Understanding How Culture and History Impact China’s International Relations: The Case of the South China Sea
By: Carice Witte and Aryeh Tepper

Is China an up-and-coming aggressor determined to govern the global order? That seems to be the conventional view among some Western pundits and politicians. From snubbing former U.S. President Obama upon his arrival at last year’s G20 summit, to not participating in the arbitration of the South China Sea territorial dispute, China appears intent on throwing its weight around as it rises to prominence on the international stage.

While it’s true that the People’s Republic of China jealously protects its national interests, the conventional view is problematic because it lacks the broad historical-cultural perspective that is necessary for evaluating Chinese behavior. As Israel continues to strengthen its connection to the Middle Kingdom, it’s important that Israel’s leaders know how to assess Chinese behavior independently of the Western conventional wisdom. The 2016 South China Sea ruling is helpful for illustrating what the Western perspective misses.

In July, 2016, an international tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against Chinese claims to “historic rights” in the South China Sea and in favor of the Philippines. After the decision, The Economist articulated the conventional wisdom as follows, “The judgment could… in the long run, force China to choose what sort of country it wants to be—one that supports rules-based global regimes, or one that challenges them in pursuit of great-power status.”

The problem with this formulation is that it projects a Western cultural perspective onto the Chinese. From the Chinese perspective there is no black and white dichotomy, either this or that. For the Chinese, things can be grey, complicated and in many cases contradictory. What’s more, living with contradictions is completely acceptable.

This Chinese capacity to live without absolute clarity or decisive solutions, the product of a long history that has chastened any ambition to master reality, likewise informs Chinese foreign policy. Instead of either supporting a rules-based global regime or challenging it, the Chinese are intent on protecting their “historic rights” and, as such, their domestic stability and security, while learning on the fly how to adapt to the international system. However, the legalistic approach adopted by the international community in resolving the South China Sea dispute not only failed to actually solve the problem ─ the approach didn’t change anything on the ground ─ it is liable, in conditions of extremity, to destabilize the country.

Israel’s relations with the U.S. and China: A zero-sum game?
By: Aryeh Tepper

Are ties between Israel and the two great powers of our time, the United States and China, a zero-sum game? Must Israel’s relations with one power necessarily come at the expense of relations with the other?

The answer should be an easy “no.” On the one hand, Israel enjoys a special relationship with the United States, a relationship that won’t be changing for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, relations with China are rapidly developing on a number of fronts ─ economic, diplomatic and academic ─ and the benefits of the relationship are clear to both sides.

But some Israeli officials and American pundits have been sounding the alarm in recent months, warning that Israel’s relations with China shouldn’t take the place of Israel’s special relationship with the U.S. To cite one example, Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies recently asserted in The Jerusalem Post that, “it’s no secret that Israel is looking for new allies… A growing chorus in Israel believes that China is a good option.” Schanzer’s advice? “China… is not long-term alliance material for Israel… predictions of a new special relationship that supplants that of Israel and the United States are very premature.”

Israel and China’s Silk Road
By: Kevjn Lim

When China’s President Xi Jinping articulated his idea of the Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) in Astana in September 2013 and again a month later in Jakarta,1 what emerged was a vision to parlay large-scale economic dynamism into a foreign policy projecting Chinese influence overseas in the name of development. Inclusive and expansive at once, this is an ambitious vision and one which could seal ours as the Chinese century if it succeeds in weaving the loose ends of China’s overseas interests into a coherent whole. Three years into SREB, now better known as the “Belt & Road Initiative” (BRI), a part of the vision is slowly taking on flesh. The volume of media reports attests to this. What remains less clear is the strategic implications and opportunities of BRI on China’s partners. Occupying a slight sliver at the intersection of West Asia and the Middle East, Europe and Africa – regions of intimate relevance to BRI – Israel too has joined the new Silk Road caravan. Where does it fit in, and what difference does BRI make?

  1. “Promote friendship between our people and work together to build a bright future” (text of Xi Jinping’s speech at Nazarbayev University, Astana), Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, 8 September 2013, http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/cebel/eng/zxxx/t1078088.htm; “Xi in call for building of new ‘Maritime Silk Road’”, China Daily, 4 October 2013, http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2013-10/04/content_17008940.htm

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SIGNAL Perspectives are written by experts on a range of issues within the China-Israel-Middle East space