Israel’s Perspective on Xi Jinping Thought and its Impact on the Middle East – a 2018 SIGNAL update

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

As Founder and Executive Director of SIGNAL, I am taking the liberty of using the space of the first edition of the SIGNAL Note for 2018 to reflect on some of the significant developments at SIGNAL. I will introduce our new research area for 2018 – Israel’s Perspective on Xi Jinping Thought and its impact on the Middle East. This will include insights into how SIGNAL’s 2nd annual conference on Israel’s China Policy informs our new research track as well as other significant developments.

2017 was an auspicious year for SIGNAL. From our new office in the heart of central Israel, SIGNAL concretized its position as Israel’s premier action-oriented think tank advancing China-Israel political, diplomatic, economic and cultural relations. During the year we contributed to the planning of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 2017 trip to China and participated in the events. We continued our research on China-Israel relations, Israel and the BRI, and Understanding China. SIGNAL cooperated with Renmin University’s SIS under the auspices of CMEAS to co-host a trilateral seminar – US-China-Israel. We expanded the Israel Studies Programs to universities in Heilongjiang, Shanxi, and Hubei.

But perhaps our most exciting development was to open the new research track related to “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” As the first Israeli think tank to begin research in this field, we are privileged to be able to contribute an Israeli perspective to the research being conducted in China and globally. SIGNAL joins an auspicious group of official China-based research centers for Xi Jinping Thought located at the Central Party School, the Ministry of Education, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the National Defense University, Beijing Municipality, Shanghai Municipality, Guangdong province, Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Renmin University of China. SIGNAL considers it an imperative to communicate an understanding of this field of research to the Israeli public, scholar community, professionals, and government. 

When President Xi’s theory was inscribed into the Communist Party’s constitution in late October 2017 at the 19th Party Congress, SIGNAL recognized the significance of this new doctrine. Therefore, from the outset of 2018, the SIGNAL Note will be devoted to delving into four main areas of research within this track – Global Governance, A Community of Shared Future, Big Power Diplomacy and the BRI from the Israeli perspective. We will explore how these fields are understood by Israel, what Israel can contribute, and what effect they may have on the Jewish State and its neighbors. Our core goals will be to better understand Xi Jinping Thought and in turn how that can help Israel better understand China. SIGNAL will examine which aspects of Xi Jinping Thought apply to Israel and regional affairs. We will also investigate how Jewish thought parallels and contributes to concepts within Xi Jinping Thought. Our researchers will explore how Israel’s thinking across these four disciplines can contribute to advancing them both theoretically and practically. 

For example, when considering the “principal contradiction” in the Xi era is between “unbalanced and inadequate development and people’s ever-growing need for a better life,” we see that Israel’s history may hold some parallels. As was noted in the Nov. 18-19 edition of the China Daily in a feature story entitled Xi Jinping and His Era, it was noted that being a decision maker in China now is no less challenging now than it was in 1978. “What remain after decades of economic miracles are the most obstinate barriers, such as outdated mentality, deeply-embedded institutional flaws and strong vested interests.” Israel can understand these challenges. The Jewish State began as a socialist country and continues to support certain socialist principles. This generates positive and negative results. Many of Israel’s institutions and ways of thinking within specific sectors of society and government departments continue to be influenced by socialist principles. On the positive side, this has led to a substantial national medical care program. At the same time, some of Israel’s institutions are overly bureaucratic, stagnant in their thinking, and limit progress. SIGNAL will examine parallels between Israel and China in these areas and how we can learn from one another’s experience. We will also identify best practices and aim to formulate creative solutions. 

In his work report, delivered at the 19th Party Congress, President Xi spoke about reshaping global institutions to better suit China and its style of conducting international relations and China’s aim to have more say in global affairs. SIGNAL will research how such changes may take effect in different regions where Israel has interests. We will also look at how this may impact work done in the field of A Community of Shared Future. When examining this discipline, we cannot help but recognize echoes of ancient Jewish teaching. Within Jewish thought and tradition is the concept of repairing the world – helping to improve one’s community and society as well as the wider world. In the context of “a community of shared future,” SIGNAL will study the path, the theory, the system, and the culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics. We will aim to better understand how they have contributed to the advancement of the PRC and how they might help other developing countries to achieve modernization. SIGNAL will explore how Socialism with Chinese characteristics applies Chinese wisdom to solving the trials and tribulations facing humanity. Our research will also focus on where there may be synergy in Jewish and Chinese wisdom in the context of a community with a shared future. 

The ‘shared future’ field of research includes the practical aspect of security. As President Xi has noted, he encourages “new thinking on common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security” (china daily Nov. 18-19). From our perspective, this applies not only to the security within China’s borders but along the Belt & Road, for all Chinese traveling or living abroad and for all countries across the globe. Israel’s insights, experience and expertise in bringing security to one and all can undoubtedly contribute to the thinking, the research, and making relevant solutions operational. 

Straddling east and west, Israel is an appropriate place to study how China and the US may avoid the Thucydides Trap and the Kindleberger Trap. The former is by now well known, referring to the warning by the ancient Greek historian after whom the phenomenon is named, that cataclysmic war can erupt if an established power in a state of decline clashes with a rising power. But the more subtle concern may be the Kindleberger Trap as described by Joseph Nye in an article by that name in the Jan. 9, 2017 edition of Project Syndicate. Nye attributes the global devastation of the 1930s to the US replacement of Britain as the largest superpower without supplanting Britain’s role of providing global public goods. Nye says that the result was the collapse of the international system into depression, genocide, and world war. In the case of the Thucydides Trap, the fear is based in a China that is too strong. The concern of the Kindleberger Trap emerges from the case where China is too weak to take over the vast leadership role of the USA as it retreats from the world stage. 

