Netanyahu goes to China: Three questions

How would a close Chinese- Israeli relationship affect Israel’s own democracy, already under strain lately?

China Israel flags (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
China Israel flags
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March visit to China seemed to revolve around economic issues. The Israeli media reported that the main goal of the visit was to advance Israeli-Chinese economic relations. A large group of Israeli business people accompanied the prime minister, and he met leaders of major Chinese corporations.
Israel wants to export more to China, get more Israeli companies to operate there, and attract more Chinese investment.
Indeed, during the visit, numerous cooperation agreements were signed. At least in part, the Chinese are interested in expanding economic cooperation with Israel, as it is geographically situated near the route of Beijing’s maritime Silk Road, a vision for an old-new trade lane going from China to Europe via the Middle East.
More broadly, the visit is part of the Israeli “pivot,” of sorts, to Asia.
This is the prime minister’s second visit to China in three years. Only in February, he visited Singapore and Australia. President Reuven Rivlin traveled to India in November 2016 and to Vietnam in March 2017. The institutional framework that supports the pivot is also being expanded.
In February, the prime minister (who is also the foreign minister) announced that the units responsible for China and India in the Foreign Ministry would be upgraded.
However, this is not only a story about economic cooperation. The broader, global context of the pivot is the transformation in great-power politics. Asia’s economic and technological rise is bound to lead Asian nations to expand their military and political power.
China’s economic prowess already equals that of the US (according to some measures); while the West’s centuries-long hegemony has been shaken in the past decade as both Western Europe and the US faced a number of major political and economic crises, some of which are still unfolding. Israel, and the Zionist movement before it, had always sought a great-power ally. The pivot to Asia is simply an adaptation of the old policy to new global realities.
However, three question are in order.
First, can Israel get close to China without risking its “special relationship” with the United States?
China’s rise to great-power status and the specific challenges it poses to American hegemony – both in terms of power and in terms of norms – have already strained American-Chinese relations. The Trump administration seems set to further exacerbate the tension, mostly over trade issues.
Steven Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, predicted (before the elections) that within a decade Washington and Beijing would go to war. The Falcon deal incident, in which Israel canceled under American pressure (in 2000) an agreement to sell advanced surveillance aircraft to China, is a reminder of the difficulties of the balancing act required of Israel. For this reason, it is convenient for Israel to stress the economic dimension of its relationship with China, rather than a strategic agenda.
Second, will Israel ever be able to develop relations with China that are as close as its relations with the US? Some of the fundamental building blocks of the Israeli-American special relationship – a large Jewish community, an effective pro-Israel lobby – are simply not there in China. Israel and China further lack the deeper common Judeo-Christian tradition that oils aspects of Israeli-American affinity.
Hence the Israeli effort to stress, when talking to Chinese, the similarities of modern states that reflect ancient traditions that both presumably share.
Finally and perhaps most importantly: how would a close Chinese- Israeli relationship affect Israel’s own democracy, already under strain lately?
After all, a state’s internal workings are also affected by the global structures of power, and the state’s alliances in the international arena. It seems that the Chinese stress power and historical rights as a source of legitimate action in the international arena, rather than universal norms.
Those in Israel who prefer such an approach might use the example set by the new global power as a justification for a similar approach in Israeli foreign and security policy.
Moreover, China traditionally prefers not to intervene in other states’ internal affairs, and is unlikely to comment on the quality of internal Israeli democracy and human rights the way Washington and Western European countries do. A growing role for China in the international community, and a closer alliance with China, are expected to diminish, therefore, the pressure Israel is facing – especially from civil society circles in the West – as it continues to control the Palestinians, and as its democracy is weakening.
Small states, such as Israel, do not always have much choice in the global competition between superpowers.
Yet, as Israel reshapes its global alliances, we should be aware of the constraints and costs of getting closer to the rising power from the east.
The author is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Haifa and a board member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. He is also an avid practitioner of Tai-Chi.