Israel and China – toward the next 20 years

The benefits for Israel from closer relations with China are seemingly obvious.

Year of the Dragon, Beijing_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Year of the Dragon, Beijing_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Israel and China will on Tuesday mark the 20th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations. There’s a lot to celebrate, not least the robust trade ties and frequent academic and civilian exchanges. Yet the two countries have barely scratched the surface in terms of the potential for bilateral ties. The direction for Israel in the 21st century is clear – eastward, as the two countries are a natural fit.
The benefits for Israel from closer relations with China are seemingly obvious. With a population of less than 8 million, Israel has no domestic market to speak of. China, on the other hand, not only is the home to the world’s largest population but also a huge and growing middle class. Analysts expect continuing urbanization to keep adding potential consumers for anything from mobile phones to notebook computers (and Israel designs telecom billing systems and chips for those) and to increase the pressure on already limited land, water, and energy resources.
Israel also has a lot to offer China. Sustainable development is one area where China can benefit from stronger ties with Israel. Israel used to be mostly desert, and until recently lacked any oil or gas resources.
So Israelis had to rely on the only thing they had – their brains and innovation – to build the country. Thus came desalination, drip irrigation and water recycling to solve the shortage of water, solar and thermal energy for electricity. Two-thirds arid Israel recycles about 75 percent of its water and according government plans by 2014 will supply most of its water needs using desalination and even export water. Moreover, if Better Place gets its way to wean the world off of oil, the global car fleet may yet switch to electricity.
Israeli innovation positions it as the natural partner for China. Less than 10% of China’s land is arable and China is suffering from ever more severe droughts. China has done wonders in three decades of reforms that have lifted millions out of poverty and transformed the country into a manufacturing powerhouse and the world’s second-largest economy. Yet the same reforms have put immense pressure on natural resources. Rapid industrialization led to severe air pollution and millions of people have no access to clean water.
Israel, the “start-up nation,” and China, the world’s factory, can work together to build desalination plants, help ensure water supply for farmers, harness the power of the sun and clean the air, among other areas of cooperation.
Still, there’s much more to Israel-China relations than just trade. Israel remembers how in the darkest hour for Jews, when the world closed its doors on Jewish plight, China became the haven for thousands of Jews escaping Europe. Shanghai alone welcomed nearly 20,000 Jews from Europe thanks in part to Chinese diplomat He Fengshan extending visas to Jews. In fact, China is one of the few places in the world where Jews were never persecuted and several Jewish communities existed in China since at least the 12th century.
On all levels Israel is seeking greater interaction with China. The Israeli government plans to allocate at least NIS 110 million to raise the number of scholarships it provides to Chinese students for all degrees from several dozens to 250 starting this year. These students will not only enjoy first-class education at reasonable prices but will also become another bridge between the two countries.
The growing numbers of Jewish and Israeli nonprofits that are engaging China also attest to the importance Israel attaches to China. For example, The Israel Project, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that provides information about Israel to the media and policymakers, launched a China program in 2011. We have a website about Israel in Chinese and we’re regularly communicating in Chinese with journalists using newsletters, media tours and social media.
Bilateral merchandise trade has reached a record high of $7.5
billion in the January- November period of 2011, surpassing the $6.8b. recorded for the full year of 2010. Looking toward the next 20 years, let us hope that cooperation will continue expanding across a range of fields including science and technology, trade and tourism, and that the two countries can take the relationship to another level. Jews and Chinese – it’s a winning match.
The writer is director for China affairs at The Israel Project, an international organization that gets facts about Israel and the Middle East to the press, policy-makers and public.