SIGNAL laid the foundations for researching these new fields in a number of ways. One crucial step was to initiate and co-host a conference on China on the World stage and the strategic implications for Israel. SIGNAL brought three leading scholars from China to participate in the two sessions; China on the World Stage in the New Era of Xi Jinping and China, the Middle East and Israel in an Age of Change. Prof. Ye Hailin from CASS, Prof. Huang Renwei from SASS and Dr. Yang Xiyu from CIIS provided a Chinese perspective. 

The December 26th, 2017 conference opened with remarks from Chargé d’Affaires, Cai Weiming of China’s Israel embassy. Mr. Cai emphasized that this is a new era in Chinese development, “The CPC will lead the Chinese people in achieving the Chinese dream…” based on the principles of “deeper and more comprehensive reform to enable development, and staying open to the world.” He noted that the “Belt & Road Initiative enables China to share its success with the world and offers a new type of international relations for an international community with a shared vision for mankind.” Cai reaffirmed the principle of non-interference. He said that China would offer an impartial approach aiming at political solutions without the use of force. Charges d’affairs Cai referred to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “successful visit” to China in 2017, and how trade has since grown significantly. He attributed the strong increase in exports from Israel to China to the effective “China-Israel Comprehensive Innovation Partnership,” which has also brought notable growth in Chinese tourists visiting the Jewish State. 

During the conference, the Chinese experts explained to the hundreds of Israelis in the overflowing conference hall that China was being thrust onto the world stage in part by the changes in the USA approach since the election of President Donald Trump. Would this mean that China is taking on the mantle of superpower? To better explain to the Israeli audience China’s approach to the question of global leadership, Dr. Yang noted that in China’s diplomatic dictionary there’s no term for ‘leadership.’ He said, “The Americans talk about leadership and partnership, but are the partners are truly equal? In China’s Foreign Policy there are references to independence and interdependence.”

Continuing on the theme of how China’s cultural perspective informs its global approach, Professor Aron Shai was asked about China as a “Confucian civilization” and if this is an appropriate term to describe China? As one of Israel’s founding fathers of Chinese Studies in Israeli academia, Prof. Aron Shai noted that “Confucianism lives and develops,” adding that China’s view is sophisticated, offering a soft kind of power that avoids direct conflict. 

Understanding that this perspective was new to Israel, Oren Nahari, well known in Israel as a journalist and political commentator, expert in current affairs, noted that Israel’s world-view is still Western. Nahari illustrated how little Israelis know about China, citing the survey conducted by SIGNAL in a project with Prof. Li Wei of Northwest University looking at Israel’s views of China, its people, and the BRI. Nahari explained that Israeli undergraduate students know the name of the President of the U.S., of Russia and The Queen of England. However, how many of them know the name of the leader of China? 7%. Only 7% of Israelis know that the name of the President of China is Xi Jinping. The same survey, conducted during the summer of 2017, showed that only 15% of Israelis ever heard of the New Silk Road. 

Given that the New Silk Road, more commonly known as the Belt & road Initiative, aims to develop infrastructure across half the globe, it was asked if China is a developed or developing nation. Dr. Ariel Levite of the Carnegie Center for Peace noted that China is caught between being a developing and developed power. “China is saying that we have a deep desire to be part of the new world order, and to help determine the rules of the game; look at the difference between Russia and China – Russia challenges the rules of the game while China wants to write the rules and then be obligated by them.” Prof. Huang explained that China still views itself as a developing country, the largest developing country in the world. He went on to clarify that yes, China has made great progress, “but we still face great internal problems, and our capabilities need to be seen in light of a population of 1.3 billion people.”

Focus shifted from the global picture of China on the world stage to the regional question of China, Israel, and the Middle East in this new era. I was privileged to share the stage with Israel’s former Ambassador to the UN and UK and former head of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ron Prosor, former head of the Defense Ministry’s political-security branch, Major General (ret) Amos Gilad as well as Prof. Ye Hailin of CASS. The first question asked to the panel was “what is China’s interest in the Middle East?” Amb. Prosor stressed the importance of energy access and Maj General Gilad noted the civilizational respect between China and Israel. Prof. Ye pointed out that China wishes to deepen its economic footprint in the Middle East. He also explained that China is opposed to non-state actors and will work with its regional partners to help ensure that ‘globalization is not derailed in the Middle East.’ I added that Israel’s expertise in security and understanding Muslim culture could contribute to China’s efforts to improve regional stability. Prof. Ye stressed that in this new era, regional powers have a great deal of influence and can be stabilizing factors.

Responding to Prof. Ye’s comment on working with the regional powers, I noted to the audience that we in Israel are missing the cultural factor. I explained that the Chinese have a completely different background and therefore an approach that is not Western. China’s understanding of the Middle East is from a distance. Israel needs to work more closely with our friends and colleagues there, providing opportunities for them to see our country from up close and in person to gain first-hand experience. Overall, the conference succeeded in broadening the conversation in Israel about China’s role on the world stage and Sino-Israeli relations. It also laid the foundations for SIGNAL to launch its new research field – Israel’s Perspective on Xi Jinping Thought and its potential impact on the Middle East.

I hope you will join us on this new adventure, watching this space for the biweekly SIGNAL Note, bringing new insights into this unique field of research on Xi Jinping Thought.

On behalf of SIGNAL, thank you for your continued friendship, cooperation, and support.