An old joke has an enthusiastic Israeli diplomat explaining to his Chinese counterpart why good bilateral relations are so crucial. “If we join forces we’re invincible,” the Israeli said. “Together we’re more than 1.3 billion people!”
During Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s seven-day visit to China, which began on Thursday, he will attend several events celebrating 20 years since the two nations officially established diplomatic relations, after decades of a tense and sometimes hostile relationship. But more than the exchange of diplomatic niceties, his visit will focus on two main issues: business and Iran.
The Jewish state sees great economic potential in an increased economic cooperation with the rapidly growing Asian giant. Jerusalem also hopes that Beijing, which has a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, will support Israel in its quest to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As Israel’s relations with the United States are a currently rocky — with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benajmin Netanyahu disagreeing on the right course of action for both the peace process and the quest to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions — Israel sees in China the potential for a powerful friend that cares about its own financial interests more than the future of the Palestinians.
Increasing business ties is also the reason why Netanyahu appointed Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i as the new Israeli ambassador to Beijing.
“We want to significantly increase our trade and economic ties with the rising powers of the east, especially China,” Netanyahu said last month, after the cabinet approved Vilnai’s appointment. “We have many interests, including – for example – infrastructure projects that we are moving forward on, and would like to see these powers involved in them. Many of these issues are determined on the government level. Therefore, it is important to me, and to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, to appoint a person of ministerial rank, who can achieve breakthroughs with China.”
Many Israelis wondered why a serving cabinet minister would quit his government post to become an ambassador in a far-off country. Some suggested he was frustrated by holding an important but underfunded portfolio, but according to Avrum Ehrlich, the executive director of the Israel-China Institute, Vilnai was chosen for the job in Beijing because he has good ties to local farmers. The Chinese are interested in Israeli know-how in agriculture so it can feed its huge populace, Ehrlich said.
In Israel – a country well known for its technological ingenuity that made the desert bloom – the Chinese see the perfect partner for cooperation in the field of agricultural technology, Erlich added.
Vilnai is not joining Lieberman in China this week because he does not want to undermine the position of current ambassador Amos Nadai, whom he will replace in the summer.
Vilnai isn’t the first minister to serve as Israel’s chief envoy to China. From 1996 to 2000, Ora Namir was Jerusalem’s ambassador to China, after being environmental minister and minister of labor and social welfare.
Sino-Israeli trade has increased from $8 million in 1990 to $5.5 billion in 2010. According to Foreign Policy, bilateral trade currently stands “at almost $10 billion” — and both sides are interested in intensifying trade relations even further. Lieberman will therefore spend a lot of time speaking with businessmen this week. In Shanghai, for instance, he will meet with the president of the stock exchange, which already lists 36 Israeli companies.
‘More and more Chinese politicians have realized the importance of developing this relation and believe it will benefit both sides’
“We have barely scratched the surface of what our two great civilizations can do together — in technology, in agriculture, in science and medicine and in so many other fields,” Netanyahu said earlier this year in a New Year’s message addressed to the Chinese people. The prime minister’s rather unsuccessful attempts to say a few words in Chinese at the end of his address caused the video to go viral on YouTube.
“China-Israel relations are at their highest point in history,” agreed Zhenhua Meng, a Jewish Studies professor at Nanjing University. “Like their Israeli counterparts, more and more Chinese politicians have realized the importance of developing this relationship and believe it will benefit both sides.”
Besides synergies with Israeli agricultural industries, China is also interested in improving its access to Western markets, said Ehrlich. “One of China’s primary goals is a land transport route to Europe that will open up its Western provinces. Israel happens to be in a very good strategic position.”
Last year, the Israeli government announced that it was cooperating with China to build a railroad network linking the Red Sea with the Mediterranean to facilitate the transport of goods from China to Europe and North Africa.
When Lieberman will sit down with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Beijing, they will also talk politics. Lieberman is unhappy with the Asian giant’s unwavering support for Syria and Iran. China’s friendship with Israel’s enemies could cause some friction, especially if Israel were to start a war by launching a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, jeopardizing Chinese interests in the region.
Professor Meng doesn’t believe that Israel is going to attack Iran. But if a war did break out in the Middle East, China would be in a dilemma, he said. “To lose a friend, no matter Israel or Iran, is the last thing this country wants to see. Actually, China does not support the plan of developing nuclear weapons in Iran. What China worries about is the oil imports.”
Beijing is ideologically closer to the West than to the Islamic Republic of Iran, but in the end China only cares about the cash, Ehrlich asserted.
“The Chinese respect the Jewish people,” he said. “Culturally, there is clearly an affinity with Israel. However, that doesn’t fit China’s real politics and its interests. Its interests are opportunities and oil.”
‘Beijing has enough self-confidence, if not arrogance, to withstand anti-Israel pressures and has been smart enough to create counter-dependencies and thereby increased its flexibility’
China has lucrative energy contracts with Iran and Syria – the country built the Tehran subway and the Syrian stock exchange, for example – and if either government falls, Beijing stands to lose billions of dollars. “That’s why they’re against regime change,” Ehrlich said. In case Israel were to attack Iran, the Chinese would be on Tehran’s side – unless the current government in Tehran would be overthrow, in which case China’s leaders would side with the winners, he added. “All the Chinese are really concerned about is their investments – if they can keep their contracts, they don’t care who runs the country. If the government is overthrown and they risk losing their contracts, they will come around.”
China is also Dependant on oil from the Persian Gulf to support its rapid economic growth, which further suggests that Beijing would favor Tehran over Jerusalem if it came to a showdown. But that’s not necessarily the case, according to Yitzhak Shichor, a China expert at the University of Haifa.
“Beijing has enough self-confidence, if not arrogance, to withstand anti-Israel pressures and has been smart enough to create counter-dependencies and thereby increased its flexibility,” he wrote in a recent paper on Sino-Israeli relations. “There is little doubt that, along with the experience of other countries, the share of China in the Israeli economy will increase – and hopefully vice versa.”
Bilateral relations would further flourish if the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be solved, Shichor asserted.
“The Chinese would welcome the achievement of peace in the region as beneficial to their economic expansion and pursuit of raw materials, primarily energy,” he wrote. “Peace may also lessen Israel’s dependence on the US and lead to additional opportunities in China in fields that were so far restricted. It may also enable Beijing to become friendlier and more sympathetic to Israel.”