Relations with China

China is an economic powerhouse that Israel simply cannot afford to ignore.

Israeli companies target China_311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israeli companies target China_311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twenty years ago today, China and the Jewish state established official diplomatic relations. But long before January 1992, there was extensive, albeit secretive, cooperation. The Chinese were allured by Israeli military prowess and by “Jewish genius” exhibited in men such as Karl Marx and Albert Einstein. Sun Yat-sen – one of the founding fathers of the Chinese national movement who died in 1925 – was said to be empathetic to the Zionist movement. In the 1950s China produced a stamp with a picture of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem.
Until Mao’s death in 1976, China’s foreign policy was driven by Communist ideology and the championing of “oppressed peoples” and “victims of imperialism” which included the Arab nations. But starting in 1979, China began conducting major arms deals with Israel, who was represented by businessman Shaul Eisenberg.
In 1999, The New York Times noted that “Israel has long had a close, secretive military relationship with China.”
The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union’s influence among Muslim states in the region helped facilitate China’s embrace of a pragmatic, flexible diplomatic strategy in the Middle East driven primarily by the supreme economic interest of maintaining political stability.
During the first decade of relations with Israel, the Chinese were guided to a certain extent by the mistaken notion – held, ironically, to this day by critics of Israel such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt – that Jewish and Israeli lobbies had inordinate sway over decisionmaking in Washington.
This misconception was soon dashed after the US, contrary to Israeli interests, put pressure on Jerusalem to cancel a number of highly lucrative military deals with China.
In October 1999, US president Bill Clinton formally opposed the sale to China of Phalcon airborne early-warning and surveillance systems worth $1 billion. In December 2004, the Bush administration objected to the Israeli government’s decision to repair and upgrade the Harpy unmanned aerial vehicle that Israel had sold to China in the 1990s.
During the Cold War, Washington did not oppose Israeli arms deals with China because Beijing was needed as a counterweight to Moscow. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it began to see China as a threat to its strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific region. US opposition has essentially put an end to all significant military trade with China.
One of the main challenges facing Israel, therefore, is developing non-military trade with China, which will soon become the world’s largest economy, even if it grows at just half of the present rate of 8.7 percent annually. Bilateral trade, which in 1992 was worth $60 million, is now worth about $8b. a year, one-third of which is Israeli exports to China.
More than 1,000 Israeli companies operate in China and there is cooperation in the fields of industrial R&D, water, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. A consulate was opened in the southern city of Guangzhou, and another is planned for Chengdu, in the underdeveloped western province of Sichuan. Both locations offer unique opportunities in parts of China with untapped economic potential.
A Chinese firm built the Carmel tunnels, ChemChina acquired a controlling stake in Makhteshim Agan Industries and Chinese chemical companies have opened R&D facilities here.
Unfortunately, one area in which China’s interests are at odds not only with the US’s but also with Israel’s involves Iran’s nuclear program. But according to Prof. Yitzhak Shichor of University of Haifa’s Department of Asia Studies, China’s ties with Iran must not be misconstrued as expressing Beijing’s identification with Iranian belligerence. Rather, it is a tactical move against US influence in the region.
According to Shichor, there is nothing that China wants more than quiet and stability so that its economy can continue to grow unheeded. Iran’s threat to block the Hormuz Straits is seen by China as extremely counterproductive. Chinese foreign policy in the region has troubling elements. Beijing maintains strong trade relations with Iran while conveniently ignoring the threat posed by an Islamic Republic with nuclear capability.
But China is an economic powerhouse that Israel simply cannot afford to ignore. Hopefully, the Iranian crisis will be resolved peacefully so that mutually beneficial economic interests shared by Jerusalem and Beijing can be pursued against the backdrop of a stable, safe Middle East.