Changing world, shifting relations: Israel’s ties with China

Israel and China are peculiar partners. In almost every way, they display contrasts as opposed to commonalities – across cultures, history, size, political systems, economic structures, and ideology. In the face of their differences, they have succeeded in cultivating flourishing economic relations, and today, China is Israel’s second-largesttrading partner country. China’s relations with Israel are emblematic of the impact of the PRC’s vast international outreach over the past decade.

With sustained rapid economic growth and a dramatic increase in international investment, China has become a key trading partner and significant foreign investor for Israel. There has been growing concern in China for stability in the Middle East, predominantly due to its investments in the region and the success of its Belt and Road Initiative. China has also taken an active interest in collaboration on innovation and technology with Israel – which inspired the establishment of a Comprehensive Innovation Partnership between the two nations in March of 2017. 

The China of today, is a long way from the ‘Sick Man of East Asia,’ as it was called in the early 20th century when it first established diplomatic relations with Israel. The modern world is now, for the first time, presented with a powerful China – a China that is also, for the first time, looking outward to the world from its position of strength. Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative now encompasses roughly two-thirds of the global population, with over 60 partner countries having signed onto the project. It aims to connect the world to China through a series of mega-infrastructure projects commanding multi-trillion-dollar investment. Today’s China has massive influence over global markets, supply chains, global governance, and geopolitics. 

China’s increasing assertiveness on the world stage has become a fact of our time – but the best way to deal with it is less obvious. While Beijing promotes its Belt and Road Initiative as a means to bring nations closer together through win-win cooperation, some observers have come to view it as a form of economic colonialism. These pundits argue that BRI investments create “debt traps” that require some developing countries to give China controlling shares in national assets. From their perspective, “win-win” oftentimes means that China wins twice

China’s expanding global footprint has also been a source of increased friction with the United States. In some cases, America sees China’s military advancements and its establishment of naval bases in the Indo-pacific and elsewhere as an aggressive step to project power. Closer to home, Americans view the “Made in China 2025” policy as a state-backed plan to dominate the advanced technology sector and replace America’s longstanding leadership in innovation. These perceptions are now firmly embedded in America’s political discourse. 

Meanwhile, America’s pivot towards Asia and its naval presence in proximity to China’s coastline are viewed by China as a challenge to its sovereignty, and part of an American strategy designed to contain its rise and maintain American hegemony. The deterioration of mutual trust between China and America has led to a dramatic shift in the nature of their relationship. Many nations, including Israel, now find themselves caught in the crossfire – struggling to find a balance between national security and economic progress.

Israel’s close bond with the U.S. is one of several factors that exert pressure on Sino-Israel relations, limiting the depth and scope of their relationship. Such pressures have existed since before the establishment of official diplomatic ties in 1992, and many continue to influence the scope of relations up to the present day. The nature of the diplomatic relations between a country of considerable size, population, and economy with a small country like Israel, China’s alignment with the Arab/Muslim world, China’s friendship with Iran, and the vast cultural as well as ideological divide, all bear influence on the relationship. 

To further complicate matters, Chinese policy does not fit into a static framework. It is dynamic and evolving, invoking ideas as diverse as Sun Tzu and Marxism-Leninism but also adapting in response to international law and global value chains. 

External perceptions of China’s foreign policy are often knotted with contradictions and polarized into extremes. Some analysts treat China as a “mystical, ineffable Oriental reality which is claimed to be inaccessible to Western or Eastern minds,” struggling to cram Chinese foreign policy into a framework tenuously based on ancient Chinese cultural constructs like “tianxia.” Others ignore Chinese cultural and ideological differences altogether, warning of a “hegemonic sphere of trade, communication, transportation, and security links” furthering China’s “neocolonial designs” based on the realpolitik framework. 

In the words of Adam Smith, both camps “give up the evidence of their senses to preserve the coherence of the ideas of their imagination.” Consequently, as former Singaporean Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan acknowledges, the frameworks applied to analyze Chinese foreign policy are “at best always only partially and contingently true.”

With the growing interchange between the two countries and Israel’s greater reliance upon China for trade and investment, a more thoughtful approach to foreign relations with China has become ever more crucial. If Israel wishes to continue benefiting from its relations with the East Asian giant, its policy and strategy must be responsive to the dynamics that affect the nature of the relationship. Achieving this, however, requires that Israeli policymakers cultivate a deeper understanding of the rich history and culture which informs China’s unique approach to international affairs while also being attuned to the external pressures that bear influence on the relationship. 

SIGNAL Summer Associate & Editor in Chief of China Hands Magazine, Jeffry Fu contributed to this article