October 29, 2018
Earlier this week, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan paid an official visit to Israel, signifying another important step in the deepening of ties between the two countries. Below, AJC’s Asia Pacific Institute (API) Associate Director Daniel Silver answers key questions about the visit and what the future holds for China-Israel relations.
- What was the purpose of Chinese Vice President Wang’s visit to Israel?
In 2014, Israel and China established the Joint Committee for Innovation Cooperation (JCIC), a mechanism for government-to-government interaction to promote innovation cooperation in a variety of fields. Vice President Wang was in Israel this week to co-host the fourth meeting of the JCIC – which convenes annually, alternating between Beijing and Jerusalem – together with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He was also the guest of honor at the prime minister’s Innovation Summit and at the grand opening of an innovation section of the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
- Why was this visit so important and what does it mean for the future of China-Israel relations?
Vice President Wang’s visit to Israel, only his second overseas visit since assuming office, marks the highest-level visit to Israel by a Chinese official since 2000, when then-President Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese leader to touch down in Jerusalem. Over the past few years, China-Israel bilateral relations have grown significantly, both countries ramping up trade, investment, and cultural ties. According to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “China has become Israel’s second most important export market after the United States, with exports of about $2.8 billion in the first half of 2018 – an increase of 80 percent compared to the first half of 2017.” Israel and China are also continuing to seek expanded partnerships outside their respective regions as they tap into new markets and pursue new trade and investment opportunities. Both sides win: Israel continues to see an influx of investment from China, and China begins to strengthen its presence in the Middle East, a region where it would like to play a greater role.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Vice President Wang’s visit is the light it sheds on the importance China now places on the relationship. During Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to Beijing in March 2017, Israel and China agreed to upgrade their ties to an “innovative comprehensive partnership,” a significant point in the bourgeoning of relations. The JCIC was previously headed by Vice Premier Liu Yandong, a powerful figure in the Communist Party of China but not a member of President Xi Jinping’s innermost circle. With Vice President Wang, one of President Xi’s most trusted and important allies, now tasked with the job, the future of the bilateral relationship appears stronger. The enhanced political communication is likely to reinforce mutual understanding and trust between the two countries.
- Could this visit raise concern for U.S. policymakers about China’s ambitions in the Middle East?
Over the past few months, several Israeli and American experts have suggested that the deepening of ties between Israel and China could pose a potential security risk. For the U.S. Major infrastructure projects, the sale of Israeli technology to Beijing, and the increase of Chinese investments in Israel are raising eyebrows in Washington and Jerusalem. Add to these concerns the fact that the United States and China are embroiled in a bitter trade war, and it becomes clear why Vice Minister Wang’s visit is a major concern. Gilad Cohen, Director of Asia and the Pacific at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted in a recent Haaretz op-ed that “the Israeli economy is strong enough, and it is our clear interest to invite many countries to invest here and to purchase high-tech products manufactured by Israeli firms and startups.” He argued that “[Israel] must convey to the world and to the East in particular that we are a country with confidence in its capabilities, unafraid of exposure to new markets, while we safeguard our security and strategic interests.”
The idea that Israel needs to choose between the two superpowers is not new. Israel was in a similar situation during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when China showed interest in Israel’s military technology, causing the United States to intervene. There are also reports that Israel’s Justice Ministry and security officials are contemplating the adoption of a policy that resembles America’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) to review the national security implications of foreign investments. As long as Israel continues to be transparent with the U.S about its core interests and works to create policies and procedures to identify and define assets that will be off-limits to foreign interests (China, in particular), the United States should not be too concerned about the direction of Israel-China relations.