Israel needs a clear policy toward China—now - opinion

In one or two decades, China will become a country with such a strong and noticeable influence that it will not be possible to move forward in many countries without going through it.

Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks at a meeting marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, earlier this month. (photo credit: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS)
Chinese president Xi Jinping speaks at a meeting marking the 110th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, earlier this month.
(photo credit: CARLOS GARCIA RAWLINS/REUTERS)

Fans of the Hollywood disaster film genre are well acquainted with the pattern that opens up such films: a series of dramatic events scattered in various locations that seemingly have no connection or explanation, and as the plot unfolds and the threatening factor is revealed, viewers understand the context of those early events that herald the great drama to come and how important it was to take them seriously when they occurred.

The series of various significant steps that China has taken in recent months simulates the same pattern from the genre films, although with a critical difference – the change in China is also an opportunity.

If we look in depth at what are seemingly “impulsive” acts by the Chinese government, we find that behind each and every one of them lies an informed agenda and a long-term strategy. Taken together, these steps are made with one clear goal: to make China a cohesive world power.

Its regulatory actions, which have made international headlines in recent weeks, include restricting the freedom of action of Chinese technology giants, were aimed at directing these powerful companies to cooperate with and for the Chinese government, strengthening its national standing as a technological superpower while reducing social and economic disparities.

Its military measures – including production of aircraft carriers; building military islands in the South China Sea and a plan to build naval ships that have in recent years put more ships into the sea than the total number of ships the German, Indian, Spanish and British fleets have combined – are part of China’s national goal of enforcing and protecting its hegemony.

Its regional hegemonic measures, such as increasing control of territorial waters, controlling the entry of marine vehicles off the coast of China and expanding airspace, are sewing China’s influence on the surrounding geographical area and increasing the confidence of the people and its neighbors in the hegemony of the country.

And finally, the launch of Chinese digital currency, along with the opening of Chinese capital markets both domestically and to foreign investors and the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, a 140-country global infrastructure program, position China to have continuous economic and political growth engines. This is also reflected in its strengthened cross border ties and the trade system, such as through the gradual replacement of the US influence in Afghanistan, allowing China access to rare minerals worth an estimated $1 trillion or through its military equipment being distributed across Asia and elsewhere. These are part of China’s overall steps toward becoming a global economic power. Unsurprisingly, China is on the fast track to becoming the world’s largest economy before 2030.

All of these trends, which are also supported by the upcoming assessment of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure that will go to a party vote in October 2022, indicate the continuity of China’s strong and consistent aspiration to become an independent power. China intends to return to its historic status after its collapse (the 100 Years of Humiliation the country has experienced) and make sure it never happens again Therefore, the Communist Party of China strives to strengthen its position far beyond the internal national plane.

 Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE) Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE)

WHY IS it the time to develop a clear Israeli policy toward China?

China is expected to replace Russia in the Middle East at a time when the US is also leaving the region. As a result, its impact on Israel will be significant and widespread. China already has a significant influence on the countries around Israel with regard to weapons and political regimes. Beyond that, it is one of the world’s leading providers in the fields of infrastructure, operating systems, TV channels, data and information, port operations, communications infrastructure, universities and educational scholarships. As is well known, there is also some Chinese activity in Israel today, but only partially and not to the same extent.

Israel must see through ideological disputes with China, and the American demand to stay away from them, and look at the broader picture – as China intensifies and becomes a world power, Israel needs China to balance the radical policies of elements hostile to us. Iran, Pakistan, and other countries in the Middle East will be under constant Chinese influence. Inevitably, we will need China to help us with economic issues, new technologies, capital markets, trade relations with other countries, entry into foreign markets, and more. The expectation is that within a decade to two decades China will become a country with such a strong and noticeable influence that it will not be possible to move forward in many countries without going through it. So alongside the understandable consideration of the positions of our ally in the US, there is the long-term Israeli interest that is more complex.

Although China develops and strengthens influence ties with Arab nations that for the most part do not maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, China is well aware and has demonstrated throughout history its capabilities in curbing extreme threat situations. If, for example, nuclear issues arise that could pose a real threat, we will need China as a world power to balance interests and emergencies. For example, Israel’s ties to Russia, through our understanding of the Russian mentality and history, have often saved Israel from extremely difficult situations and enabled a required space for action.

China is a pro-Israel state in its cultural essence, but politically hostile due to its proximity to Arab countries. The Abrahamic Accords opened the door to a perceptual change in China, for example Saudi Arabia, which is far more important at the strategic level to China than Iran.

The political relations between Israel and China today are not strong enough and in fact depend on restraint. In contrast to countries where there are Jewish communities, pro-Israel institutions, associations and extensive bridge activities, China is a “lonely island” for us. The Israeli embassy in China cannot bear such a historical burden alone. Government officials on both sides are changing at a rapid pace and therefore there is a difficulty in accumulating knowledge and forming a long-term relationship with them. The Jewish religion is not a legal religion in China and the Jewish community is small and unrecognized. Israel rarely grants scholarships to Chinese students as is done in Arab countries. So, when Israel has no influence over future Chinese generations, and there are about two billion Chinese worldwide who believe this is their century, we will face an unpleasant opera.

There is currently no clear Israeli policy toward China, and for the past two years we have been acting mainly according to “the Americans said” model. It is worth acknowledging that, contrary to popular perception, US activity with China has increased economically and financially in recent years, and with European countries even more. The US is expected to agree to an Israeli policy similar to the English policy, which is selective. England cooperates deeply with China but on the other hand opposes it on many issues. Israel’s conduct as a US protectorate without a clear and cohesive policy toward China leaves us without maneuverability and flexibility to work with China. This reality has also led to a deterioration in the ranking of the State of Israel in the Chinese national scale of importance held by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 23rd just several years ago to below 100 today.

The required policy toward China should include setting long-term goals in all areas: foreign policy, intelligence, technology, culture, academia, military and more. Better connection with third-party countries that are relatively close to China – for example Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Greece, England and France – are needed to support political bridges between Israel and China. The program will need to define what resources will be used to achieve the desired goals while involving the Jewish communities and addressing the importance of Israel’s media image in China.

Beyond policy formulation and despite the sensitivity to knowledge leakage, state institutions and organizations from both the public and private sectors should examine making contacts with China at the level of research, education, and information exchange mainly in the fields of medicine, energy, fintech and mobility. Contrary to popular belief, China barely needs any external know-how in most areas, and we will soon actually need knowledge from it. It is wise to examine creating common bodies and understanding Chinese culture and language.

If we do not learn the complexities of Chinese culture alongside an understanding of the regime of the Communist Party – a party that strives for Israel to consult with it on global issues, we will not be able to produce the communication bridges needed to build trust and cooperation, especially in emergencies.

Awareness of what is happening and future scenarios is a necessary first step. Israeli institutions and leaders are far from internalizing the issue and thus endangering our future. It is time to convene and start acting to create the required policy.

The author is the CEO of the Infinity Group, with more than 20 years of experience between China and Israel, and president of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce in China.