23 August 2019

Israel-China Relations: Opportunities and Challenges

Both Israel and China are approximately 70 years old. Each is the homeland of an ancient nation, has a rich historical heritage, and embodies the immense national pride of its citizens. Since the establishment of official diplomatic relations between Israel and China, the bilateral connections have evolved and grown, and today are especially noteworthy in the realms of economy, culture, and tourism. The volume of trade between the countries has increased in the areas of agriculture, health, water, hi tech, and more. In the cultural realm, there are exchanges of knowledge, student exchanges, and deep mutual interest in the history, religions, and cultures of the two nations. In the field of tourism, in recent years the number of tourists and visitors has doubled in both directions, and continues to increase steadily.

Four years as Israel’s ambassador in China taught me that appearances do not always reflect reality, and that there is much more to China than meets the eye. We must remember that the gap between the cultures is substantial, and that the encounter between them is complicated. Often Israel does not understand the Chinese side well. The Chinese rely on trust, which takes time to develop. For Israelis who like “everything here and now,” it is not easy to sustain the considerable patience that is required with the Chinese. Our tendency as Israelis to speak openly and directly clashes with the Chinese tradition of indirect, implied, and veiled speech, as well as with the important Chinese value of maintaining the honor of others and refraining from disgracing them and causing them to lose face. Thus, often the true intention is not clear to the Israeli side, which has difficulty reading the situation and its implications correctly.

Israel must also recognize additional challenges in the relationship. China is an enormous dragon operated by the ruling party, while we in Israel operate as a free market in which each person and company operates independently. All Chinese companies are connected to the Chinese government, and every transaction is a piece of a larger puzzle that the Chinese government puts together. Israel is a small cog within the international system, while China is one of its main engines. Israel must open its eyes accordingly, get to know its Chinese partner, and develop a suitable strategy for working within this complicated relationship, which is only one element among the superpower’s many considerations. We must not be deterred by the Chinese giant, and instead must get to know it and walk with it with eyes wide open. In the foreseeable future, China will continue to grow stronger and more powerful, in light of the vision of its President to make it the leading superpower by 2050. Carefully and sensibly, Israel must find its place in this process, with the right combination of creativity, hope, modesty, realism, and good judgment. Economic cooperation is auspicious and benefits both countries, but it should be advanced while looking at the entire puzzle. Continuing to deepen mutual knowledge and understanding is vital for bridging the gaps and for the continued realistic development of relations between the countries.With the economic growth of the Asian superpower comes its increasing global political power, and also, gradually, its influence within Israel’s strategic environment. The political relations and economic and cultural connections between the two countries have developed quickly over the past decade, but in historical terms this is a very young relationship. The two countries are only beginning to get to know one another, with no deep, diverse, and long term relations behind them, in comparison with Israel’s relations with the United States or even Europe. The meeting between China and Israel at the current point in time is unique, has considerable potential, and is exhilarating in light of the differences in size, culture, mentality, and language, and in light of the correlations of supply and demand in the realm of shared interests between the economic giant and the small and innovative "start-up nation”. Above the individual challenges of relations in the fields of research, economy, business, tourism, science, and diplomacy is the overall challenge of formulating and conducting a balanced national policy that will realize the opportunities and address possible risks in Israel-China relations.

The INSS Israel-China research program was designed to promote the knowledge infrastructure on relations between the two countries in order to support the formulation and management of policy and to assist the relevant bodies with practical recommendations. To this end, the program pursues research on China’s policy in the Middle East, relations between the superpowers, characteristics of China’s foreign and economic policy, and Israel’s relations with China. Developing knowledge for policy is not the task of individuals but a shared task; its breadth, depth, and diversity require a range of opinions, perspectives, practical experience, and multiple views. Thus, from its beginnings, the Israel-China program has served as a meeting place for researchers, practitioners, academics, government officeholders, businesspeople, and elected officials who are our partners in this effort.

This is the place to thank the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation for its ongoing contribution to the establishment and operation of the program. This memorandum accurately reflects the challenges of research and knowledge development for policy on Israel-China relations, as well as the joint activity that enables addressing these challenges. The writers include former and current Foreign Ministry officials, the program’s academic researchers, and members of the security establishment. The articles compiled here discuss Israel-China relations from different angles as well as the relations of other countries with China, including their lessons and implications for Israel. This selection is only a partial sample of the wealth of relevant topics, perspectives, angles, and dimensions of policy-supporting research on Israel-China relations, and is thus additional evidence of the size of the challenge faced by the community of researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.

