China’s Vice President Wang Qishan arrived in Israel on Monday for a four-day visit to head the fourth China-Israel Innovation Committee. He is the highest-ranking Chinese official to visit Israel in nearly two decades.
In April 2000, the former president of China, Jiang Zemin was the first Chinese leader to ever visit Israel, touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum and paying diplomatic dues to his Israeli counterparts. Then, he spoke of China’s intentions to cement the bond between the two countries.
Wang Qishan’s visit, however, is different. The “bond” between Beijing and Tel Aviv is much stronger now than it was then, as expressed in sheer numbers. Soon after the two countries exchanged diplomatic missions in 1992, trade figures began increasing. The size of Chinese investments in Israel also grew exponentially, from $50m in the early 1990s to a whopping $16.5bn according to 2016 estimates.
On this visit, Qishan is joined by Jack Ma, founder of China’s top e-commerce firm, Alibaba. Ma was also in Israel in May to prepare the ground for the ongoing summit, which is expected to yield massive new investments. Much of these investments will be focused on technology, which makes the nature of the China-Israel relationship different from that which bonded Beijing with Arab countries for decades.
China’s total trade with Arab countries is also massive, estimated at $171bn. However, the nature of the exchange is different if compared with that between China and Israel. China is a main client for Israel’s IT industry, while its trade with Arab countries is mostly focused on selling cheaper consumer goods and, as of late, military hardware.
Enter “Belt and Road Initiative”
China’s vice president’s visit to Israel comes at the heels of accelerated efforts by Beijing to promote its mammoth trillion-dollar economic project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
China hopes that its grand plan will help it open massive new opportunities across the world and eventually guarantee its dominance in various regions that rotated, since World War II, within an American sphere of influence. BRI aims to connect Asia, Africa, and Europe through a “belt” of overland routes and a maritime “road” of sea lanes.
The China-US competition is heating up. Washington wants to hold on its global dominance for as long as possible while Beijing is eagerly working to supplant the US’s superpower status, first in Asia, then in Africa and the Middle East. In Africa, China has pumped massive amounts of cash that is being spent mostly on economic development projects. The Chinese strategy in achieving its objectives is quite clear: unlike the US’s disproportionate investments in military power, China is keen on winning its coveted status, at least for the time being, using soft power only.
The Middle East, however, is far richer and thus more strategic and contested than any other region in the world. Rife with conflicts and distinct political camps, it is likely to derail China’s soft power strategy sooner rather than later. While Chinese foreign policy managed to survive the polarizing war in Syria through engaging all sides and playing second to Russia’s leading role at the UN Security Council, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is a whole different political challenge.
China’s Balancing Act
For years, China has maintained a consistent position in support of the Palestinian people, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. However, Beijing’s firm position regarding the rights of Palestinians, seems as of little consequence to its relationship with Israel, as joint technological ventures, trade and investments continue to grow unhindered.
China’s foreign policymakers operate with the mistaken assumption that their country can be pro-Palestine and pro-Israel at once, criticizing the occupation, yet sustaining it; calling on Israel to respect international law while at the same time empowering Israel, however unwittingly, in its ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights.
With the Palestinian struggle for freedom and human rights is capturing international attention through the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, more and more countries are under pressure to articulate a clear stance on the Israeli occupation and apartheid. For China to enter the fray with an indecisive and self-serving strategy is not just morally objectionable, but strategically unsustainable as well. The Palestinian and Arab peoples are hardly interested in swapping American military dominance with Chinese economic hegemony that does little to change or, at least challenge, the prevailing status quo.
As it stands, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is largely devoid of any political substance, despite the fact that the Middle East will play a vital role in this 21st century Silk Road that has the potential to revolutionise the geopolitical world order completely. In fact, the Middle East region has been described as “the place where the Belt joins the Road”.
China’s growing investments and strategic ties to Israel are predicated on both countries’ keen interest in technological innovation, as well as on the so-called “Red-Med” Railway, a regional network of sea and rail infrastructure aimed at connecting China with Europe via Asia and the Middle East. Additionally, the railway would also link the two Israeli ports of Eilat and Ashdod.
