As relations between China and Israel have dramatically expanded in the last few years, several major questions remain unanswered. For starters, China has become every top Israeli leader’s favorite talking point, but the Jewish state remains without a coherent strategy on how to engage the Asian giant. What, in short, is Israel’s China policy? Furthermore, why are trade and investment numbers so low despite all the talk that Israeli innovation is a perfect marriage for Chinese capital and manufacturing? And, finally, how can Israel develop ties with China without sacrificing its long-standing relationship with the United States?
While none of these questions are easily answered, Israel and its supporters are making progress on the first two areas of concern. A coherent China policy may be too much to expect from a governing system that is not known as a bastion of coordinated strategic planning. That said, a new task force led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top economic advisor, Eugene Kandel, is helping to streamline bilateral interactions around a single agenda based on trade, investment, and cultural exchange. The two governments’ recommitment to boosting commercial ties, coupled with the constant stream of Chinese business delegations to Israel, suggests that trade and investments will continue to improve.
The prognosis for Israel successfully balancing ties with China and the United States is far less promising. When Jerusalem and Beijing first drew close in the late 1990s, Washington broke up the promising relationship over a fear that China was acquiring advanced Israeli weaponry. With Israel and China having ended their weapons business in 2005 under American pressure, security concerns are presumably no longer an issue. But China’s emergence as America’s main global rival means that every encouraging advance in Sino-Israel relations is a setback for U.S. interests in the Jewish state. Or, at least, that is the message communicated in much of the media coverage of Sino-Israel developments.
Take, for instance, the recent $130 million donation by Chinese billionaire Li Ka-Shing to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Media coverage contrasts the Chinese largess to the academic boycotts launched by Americans and Europeans against Israeli universities. Reports of Israeli venture capital firms establishing new funds with Chinese capital portray American economic strength as faltering since the 2008 financial crisis (in marked contrast to newly energized Chinese investors). And, finally, China’s purported involvement in some of Israel’s most ambitious economic projects — such as exporting Israel’s new offshore gas or building a rail line to bypass the Suez Canal in the Negev Desert — is presented as threatening American interests in the Jewish state.
Political developments between Israel and China are portrayed as even larger setbacks for the United States. When China hosted Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Beijing in May, media coverage suggested that China was seeking to replace the United States as the principal peacemaker between the two sides. When Israel revealed that it would be opening up a sorely needed consulate in the booming western Chinese city of Chengdu, the spin suggested that the Consul General of Israel in Philadelphia would close to provide the needed budget for the new consulate in China. And China’s opposition to American policy in Syria is portrayed as further evidence that, with Beijing’s growing dependence on Arab oil, China will soon become deeply involved in Middle East crises.
Much of this media narrative is heavily exaggerated and quite harmful. It is important to understand clearly that China remains committed to avoiding political entanglement in the Middle East, and its increased commercial and academic clout in Israel is no different than its investments in much of the developed world. More to the point, America remains the critical economic and political partner in Israel and across the Middle East.
A narrative that paints closer ties between Israel and China as undermining American interests is a disservice to all three countries. Fortunately, an alternative narrative readily exists, in which Israel serves as a bridge between East and West, a state that helps the two global powers interact and advance their mutual interests. With a thriving start-up economy, political stability in a region marked by endless turmoil, and a reserve of cultural (if not political) goodwill in both Beijing and Washington, Israel has much to attract both China and the United States. For example, the Chinese gift to the Technion includes building a branch of the esteemed Israeli research center in southern China. With another overseas campus planned for New York City, the Technion is positioning itself as an academic nexus connecting American and Chinese students under the aegis of Israeli know-how. In presenting itself as a conduit between the two global powers, Israel would be reaching back to a narrative that was successful in the 1990s, when the United States initially supported the uptick in Sino-Israel relations and China was all too happy to become friendly with a country it considered highly influential in Washington.
Still, Israel and its supporters are all too familiar with the power of narrative. But when it comes to Israel’s dealings with China, the Jewish state is standing pat while a harmful narrative falsely plays China off the United States. For the benefit of all three counties, this narrative can and should be corrected.