BEIJING — Israel aspires to become the world’s 15th largest economy by 2025, Economy and Industry Minister Eli Cohen said Sunday, arguing that Israel’s power depends on its economic growth.
“A country’s strength depends on the strength of its economy,” Cohen told reporters accompanying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his delegation to the Chinese capital for a three-day visit to mark 25 years of diplomatic ties and to boost bilateral trade.
“Why is the US the world’s biggest superpower? Because they have the largest economy. China is getting increasingly strong and is projected in nine or 10 years to become number one, also in terms of defense, and this is happening against the background of economic strength,” said the politician, a member of the center-right Kulanu party, which focuses on socioeconomic issues.
“The State of Israel, with only 8.5 million citizens, also stands in a very respectable place,” Cohen added, “especially when you take into account Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox (sectors that are relatively under-represented in the workforce). We want to include them even more into the workforce. Our goal is to become the 15th largest economy in the world in eight years. And therefore we focus on the economy. We understand that Israel’s strength is an economic strength.”
While many Israelis call for additional government funds to be put into education, culture, health and social welfare, investing in economic growth will ultimately bring more funds into public coffers that can then be spent in these areas, he argued.
During their China trip, Israeli government officials and a group of 90 private businessman will be working to double trade with China, Cohen said. Just 15 years ago, annual Israeli exports to China totaled $50 million; today the figure is $9.5 billion.
Cohen was likely referring to the total trade volume, which was at $50 million 25 years ago and today stands at $11.35 billion, with Israel exporting $3.18 billion to China and importing $8.17 from China.
Netanyahu is being accompanied on the visit by Cohen and three other ministers — Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman — who are scheduled to sign bilateral agreements with their Chinese counterparts. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel was set to fly to Beijing as well, but the dairy agreement he was expected to sign was not finalized in time.
The Israeli ministers on Monday will sign a series of cooperation agreements with their Chinese counterparts in fields such as aviation, education, science, health and environmental protection. Also to be signed is a multi-year plan for a task force on strengthening bilateral economic ties.
“Israel is a country in high demand, as you can see from my past visits to Washington, Moscow and other countries and now China,” Netanyahu said from the tarmac at Ben-Gurion International Airport before taking off for Beijing early Sunday morning.
The prime minister has made clear that the visit’s focus will be on boosting trade ties, as evidenced by him bringing the largest-ever business delegation to the Chinese capital and talking up a long-sought free-trade pact, which may be finalized later this year.
“The visit will stress the continued strengthening of economic cooperation with the Chinese government: Increased Israeli exports to China, attracting Chinese investments in Israel, and increased industrial and research cooperation between Chinese and Israeli companies,” a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office said last week.
Netanyahu’s last visit to China was in May 2013, when he similarly met with political leaders and focused on bolstering trade, which at that point stood at $8 billion annually.
Today, China is Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia and third largest in the world, with bilateral trade volume surpassing $11 billion. That number could easily skyrocket if the free-trade agreement comes to fruition. A fresh round of talks is scheduled for July.
Previewing the trip last Thursday, Netanyahu talked up the size of the businesses run by the industrialists with whom he will meet.
“When we say the biggest corporations in China, we sometimes say the biggest corporations in the world, or which are quickly becoming the biggest in the world,” Netanyahu said during the weekly cabinet meeting.
Each of the Chinese businessmen Netanyahu is set to meet represents companies “with turnovers of tens of billions of dollars,” according to the Prime Minister’s Office. Among them is the leadership of Baidu, one of the largest web services companies in the world, which is headquartered in Beijing.
The 90 Israeli businessmen in Netanyahu’s delegation constitute the largest-ever business group to join a prime minister on a foreign trip. They will attend a business forum chaired by Netanyahu, with over 500 invited guests on Tuesday.
Netanyahu will also attend the third joint Israel-China innovation conference. The first such conference was held in China in 2015; the second was held last year in Israel with the attendance of a Chinese deputy prime minister.