The memorandum’s foreword was written by Major General (ret.) Matan Vilnai, former head of the Israel-China program and former Israeli ambassador to China, from the perspective of his four years as ambassador in Beijing. The opening article was written by Hagai Shagrir, assistant director of the Asia and Pacific department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the article he describes the progress of Israel-China relations over the past decade, with an emphasis on the work processes, joint mechanisms, and main areas of focus of the Israeli government’s activity with respect to China. Dan Catarivas of the Manufacturers Association of Israel, who is a veteran Foreign Ministry official on China, reviews the development of economic relations and their challenges from his point of view, and recommends future directions. The article by Galia Lavi, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University and researcher in the Israel-China program, and Rotem Nusem, M.A. student and intern at INSS, reviews challenges in China’s relations with Australia – a Western democracy in China’s extended “neighborhood” that has a large Chinese immigrant community and a large student population of Chinese origin. Along with the significant economic benefits from its relations with China, Australia is coping with complex national security challenges, some of which are unique to it and some of which are relevant to Israel as well.

Doron Ella, a Ph.D. student at the Hebrew University and researcher in the Israel-China program, analyzes the attempts by other countries to find the right balance between investments on the one hand and economic and national security considerations on the other, by creating mechanisms for monitoring and supervising investments. His article also analyzes China’s investments in Israel and points out implications and consequences for Israeli policy, which seeks its unique balance between the opportunity of economic relations with foreign countries and the managing and minimizing of the resulting risks. Hiddai Segev, an M.A. student in international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and research assistant in the Israel-China program, and Ofek Riemer, M.A. student in a program on diplomacy and security for senior officials and a research assistant at INSS, survey China’s military exports to the Middle East over the years. The picture that arises is that over many decades, China has been a minor supplier of weapons to the Middle East in comparison to the United States, Russia, and Europe, and it remains so today. However, in light of the development of the Chinese army and the growth of its military industries, there are signs of a significant increase in China’s export of particular weapon systems such as unmanned aircraft to Middle East countries, in a way that may affect Israel’s security environment as well as the weapons export markets in which Israel competes.

The article by Dr. Oded Eran, former Israeli ambassador to the European Union and to Jordan and a senior researcher in the Israel-China program, examines Israel-China relations within the broader context of China’s relations with the United States, the competing global superpower, and with India – China’s strategic adversary on the Asian continent and in the Indian-Pacific region – as Israel has extensive and thriving relations with both the United States and India. Maintaining parallel relations with countries that are adversaries of one another is a prominent feature of China’s foreign policy, and in the context outlined by the article, Israel may even benefit from maintaining “Chinese-style” relations with the three superpowers.

The volume concludes with my integrative article that summarizes the challenges of Israel’s policy toward China from the perspective of strategicdefense planning, as a broad framework that includes the topics of the prior articles and many additional issues. The article points to unique gaps, challenges, and opportunities, and offers recommendations for Israel’s policy toward China. This systematic overview also outlines the existing academic and government knowledge infrastructure on modern China for the purposes of formulating and conducting policy. It emphasizes conspicuous gaps in the knowledge infrastructure about China in Israel, and indicates directions for urgent activity to improve it fundamentally. Thus the research effort of the writers goes beyond the “limited” context of Israel-China relations, and even the wider context of China’s relations with other countries and with the superpowers, and touches on the relation between research and knowledge on the one hand and Israeli policy and action as a complete ecosystem on the other hand. Our conclusion in this regard is that without a true revolution in Israel’s practical knowledge infrastructure on modern China, Israel will find it difficult to conduct relevant and beneficial policy over time, in terms of realizing opportunities arising from its relations with China and managing the range of complexities that accompany them. I hope you find the memorandum’s articles interesting and useful, and that you see them as an invitation to discussion, thought, and knowledge, and an exploration of the depth of this fascinating and promising relationship between Israel and China – two ancient cultures that are now engaged in a current, developing, rewarding, and challenging encounter.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Assaf Orion

Director, INSS Israel-China Program

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