China and Israel – A Quarter of a Century of Friendship

On 4 January 2017 The People’s Republic of China and the State of Israel will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. This event can be safely described as one of Israel’s major strategic foreign policy achievements. After decades of alienation and at times open hostility on the part of China, both countries have since become close trading partners, and there have been many displays of growing sympathy between the two nations: China, the largest in the world whose population accounts for 28% of the global population, and tiny Israel, whose population is 0.0013% of the world’s population. Today there is significant cooperation in many fields between the two nations, based partly on China’s awareness bordering on admiration for Israel’s hi-tech sector. China also appreciates Israel’s military capabilities, its intelligence gathering talents, its advanced technologies. China has become Israel’s major trading partner in Asia. The volume of Sino-Israel trade that amounted to $50 million in 1992, jumped 200 times to $13 billion in 2016. Chinese investments in Israel in 2016 amounted to over $6 billion, far exceeding American investments in the Jewish state.

What are the main reasons that explain this amazing development in the foreign policy of both nations? Although Israel was one of the first non-Communist states to recognize the People’s Republic of China as early as January 1950, its efforts to establish ties with that power were rebuffed. From 1955 to 1978 China pursued an anti-Israel, pro-Arab policy. China’s growing need for oil, UN votes and trade led Beijing to seek closer ties with the Arab and Muslim nations, and by implication to an anti-Israel stand in the United Nations and other international forums. This changed in 1978 when China required an upgrading of its ancient Soviet weaponry, mostly tanks. It then discovered Israel’s advanced military technologies. The timing was also critical – it paralleled Deng Xiao Ping’s dramatic reforms in all sectors. China now required modern technologies in the spheres of agriculture, irrigation, chemicals and fertilizers, weapons. This was also the time when Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty and Israel was no longer isolated internationally or regionally.

It took almost twenty-five years for the relations to ripen into full diplomatic ties. Since then there has been a tacit agreement between Jerusalem and Beijing: China would pursue a multi-directional policy when it came to the Middle East and mostly a policy of non-linkage. It maintains close and warm ties with Israel with no linkage to what happens in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In January 2016 President Xi Jinping delivered a major address in Cairo before the Arab League in which he called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, united Jerusalem but the capitals of two states and a just solution for the issue of the Palestinian refugees. China consistently votes against Israel in the United Nations. When challenged by Israel, the answer given is that China values more its relations with Israel in the scientific, military, economic, security and intelligence sharing spheres. China thus makes a distinct separation between its broad regional Middle East policy and the special ties with Israel. The latter has learned how to live with this situation.

The past twenty five years have not always been a long honeymoon. There were a number of setbacks that harmed the ties, among the countries, in particular Israel’s bowing in to American pressure cancelling a large military contract with China. However, the ties were quickly restored to their previous warmth. In addition to official ties, there has been a growth of people to people connections.

Among the more outstanding of these ties was the creation of strong academic links. Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Exchange (SIGNAL) has successfully introduced Israel Studies to Chinese universities since its establishment in 2011. There is a growing number of tourists on both sides, there are thousands of Chinese students in Israel and the number of their Israeli counterparts in China is growing steadily. In 2017 three airlines will link China with Israel, one Israeli and two Chinese. Israeli business people can now obtain a Chinese entry visa valid for ten years.

At China’s behest and encouragement, Israel has become a founding member of the Asian Infrastructure Investments Bank. But above all, Israel is now deep in discussions with China on its role in the Belt Road initiative that is bound to change the international political and economic environment. Israel’s role may be to serve as a land link from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea once a rail link will be built between Eilat and Ashdod. In fact, China Harbor Engineering is now expanding Israel’s major sea port in Ashdod, building a new pier at the cost of $1 billion. It is assumed that being part of the BRI, Israel will become linked to China’s greatest economic enterprise, and, perhaps be a major element in this new unprecedented enterprise. China will then have a greater influence on Israel’s relations with other Asian nations, and perhaps China could then play a growing role in the peace process between Israel and the Arab world.

If the first twenty five years are an indication how the Sino-Israel relations can flourish and prosper, then the next twenty five years could see these ties go from strength to strength.

Author:Professor Meron Medzini, Distinguished SIGNAL Fellow
Published: 25-12-2016
Bio: Prof. Meron Medzini is an Adjunct Associate Professor in Political Science at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and also an Associate Fellow at the Truman Peace Institute of the Hebrew University specializing in Israel's relations with the nations of East Asia.