The Growing Chinese-Israeli Relationship

Can stronger political relations be forged from strengthening technological ties?

China has become a major destination for Israeli tourists and businessmen. Sino-Israeli relations have expanded beyond trade and economics, and currently include a degree of military ties and robust cultural and academic exchanges.  Despite the fact that the political climate between Beijing and Jerusalem is far from warm, the technological marvel that Israel has become is attracting the attention of the Chinese Communist leaders.

The Jerusalem Post reported on August 22, 2012 that the Israeli firm “SDE Sea Wave Power Plants, is concluding construction on its second plant, in a series of three, for China, which will generate 150 kilowatts per hour using the energy of ocean waves, and will be followed by a third such plant that generates 500 kW per hour.  In recent days, SDE signed a $1.2 million agreement with its Chinese partners for the export of the second plant to Guangzhou, said SDE.” Three weeks earlier, Chinese and Israeli officials signed an agreement on the second of two phases of a computational agriculture pilot project. The signing ceremony took place in Tel Aviv with Chinese officials and the executives of the Israeli company Agricultural Knowledge Online (AKOL).

When the Chinese Communist regime announced its latest Five-Year-Plan in 2011, it proclaimed to the world that China is no longer satisfied with being “the world’s factory,” and that it seeks to become one of the world’s innovators.  To do that, China’s leaders realized they must turn to the “Start Up” nation, which is the Jewish State of Israel. The Chinese are fully cognizant of the fact that neither the Arabs nor Iran (which provides them with raw energy) can provide them with innovative technology.

The Chinese government is currently on the wrong side of the Iran nuclear issue as far as Israel and the U.S. are concerned, and has had a long history of pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian posturing due to its dependence on Arab oil and as a legacy of the Cold War.  Israel, on the other hand, is seen by China as part of the West and closely associated with the U.S. (in 1999 Israel gave in to U.S. pressure to cancel the sale to China of the Phalcon – a sophisticated reconnaissance aircraft and, in 2004 Israel stopped the repair of the Harpy laser-guided drones it had sold to China).  The Chinese people however, admire the tenacity of the Jewish people and their survival against all odds.  They also marvel at the achievements of the Jewish State in spite of its small size.

China and Israel established diplomatic relations in January 1992 and are now marking 20 years of a growing relationship.  The bilateral trade between China and Israel stands at almost $10 billion, a 200-fold rise during these two decades. China is Israel’s third largest export market, with sales of everything from telecommunications and information technology to agricultural hardware, solar energy equipment, and pharmaceuticals.  More than 1000 Israeli companies operate in China. Trade is clearly a two-way street, and Chinese companies have been offered to bid on Israeli government contracts. And, Israel is negotiating with Chinese companies over the building of a high speed rail system from Tel Aviv to Eilat.

Wishing the Chinese people a Happy Year of the Dragon, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared in March 2012:  “We are two ancient peoples whose values and traditions have left an indelible mark on humanity," and added, "But we are also two peoples embracing modernity; two dynamic civilizations transforming the world." China’s ambassador to Israel, Gao Yanping, responded by saying, "As two ancient civilizations, we have a great deal in common. Both of us enjoy profound histories and splendid cultures."

In celebrating the 20th anniversary of Sino-Israeli diplomatic relations on January 24, 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's remarks included the following: “Israel and China are a successful combination because we are peoples rooted in glorious traditions that also embrace the future. The rise of modern China is one of the most important events of our time, as is the rise of modern Israel. We will never forget the goodwill of the Chinese people who provided shelter for persecuted Jews in the darkest hours (referring to those Jews who escaped Germany and Eastern Europe during WW II and found refuge in Shanghai). Millennia-old societies provide a strong basis for future cooperation in many fields. I believe that Israel and China can act together to ensure peace in the Middle East.”

Netanyahu continued: “I was pleased to hear that China has begun to reduce oil purchases from Iran. I appreciate China’s need to ensure a regular supply of sources of energy in order to continue its impressive growth. I believe that it is possible to replace Iranian oil and I hope that the Chinese leadership will join the European countries and quickly act to completely halt purchases of Iranian oil. Bilateral ties are important to us; therefore, we are committed to expanding them quickly in a variety of fields. To this end, I have issued a sweeping directive to approve any invitation to visit China. We are also launching a project that will bring to Israel 250 Chinese students a year. A large number of Israelis have already begun to study Chinese."  Approximately 3000 Kaifeng Chinese Jews live in Israel, and there were about 23,000 Chinese workers in Israel in 2001

Hosting Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Beijing on March 16, 2012, China’s Vice-President Xi Jinping called for “closer exchanges and cooperation with Israel, as well as for comprehensive and long-term peace between Israel and the Arab countries.”  He also hailed the progress in Sino-Israeli relations, and called on both sides to “deepen political trust and boost friendly exchanges in order to further bilateral ties.”

The Times of Israel reported on August 15, 2012 that three Chinese warships are in Port of Haifa as part of a four-day goodwill visit marking 20 years of Sino-Israeli diplomatic relations - the first time Chinese naval ships have ever docked in Israel. Three months ago, IDF Chief-of-Staff, Benny Gantz, visited China as part of an initiative to boost military relations.  It was the first visit of an IDF chief since 1968, and was aimed at strengthening ties amid Beijing’s growing interests in the Mediterranean and Middle East regions. A year before, on May 25, 2011, the commander of the Chinese Navy Admiral Wu Shengli was on an official visit to Israel hosted by his Israeli counterpart Rear Admiral Eliezer Marom, nicknamed “Chin,” for his Chinese decent, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Israel appreciates the importance of China not only in the economic sphere but its culture as well.  Israel and Israelis are beginning to recognize the elaborate tapestry that is China. Chinese language courses were recently introduced in the academic curriculum in a number of Israeli elementary and high schools.

China’s University of International Business Economics (UIBE) is offering its students the opportunity to study the development of Israel’s economy, its high-tech and business culture, the political aspects of its economy and trade, as well as learn about key figures in Israel’s economic history. The university president, Shi Jianjun said about Israel: “The Chinese are very impressed with Israel’s economy and believe it’s a model.” And, at the University of Foreign Affairs in Beijing the first class of 16 students has completed studies in Hebrew language and culture. Another 40 students are currently studying Hebrew at the university, while another dozen or so learn Hebrew in other Chinese universities.

Israel has clearly become an increasing object of interest for the Chinese as trade between the two countries grows, and as mutual admiration flourishes between these two distinct cultures. What is still missing, however, are stronger political relations.

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