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How not to think about Israel-China relations: a conversation with Dr. Shalom Wald 

Dr. Shalom Salomon Wald is a founding member of the board of academic and expert advisors at Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership – SIGNAL. Dr. Wald was born in Italy. He graduated (Ph.D.) in economics and history at the University of Basel, Switzerland, in 1962. Dr. Wald pursued a long career at the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the West’s leading policy think tank. While there, he specialised in science and technology policy and retired in 2001 as Head of the OECD Biotechnology Unit. Since 2002 he has been a Senior Fellow of the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem, where he specializes in Israel and the Jewish People’s relations with the great powers of Asia. In 2004 he published “China and the Jewish People – Old Civilizations in a New Era” with a foreword by Amb. Dennis Ross (Chinese edition 2014), in 2014 “Rise and Decline of Civilizations – Lessons for the Jewish People” with a foreword by President Shimon Pères and in 2017 “India, Israel and the Jewish People” with a foreword by President Reuven Rivlin. 

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Khinvraj: You worked for  38 years  with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the West’s main official policy advisory body, so my first question to you is how you came to have an interest in China? 

Shalom: My interest in China? I can’t really tell you. It started after the war; I became fascinated by the figure of Confucius and my half-awareness (I am a survivor of the Holocaust) that China was the one country that did not kill the Jews. I began to read about Chinese philosophers, including Confucius. I also began collecting Chinese art. So, my interest in China came through culture rather than any political  persuasion. I later discovered that some of our political elites were looking to China. 

The Jewish people are parochial; we are interested in the countries we live in and countries with the closest relations with Israel, typically the West. But the world’s future is not the West. I read that Ben Gurion said back in the 1960s that the Soviet Union and the United States would not control the world forever, and we must look to Asia. That stuck with me, so I began to study Asia and try to understand the different ways in which China and India approach the world and relate to us (Israel). Personally speaking, I am a European Jew and Western, but somehow, I am trying to get out of the Western mold  and  connect with Asia in many ways. 

Khinvraj: In your long academic and cultural interest in China, how do you view the current State of Israel’s relations with China? 

Shalom: I think Israel is squeezed between the two great powers: Israel wants to continue cultivating relations with China, and, in my view, its main ally, the United States, doesn’t want  this. America does not want us [Israel] to expand cooperation with China in areas that America deems sensitive. I get the sense America believes that the more China invests in Israel, the more dangerous it is for Israel.

So, Israel maneuvers between the two, jumping from one stone to the next, hoping to cross the waters. It is a difficult situation for us [Israel]. 

Officially, Israel says that China is very important to the Jewish state from an economic perspective. The US is the most important trade partner, the only country in Asia and Africa that has more trade with America than China is Israel. If you look at the global picture of the entire Asian, African, half of the European, and three-quarters of Latin American states, they have more robust trade relations with China than with the US. This phenomenon is going to become more accentuated. India also has more trade with China than with the US. 

Many Israeli politicians understand that China is not as anti-Israel as it used to be. China is entering the Middle East, and one cannot help thinking that one day (relatively soon), China will be the number one economy in the world, including the Middle East. We don’t want an enemy, and China doesn’t want to be an enemy, despite their relations with Iran and others who wish to see the destruction of Israel (which is very problematic for us). Israel shouldn’t invite unnecessary hostility from China. 

This is the background: We find China entering the Middle East, and we see their representative speaking with every government in the Middle East (less with us), and we cannot ignore this. In a way, they will be our neighbors, and to some extent, they already are. We have to be careful to protect our relations. 

On the other hand, we depend so much on certain US actions and political support – it is the only country that supports us in the Security Council of the United Nations, and we cannot ignore this. We are in a squeeze, and we have to navigate between the two. 

I believe we [Israel] have an outstanding ambassador to the US (referring to Michael Herzog, the current ambassador who was a senior fellow at Jewish People Policy Institute). He appears to understand China, and I am confident he does his best to protect both relationships 

I am not unhappy  that a few Israeli companies and the Chinese are suing the Israeli government for not letting them win the tender for the light rail network from South to North of Tel Aviv. There is a significant impediment to Israel’s economic future: the infrastructure mess, particularly around the transport system, making thousands of Israelis waste time in traffic jams. China is among the best when it comes to building infrastructure. I don’t think there is any  other country can alleviate Israel in this regard, especially not for the same price. Americans cannot help their own infrastructure and what China has done with its infrastructure is a miracle. Building a railway between  Xian and Lhasa over and through 5000-meter-high mountains is an extraordinary feat in civil engineering. So, we [Israel] need to benefit from them [China] and resist pressure when it comes to  Israel’s economic well-being. 

