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Amid Political Turmoil at Home, Benjamin Netanyahu Forges Ahead with Pivot to Asia

( [email protected] ) Mar 29, 2017 10:14 AM EDT
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced ongoing turmoil within his governing coalition and criminal investigations back at home, the Israeli leader embarked on his latest groundbreaking visit to the Asian continent to forge closer ties with China, which has the world's second-largest economy.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) with Chinese internet entrepreneur Robin Li (left) in Beijing March 21. During his trip to China, Netanyahu met with the heads of nearly a dozen of that country’s largest corporations about investment in Israel. Credit: Haim Zach/GPO.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced ongoing turmoil within his governing coalition and criminal investigations back at home, the Israeli leader embarked on his latest groundbreaking visit to the Asian continent to forge closer ties with China, which has the world's second-largest economy. 

Netanyahu's trip to China marked 25 years of Israeli-Chinese diplomatic relations, but more broadly was part of an effort to grow the Jewish state's relations with non-traditional allies. The prime minister had declared Israel is "pivoting toward Asia" during a visit to Singapore in February.

"We admire China's capabilities, its position on the world stage and in history," Netanyahu told Chinese President Xi Jinping March 21. "We have always believed...that Israel can be a partner, a junior partner but a perfect partner, for China in the development of a variety of technologies that change the way we live, how long we live, how healthy we live, the water we drink, the food we eat, the milk that we drink-in every area."

The theme of economic and technological ties echoed throughout Netanyahu's visit.

"We are in a technological age, on the one hand, and I think Israel and China can discuss many ways for technological cooperation, which I think seize the future," Netanyahu said during remarks with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang in Beijing March 20.

Netanyahu, who was accompanied by a large delegation of Israeli business leaders, also met with the heads of nearly a dozen of China's largest corporations about investment in Israel. "A large portion" of those companies, said Netanyahu, "are investing in Israel and a large portion of them will invest in Israel. This means jobs, the development of businesses and a link to the major Chinese markets."

Shu Meng, a research fellow at Shanghai University's Middle East Studies Institute, said despite the vast differences in size between the two countries, Israel is an important partner for China "due to friendship between the two peoples during World War II historically, and their close ties economically." 

"The economic aspect plays the most important role in the present-day Sino-Israeli relationship, proved by the large business delegation that accompanied Netanyahu during this visit," Meng, who has lived and studied in Israel, told JNS.org. "China is promoting its 'One Belt, One Road' strategy and Israel is located along the road. The strategy may bring new vigor and new chances to bilateral economic cooperation."

Coinciding with Netanyahu's visit, Israel and China signed bilateral agreements identifying a number of areas for increased cooperation, including "air pollution control, waste management, environmental monitoring, water conservation and purification, as well as hi-tech fields." The nations also said they plan to establish "a global technology transfer center, innovation parks and an innovative cooperation center." 

China's Mideast engagement

While Netanyahu focused on economic ties, China's President Xi called attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expressing hope for a peace deal "as soon as possible."

"A peaceful, stable and developing Middle East is the common interest of all parties...China appreciates the Israeli side will continue to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian issue on the basis of the two-state solution," Xi said, China's Xinhua news agency reported.

Regarding the conflict, China "holds that political negotiation is the only way to solve the problem" and "has been committed to promote peace talks between the two for years," Meng told JNS.org.

Yet Meng explained that China's influence in the peace process "lags behind some [other world] powers, and China itself is faced with a complicated geopolitical situation in surrounding areas. Therefore, China may have some say on it in the future due to the boosting of economic ties, but the condition is not ripe now." 

Relations between the peoples

Beyond government ties, Meng said many Chinese nationals have a favorable view of Israel and the Jewish people due to the Israeli government's public diplomacy efforts.

"Due to the successful public diplomacy of Israel, information of Israel can be frequently accessed on WeChat, which is a social app that is most popular in China, and other social apps and media," Meng said.

"In recent years, growing outbound trips and overseas M&A (mergers and acquisitions) are made by the Chinese, linking Chinese people and Jewish people closer to each other," she added.

Nevertheless, Meng believes there remains a need for stronger cultural exchanges between the two peoples. She contends that while most Chinese individuals have a favorable outlook on Jews and Israelis, her personal experience studying in Israel showed the admiration does not necessarily go both ways.

"When I was a visiting student in Tel Aviv University, most people are very friendly there, but I still heard some negative and misunderstanding comments," Meng said. "Most Chinese people have quite a good impression of Israeli people, but not vice versa. Hence, people-to-people communication should be further promoted."

The Chinese government's warm policies toward some of Israel's Mideast foes also pose an obstacle to the growth of ties, she said.

"Sensitive issues," said Meng, "such as China's relationship with Iran, China's attitude toward Palestine, always stand in the way of the development of the bilateral political relationship."