The logic of China’s Israel policy

The numerous Arab and Muslim countries that occupy vast lands and have huge populations are seen as an important market for China’s infrastructure building and industrial capacity transferring.

Flag of China (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Flag of China
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Israel, located at the opposite end of the Asian continent from China, stands out as a small but significant Middle Eastern country due to its stability and economic strength. This was one of the motivations for Renmin University’s School of International Studies to cooperate with SIGNAL in establishing the Center of Middle East and African Studies. Israel’s innovative economy holds great attraction for China and its economic pivot to the Asia Pacific coincides with China’s view toward the Middle East and toward becoming a nation of innovation. This synergy of interests has contributed to the fast and steady growth of China-Israel relations for the last half decade.
As we look toward the upcoming conference addressing Israel’s China policy, it is worth reviewing China’s emerging interest in the Middle East which runs parallel to it ascendancy as a major global power.
In the strategic context of China’s ongoing “Belt and Road Initiative,” Chinese leadership seems to be more enthusiastic about deepening its relations with Arab and Muslim nations than with Israel. In fact some of the leaders seem to heed the hostile attitudes of certain Muslim countries toward the Jewish state. So, has China changed its policy to Israel? Is China poised to strengthen ties with Arab countries? What is the rationale for China’s Middle East policy?
Those questions might arouse concerns in Israel if left unanswered. A deep look at the logic and departure points of China’s policy will perhaps provide a better understanding on how China is engaging with Israel and other nations in the region.
From a political perspective, the first and foremost principle of China’s foreign policy is to keep a low profile in the international arena. Since it was officially adopted in early 2015, the “Belt and Road Initiative” has prioritized China’s policy agenda, aiming to connect to the Eurasian continent in trade, investment, infrastructure, and people- to-people exchange. The Middle East stands at the intersection of Eurasia, thus it bears critical importance for the successful implementation of New Silk Road plan.
The numerous Arab and Muslim countries that occupy vast lands and have huge populations are seen as an important market for China’s infrastructure building and industrial capacity transferring. Therefore China is keen in engaging with them. In comparison, Israel is not large in size or in population. Furthermore, Israel suffers strained relations with neighboring countries. Thus, China appears to be keeping its political relations with Israel at a low profile, largely status quo, so as not to raise objections among Muslim countries. As China defines it, the People’s Republic is reaching out with a delicate approach.
From a technology and economic perspective, Israel holds enormous relevance against the backdrop of China’s economic transition, which features technology innovation and sustainable growth. Israel has a very diverse, robust and innovative economy, and the hi-tech, agro-tech and entrepreneurship sectors can quench China’s thirst for this expertise during its economic restructuring. For instance, in the western hinterland of China where there is a dearth of water, Israeli companies can create solutions for water transportation, desalination, irrigation and purification. Israeli medicine and pharmaceuticals are also among the most innovative in the world. All those fields can forge comparative advantages when cooperating with China.
China’s steady economic growth will eventually lead it to become the largest economy in the world. It is self-evident that as a leading hi-tech hub, Israel is compatible and complementary to the industrial power of this huge economy. Although bilateral trade surpassed $10 billion in 2014, Israeli exports to China have remained slack, leaving much room for growth. In the R&D sector, the two nations are natural partners. Since economics is inseparable from politics, prosperous commercial links, well handled, can catalyze stronger political ties.
Another factor encouraging broader relations is the admiration of China’s elites and educators for the innovative nature of Israel. China’s universities are building partnerships with their Israeli counterparts while Chinese graduate students are increasingly seeking to study in Israeli universities. The younger generation is adding vitality to the bilateral dynamics.
In sum, Israel is a critically important partner for China. The relations between the two countries have a solid and steadfast foundation. In the initial stage of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” China may prefer to engage with the Middle East publicly and systematically, with realistic attention to countries’ size and population that equal infrastructure and industrial prospects. Having said that, Israel definitely is on China’s radar, to be engaged in a fashion that will not disturb the careful balance among China’s various interests.
Looking to the future, China will assert its presence in Israel and the Middle East in a careful, well-honed and consistent fashion.
It is advisable that Israel operate with confidence and strategic patience in cultivating its China relations, remaining aware of the cultural gap between East and West, where Confucianism is the foundation of the former and Judaism is at the core of the latter. Good policy planning should be measured not only by trying to address problems but also by taking advantage of opportunities. Certainly the opportunities for China-Israel cooperation are vast.
Dr. Cui Shoujun, director of the Center for Middle East and Africa Studies and research fellow of the National Academy of Development and Strategy, both at Renmin University China, will speak at the SIGNAL@IPS Conference on Israel’s China Policy on September 29 at IDC Herzliya.