News of China’s plan to manage the Israeli port of Haifa has already raised the ire of the US and its European allies.
Times have changed, indeed. Whereas in the past, Washington ordered Tel Aviv to immediately cease exchanging American military technology with China, forcing it to cancel the sale of the Phalcon airborne early-warning system, it is now watching as Israeli and Chinese leaders are managing the dawn of a new political era that – for the first time – doesn’t include Washington.
Alexander B Pevzner, founding director of the Chinese Media Center (CMC) is one of the many enthusiastic supporters of what he calls the “systematic dialogue” between Israel and China. He told The Diplomat that Israel’s “stability is the exception in the turbulent Middle East”.
It seems that the oft-repeated cliche of Israel being “the only democracy in the Middle East”, is being slightly adjusted to meet the expectations of a fledgeling superpower, which is merely interested in technology, trade and investments. Israeli leaders want China and its investors to think of Israel as the “only stable economy in the Middle East.” And BRI, according to Pevzner “is the new game in town”.
Israel seeking new partners
Although ties between Washington and Tel Aviv are stronger than ever, Israeli leaders are aware of a vastly changing political landscape. The US’s own political turmoil and the global power realignment, which is on full display in the Middle East, indicate that a new era is, indeed in the making.
The last global realignment took place immediately following WWII. As Europe and much of Asia stood in ruins, a revitalised American economy pulled the world out of desolation through the Marshall Plan and other initiatives. It was then that the US established itself as the “pater familias”, a patronizing figure on the international arena, enforcing its rules and protection as if a loving, but authoritative father.
Israel understands that China’s ultimate motive is to change that long-prevailing reality. Tel Aviv, therefore, aims to secure for itself a strong position whereby it continues to harvest aid and support from its traditional western allies, while slowly cementing its relationship with Beijing.
China, on the other hand, has been experimenting with more pronounced political strategies in the region. In 2013, it produced the four-point plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. In 2017 it pushed its plan in earnest, using the Palestine-Israel peace symposium as a platform to articulate a clearer Chinese foreign policy. In fact, last year’s symposium was the first to be sponsored by the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping. China’s “peace plan” – a mere reiteration of the long-standing UN position on the issue – received little international attention. That, however, may change in the future as China’s role in the Middle East continues to grow.
China and Palestine
Beijing’s position on Palestine, at least officially, has always been consistent. Back in the 1960’s, China was the first non-Arab country to enter into diplomatic relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Beijing has long endorsed the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian State, within the 1967 boundaries and with East Jerusalem as its capital.
After the 2006 parliamentary elections in the Occupied Territories, unlike the US, the Chinese government refused to label Hamas a “terrorist organisation” and defended the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination. It went even further. To the fury of Israel, Beijing defined Hamas as the “chosen representative of the Palestinian people.”
While China’s official political discourse on Israel and Palestine remained consistent, a dual strategy was being formulated after the announcement of the BRI. It was then that China felt the need to offer its own mediation through the four-point “peace plan” and refrain from supporting one side against the other.
“From a Chinese perspective, the political stance in favour of a Palestinian State does not preclude the economic ties with Israel,” Diego Angelo Bertozzi, author of The Belt and Road Initiative, told us.
The same Chinese logic applies to the rest of the region. China’s “thriving trade relations with Syria and Iran do not preclude the deepening relations with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, insofar as Beijing aims to establish itself as an equidistant and stabilizing world power,” according to Bertozzi.
For now, China is maybe able to walk that fine line. But what would happen in the case of outright conflict, especially if the US and China’s trade wars morphed into a limited or large-scale military confrontation? Israel then is likely to side with the US, and China’s technological secrets and access to Israeli ports might be used against it.
Sadly, while Beijing and Tel Aviv labour to strike the needed balance between foreign policies and economic interests, China finds itself under no particular obligation to side with a well-defined Arab position on Palestine, simply because the latter doesn’t exist. The political division of Arab countries, the wars in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere have pushed Palestine down from being a top Arab priority into some strange bargain involving “regional peace” as part of Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century”.
This painful reality has weakened Palestine’s position in China, which, at least for now, values its relationship with Israel at a much higher level than its historical bond with Palestine and the Palestinian people.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.