I don’t know the entire background, but we could  not give the railway work to China. Israel had  to award the project to a consortium of foreign and Israeli companies, 

Khinvraj: What do you think China is offering Israel beyond the economic prospects, trade, agriculture, and high-tech? Is there something beyond material economic diplomacy? 

Shalom: Let’s look at the city of Haifa and the building of the second port by a Chinese company (Shanghai International Ports Group). It’s complete and running and is no longer a bone of contestation between the US and Israel. I may be wrong, but if a country invests billions in another country, this suggests that it wants that country to flourish, not be destroyed. Isn’t China indicating in their investment in Israel that they are sure of the  long-term survivability in Israel? This is a good thing because it shows our enemies that China, a country that has existed for four thousand years, believes that Israel will be a long-lasting country. 

The US preventing Chinese investment doesn’t punish China; it punishes Israel. One cannot find Israel in the economic statistics of China. For China, in terms of trade volume and size of the economy, we [Israel] are nothing. We are a Lilliput for China. Professionally and in innovation and technology, we have made notable achievements. But limiting ties with China will be detrimental to Israel, much more than  China. This is an argument that most Americans don’t seem to consider or want to hear. But we [Israel] are doing maximum to accommodate the US concerns by creating a foreign investment screening mechanism. In brief, Israel is maneuvering.

Khinvraj: Within the Israeli political system, do you see one political understanding of China among the Israeli political parties?

Shalom: Israel is an inward-looking country; China, unfortunately, does not rank high on Israel’s priorities. If you were to ask me the ten most important priorities of Israel, China wouldn’t be on it. China is probably lower than the first top fifteen priorities even. Israel’s priorities are primarily internal security, the future of the state and world Jewry, and our relationship with the Arab world. We are interested in countries we lived in for a thousand years, most European countries, even though China is more important for Israel than Europe in the long run. I believe our relations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom hold more public attention than China. The Israel mindset has not changed, and political parties reflect that. A political party cannot get any votes by being for or against China. No Israeli party has China on its program. Intellectuals and diplomats understand  China better, but I don’t see a significant political move toward China in Israel. 

When I wrote my book about China and the Jewish People (2014), I was asked how many Jews live in China. I said it is not relevant if many Jews lived or still live in China. China is a superpower, and it will be in our neighborhood – that is why it is important.

Khinvraj: Do you find any cultural elements between China and Israel? 

Shalom: Look, for me, yes, but for 99% of Israeli people, no, they don’t know China enough. They visit China, and it is an exotic place, but they don’t know the culture of China. 

Khinvraj: How have the academic departments at Israeli universities created knowledge about China for the young Israelis? 

Shalom: I wish I knew this. Early on, the first person to teach Chinese philosophy at Hebrew University was Martin Buber, who fled Germany in 1938. It was easy for him and others  to find a connection between Confucianism and Taoism, and Judaism, so Buber began to teach Chinese studies at Hebrew University. He was the first to translate the Daodejing  into Hebrew. 

China was always important to a small elite, and there were Chinese art collections. Many  collectors of Chinese art have been Jews  in Paris, London, Berlin, and the US. Some  Jews made the first collections of Chinese art, and some of those made it to Israel, but many paintings  were destroyed by the weather conditions. 

During the persecution of Jews in Europe and later the Holocaust, the city of Shanghai hosted 20,000 Jews. At the time, the Chinese people of Shanghai were themselves suffering because of the Japanese occupation. The State of Israel  has recognized and thanked the Chinese people for the help they provided.

Khinvraj: China, for various reasons, supported and still supports the Palestinian cause. How remarkable do you think it is that Israel is  sidestepping this issue? Do you think China is more pragmatic about the conflict?

Shalom: China was open and friendly to Israel initially. From the 1955 Bandung conference, China turned to the Arab side and away from Israel. China wanted to be the lead country in the third world against the West. Almost half of the Third World is Muslim, so China had to espouse the Muslim position if it wished to lead the people of the Third World. Officially and vocally, Mao’s government would insult Israel, but this was never accompanied by hostility  against Jews. It never became antisemitic. Contrary to European and particularly Communist anti-Zionism growing into antisemitism. 

China supported the Palestinians, including terror groups. But their material support was “peanuts” compared to that of others like the Soviet Union – who provided them also with heavy arms to fight Israel. There is no residual bitterness toward China in Israel now. 

Relations became possible in the late 1970s and 1980s when Israel became a major supplier of weapons to China. This happened due to the clash between the Soviet Union and Chinese troops in Central Asia, where China lost hundreds of soldiers. And Brezhnev threatened China with nuclear weapons. He also did that to Israel in the 1973 War. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger became concerned and made it clear to the Soviet Union that a nuclear attack against China was unacceptable to the United States. China was a weak state and very poor. The Americans also reflected how China could be strengthened against the Soviet Union without overt American involvement. So, Israel became a sort of proxy, and this fact is yet not known much in public. Israel, US, and China do not comment on this piece of history, and all diplomatic details are still classified. Prof. Yitzhak Shichor, Israel’s eminent China studies scholar has published  details of this strategic event. 

