As tensions brewed along Israel’s northern border with Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left the country for highly anticipated talks with leaders of one of the world’s superpowers. To the surprise of many who closely follow Israeli geopolitics, that superpower is not the United States, but China.
Netanyahu’s five-day trip to China, which began Sunday, presents Israel with numerous economic and diplomatic opportunities during a time of growing global and regional instability.
“Well it’s I think really obvious to any observer of what is going on in the world, these past decades, that China’s importance in the world is growing from year to year. And I think it’s probably correct to say at this stage that there are two superpowers: the United States and China,” Moshe Arens, former Israeli Defense Minister and Foreign Minister told JNS.org.
Netanyahu may have considered delaying the trip, just days after Israel reportedly twice-bombed Syrian targets, allegedly storing sophisticated Iranian weaponry on its way to the Hezbollah terrorist organization in Lebanon.
Choosing to continue with the pre-scheduled visit may signal that tensions are not expected to escalate further with Syria in the near-term. But more importantly, the trip signals that Netanyahu did not wish to insult the Chinese, after twice canceling trips to a country that is growing increasingly important to Israel.
“It is important for us to have good, very good relations with China, better relations than what we have today,” Arens said. “I think considering China’s status in the world today, it is appropriate and I would say probably natural for China to play a bigger role in Middle Eastern affairs than it has in the past.”
“China has been a sleeping giant for a long time, but in the last 20 years, as its economy began to grow, its relevance started to become more and more important,” Carice Witte, Executive Director of SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership), an institute working to advance Israel-China relations, told JNS.org.
The economic decline of Europe and the U.S., and changing balances of diplomatic and military power, have necessitated that Israel develop additional allies.
“In 2008 when the sub-prime debacle happened, Israeli business people began to realize they need to spread their interests and investment and their outreach beyond the U.S. and EU,” Witte said.
Netanyahu on Monday in Shanghai said, “I came to open doors for Israeli companies. We’re interested in a small piece of a giant market.”
But economics are only one piece of the China-Israel equation.
“Among several reasons, China is very significant to Israel because it has a vote in the Security Council,” Witte told JNS.org.
And China has taken a growing interest in the Middle East, a region critical to China’s economic stability. China has grown tremendously as a manufacturing power over the past several decades. And one of the fuels powering that growth is oil.
“The two nations providing most of China’s oil are Saudi Arabia and Iran. So the area of the Middle East is core for China’s domestic policy, for China’s domestic economy. Stability in the region is essential,” Witte said.
Disturbances in the flow of oil, or rises in prices could have a significant impact on China’s economy. According to Witte, China has watched its investments in Libya and now Syria decline due to the events of the “Arab Spring.”
While China wants tensions between Israel and Iran to cool, the Chinese see Israel as one of the most stable and forward-thinking countries in the region. The Chinese have been particularly impressed with Israel’s rapid growth in an often-hostile environment.
In the past two decades—with both countries experiencing significant economic growth—Israel and China have begun to recognize that perhaps they share more common interests than they did in the past. Yet it has been historically difficult for the two countries to develop strong bilateral relations.
According to Arens, Israel’s relationship with the U.S. may have impacted China-Israel relations, particularly during the Cold War.
“The United States was seen as a backer of Israel, as a very close ally of Israel, and almost naturally then, I think in those days China would take a position that would back the Palestinians, or back Arab nations,” Arens said.
“China has a strong 60-year relationship with all the Arab nations and Iran. And they have been learning about the Middle East and Israel only through them for all that period of time. They're limited to what the Arabs are telling them,” Witte added.
At the same time, China has virtually no history of anti-Semitism, meaning that the Chinese are open to the Israeli point of view.
According to Witte, Israel has a unique opportunity and even an imperative to change the way the Chinese look at the Middle East—in a way that is more favorable to Israel’s position. Doing so would have mutual benefits.
But strengthening the relationship has not always been simple.
“There’s an enormous cultural gap,” Witte said. “The Jews have lived in and amongst the European cultures for 2,000 years. There is no common religion in China. There’s no Judeo-Christian history. There’s no AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) of China, there’s no real Jewish community. So they don’t have any point of reference for many of the issues that we’re dealing with in Israel and in our region.”
Netanyahu’s trip to China will focus primarily on strengthening economic trade. Currently the two countries exchange approximately $8 billion in goods per year, the majority of which are Chinese exports to Israel. In addition to seeking an increase in trade as well as greater balance between imports and exports, Netanyahu is likely to try and reach understandings regarding Iran, and its illicit nuclear program.
The good news is that shifting China’s perspectives may not be as difficult in China as in other countries around the world.
“I'm always asked, ‘How do you make an impact on a country of 1.4 billion people?’” Witte told JNS.org. “The fact is; you can make a difference if you understand China, and if you know how to target your resources. You can make an enormous difference because China works top-down. You don’t need to reach the whole country.”
For Netanyahu, developing better relations with China’s leaders could create tremendous benefits for Israel’s future.