Last month’s announcement that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to visit America’s rival China drew widespread criticism.
In Israel, General (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former head of military intelligence, reminded the Prime Minister of the irreplaceable diplomatic, military, and economic backing Washington provides Jerusalem, and declared that the Beijing visit “will harm Israeli interests.”
General (res.) Tamir Hayman, another former head of military intelligence, warned that the “special relationship with the US is in danger,” and labeled the China trip a “serious mistake.”
IDF officers and government officials working closely with their American counterparts, witnessing first-hand the immense benefits that such collaboration brings, will quite naturally be hypersensitive about any perceived threat to the smooth functioning of Israel-US cooperation.
While a Beijing visit contains important potential benefits for Israel, to assuage the criticism that it may harm ties with Washington, Netanyahu can take steps that will demonstrate his clear prioritization of the Israel-US partnership.
Everyone talks to China
First and foremost, it needs to be remembered that the Americans themselves engage directly with China.
In June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Beijing “to strengthen high-level channels of communication.” While acknowledging that China and the US do not see eye-to-eye on many issues, Blinken stated that his talks “made progress and we are moving forward.”
This month, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen followed up with a trip of her own, as did former secretary of state and current Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry.
American allies also regularly visit China. In November 2022, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was in Beijing. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited in March 2023. And in April, French President Emmanuel Macron, accompanied by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, was in the Chinese capital.
The French, Germans, and Spaniards are all NATO allies in good standing. All three sought to encourage China to distance itself from Russia and its war against Ukraine.
Simultaneously, America’s European partners were eager to promote trade and investment – Scholz bringing with him the CEOs of German corporations Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and BASF; and Macron opening the door for the heads of France’s biggest companies, including Airbus, BNP Paribas, and L’Oréal.
Like Europe’s leaders, Netanyahu also legitimately desires to expand economic ties. China is already Israel’s third largest trading partner (following the EU and the US), with total Sino-Israel trade, excluding diamonds, reaching $17.6 billion in 2022 – although there remains much room for further growth.
But as with the Europeans, Netanyahu has both an economic and political agenda.
China’s growing presence in the Middle East
Beijing exhibited its new regional status in December 2022 when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia, and in March 2023 when China brokered the restoration of Iranian-Saudi diplomatic relations.
While Beijing competes with Washington for influence, China has a keen interest in continued regional stability, especially in the Gulf. Beijing sees such stability as an essential prerequisite for its ongoing unfettered import of energy from the Middle East.
As China invests more heavily in the region, it has a vested interest in ensuring stability securing the economic viability of its projects.
To accomplish these goals, Beijing’s policy has been to maintain good ties with all key regional players – including Iran.
Herein lies the contradiction between China’s need for a stable Middle East and its professed friendship with the region’s primary destabilizer.
Beijing needs to appreciate that Tehran’s policies will inevitably lead to a Middle Eastern conflagration antithetical to China’s own interests.
While Beijing’s Arab partners share with China’s leadership their concerns about Tehran’s behavior, there can be no substitute for the Israeli prime minister engaging face-to-face with the all-powerful Chinese president.
Coordinate closely with the US
While it is important to directly talk with Beijing, Jerusalem must remain as transparent as possible with Washington about those conversations.
Netanyahu clearly understands this – the Prime Minister’s Office briefed the press that the Americans knew about the plans for a China visit well before the trip was publicly announced.
Moreover, as he has done in the past, Netanyahu must be clear about the parameters governing Israel’s cooperation with China. This requires stressing that Israel is, and will remain, a steadfast US ally; that it will not be assisting the Chinese military with equipment or technology; and that China will not be involved in critical Israeli infrastructure projects or hi-tech sector investments that may have implications for national security.
I accompanied Netanyahu on his May 2013 trip to Beijing when he had his first meeting with Xi Jinping – then only two months into his first term as China’s president.
During that visit, the Prime Minister expressed his hopes for greater cooperation in a host of civilian areas: agriculture, green energy, healthcare, and water management.
I recall Netanyahu talking to prime minister Li Keqiang about innovations in dairy technologies that had made the Israeli cow the highest milk producer in the world, suggesting that China could benefit from collaboration with Israel in the field. This sort of innocuous cooperation should not be a problem for Washington.
Reach out to America’s Asian friends
Despite Beijing’s unquestionable global and regional importance, Israel’s focus on Asia must remain comprehensive.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was recently in Washington where he received a red-carpet welcome from President Joe Biden – who even hosted a rare official state dinner in the Indian leader’s honor.
Netanyahu has met Modi on multiple occasions, the two prime ministers clearly sharing a rapport. Under their joint tutelage, the Indo-Israel relationship went from strength to strength. To maintain the positive momentum, Netanyahu should be visiting Delhi sometime soon.
In parallel, Netanyahu worked closely with the late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to upgrade Jerusalem-Tokyo ties. Today, he needs to do the same with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. A visit to Tokyo would add new impetus to relations.
Smaller, but deserving of greater Israeli diplomatic attention, is South Korea. Jerusalem-Seoul ties contain much untapped potential and there needs to be more to the relationship than the Israeli motoring public’s love of Hyundai and Kia cars.
To help mitigate concerns about his Beijing visit, Netanyahu could consider adding an additional stop to his itinerary. Perhaps he could choose for the final leg of his trip one of the region’s staunch American allies.
I can think of more than one pro-Western Asian capital where the Prime Minister would be a welcome guest.
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.