We will, perhaps, never  get to know if the US suggested or recommended that Israel supplies arms to China against the Soviet Union. But it did happen, and, in a way, it was good because China started to have positive feelings toward Israel since then.

Khinvraj: How do you think Jewish people can play a role in Israel’s policy toward China? Is there a possible role for Jewish people, or is it state-to-state? 

Shalom: American Jews are the only diaspora that has influence in politics today. French or German Jews don’t have much power; they still struggle to defend themselves against antisemitism. American Jews are Americans first, so their attitude towards China is aligned with the official attitude, which is a problem for Israel. In the past, they were friendlier towards China. Today they are sometimes  vocal, expressing concerns about human rights in China. There are not many good and balanced public sources of information about China in the US, except among real academic experts. Chinese politicians hoped that the American Jewish diaspora would help moderate American adversarial attitudes towards China. But that has not happened. The Jews of America could not move against their own government. Interestingly, the very diverse American public and political parties have one thing in common: distrust of China. Other than the idea that China is a threat to US power and influence, Americans agree on little else. This is tragic, but it is a fact. 

Khinvraj: Is this an obstacle for Israel-China? 

Shalom: Not necessarily. Israel understands that it cannot dictate views to American citizens, even if they are Jewish. Some far-sighted Jewish leaders in the US, like Henry Kissinger, are cautious about the tensions with China. He hasn’t said anything lately about China, and also, his voice is not heard anymore by American policymakers and politicians alike. I do not expect a great role that the Jewish diaspora from America can play in this case, even facilitating – positive negotiations between America and China. Israel needs to achieve an understanding of its own need to have good relations with China. And this needs to be understood by Americans as well. 

Khinvraj: How long do you think Israel can maneuver?  

Shalom: As long as it takes. We will not break off from China. It is not easy to forecast how the confrontation between the United States and China will evolve. My personal view is that America is declining, and China is rising, whether we like it or not. The most urgent duty of all thinking and well-meaning human beings is to prevent a war between the two because war is possible, and such a war could become nuclear. 

What worries me the most is that the possibility of war is raised in America and China, like the possibility of winning and losing in an Olympic game. I remember the terror we felt at the death of Stalin while I was growing up in Switzerland. The populations of Europe and America were deeply afraid of war and greatly scared  of a nuclear war following the Cold War. People once thought about dying in a war. There is absolutely no fear of war today. War is being talked about like the next rain. Populations don’t remember the last war and how it was, not in Europe or America, and it is the same in China. Popular literature in China now says there will be a war, and China will defeat Taiwan, then Japan, and later destroy America. This discourse is stupid. People should be deeply afraid of war, but they are not. 

Let me say something about the long term. The American public is now anti-China. The two political parties have an incentive to keep this one issue going. America is a deeply split country, but Republicans and Democrats both agree that there is imminent danger from China, and they must control it. So, China is a growing concern, and sometimes it is important to have an enemy – it helps achieve a minimum consensus for the people to work together. 

 I wish to mention a fascinating Indian novel about this situation. It is called The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (2008). It is a beautiful book, full of black humor, but not many people know it outside India. I sometimes think what is happening now, like Donald Trump’s revolt against China, is the ‘White man’s last stand’. Because today, America’s population is only 60% or a bit more white, and forecasters think that most Americans will not be white in the next thirty-odd years. The majority of Americans will be Asian, African, Latino, and Indian Americans. This different population does not remember the Vietnam War, Korean War, or any war. Interesting to think, will they care so much if America is number one or two in the statistics? I think they will not. As long as their living standards increase, their rights and freedoms are preserved, they would not care if China became number one. This is my feeling. I might be wrong. 

This Interview is part of our Insights From the SIGNAL Board Series. 

Dr. Khinvraj Jangid is Associate Professor and Director at the Centre for Israel Studies, School of International Affairs at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. He is currently a resident visiting fellow at SIGNAL – Sino-Israel Global Network and Academic Leadership. 

Dr. Jangid is leading new research comparing India and Israel through their ideas of nation-building and statehood in post-colonial Asia. Dr. Jungid serves as Adjunct Professor at Azrieli Centre for Israel Studies, The Ben-Gurion Research Institute for the Study of Israel and Zionism, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Sde Boker Campus. He is associated as fellow with the Summer Institute for Israel Studies, Schusterman Centre for Israel Studies, Brandeis University, USA. He holds life-long membership of Tokyo Foundation as Sylff Fellow for his academic and research pursuits.

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