioned above, the Saudis acceded to Beijing’s mediation of the agreement between themselves and the Iranians. 

And when Washington demanded that the United Arab Emirates choose between buying US-made F-35 fighters and purchasing Chinese 5G technology, the Emiratis opted for the latter – costing the US a $23.4b. deal.

Though some Israelis were undoubtedly pleased that an Arab air force did not receive the advanced F-35, these developments imply a decline in America’s stature in the region, hardly boding well for Israel. 

Following its recent facilitation of the Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement, Beijing expressed a desire to help restart Israeli-Palestinian talks – an initiative that failed to excite Jerusalem. 

Over the decades, Israel has consistently prioritized its alliance with the US over ties with China. If Beijing wants to seriously challenge this longstanding Israeli approach, it could consider using its newfound influence across the Arab and Muslim world to promote normalization with Israel – a Chinese version of the Abraham Accords.

While Jerusalem can be expected to remain steadfastly pro-American, such a development could soften Washington’s historic veto over Sino-Israel ties.

The writer, formerly an adviser to the prime minister, is chair of the Abba Eban Institute for Diplomacy at Reichman University. Connect with him on LinkedIn, @Ambassador Mark Regev.