Just hours earlier, China’s Minister of Transportation Li Shenglin and his Israeli counterpart, Yisrael Katz, had signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on a multibillion dollar project inside Israel that some say could constitute an alternative trade route to the Suez Canal.
While it is doubtful the Suez Canal’s importance will be seriously challenged, the deal highlights the dizzying pace at which China and Israel are building economic and diplomatic links. The Israelis are not turning their backs on their most important alliance, the one with the U.S. But they have made a major strategic decision to develop their relationship with China. The Chinese have found the idea of linking up with the high-tech savvy, strategically located Israel a most attractive one, and the two countries are already finding plenty of reasons to celebrate their evolving relationship.
If kosher food in Beijing seems a cultural stretch, consider the efforts of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, reaching the limits of his linguistic abilities, wished the Chinese people a happy Year of the Dragon in Chinese, while vowing that the new year would bring “a deepening of the great friendship between our two peoples.” According to his YouTube greeting, Netanyahu is not the only Israeli wrestling with his Mandarin pronunciation. In the same message he revealed that he has issued instructions to promote the study of Chinese in Israel.
The agreement signed in Beijing on July 3 is only the visible tip of the relationship’s fast-growing iceberg, but it is emblematic of what is driving the links between the two countries below the surface.
The latest deal aims to build a railway connecting the Israeli port of Eilat, on the Red Sea, with Israel’s major ports in the Mediterranean, in the cities of Haifa and Ashdod. The “Red-to-Med” project is estimated to cost more than $5 billion. China’s Development Industrial Bank is interested in providing financing, and it appears Chinese engineering firms are likely to play a major role in constructing it.
Netanyahu has declared the project a top national priority. It also lines up neatly with Beijing’s strategic interests. Geographically, it allows cargo to bypass the Suez Canal, which is controlled by Egypt, a country whose future relationship with Israel is far from assured and whose potential instability has undoubtedly caused concern in China. Avoiding Suez would mean unloading ships at the Eilat port on the Red Sea, reloading their cargo on trains there and reloading again on ships at an Israeli port on the Mediterranean. It’s a cumbersome but viable option for a country such as China, whose guiding priority is keeping trade routes open for incoming raw materials and outgoing finished products — and for whom an alternative path in the unstable Middle East is an important form of insurance.
For Israel, China represents the hoped-for promise of a more secure future. China is the world’s fastest-growing major economy, but it is much more.
Beijing is steadily becoming a major force in trade, politics and diplomacy. As one of five permanent members in the U.N. Security Council, China could help Israel combat its diplomatic isolation. While Beijing is unlikely to become a major protective ally for Israel in the mold of Washington, even a promise of neutrality toward Israel in international forums could prove helpful. And Beijing’s cooperation, however halting, on matters such as trying to stop Iran’s nuclear program would be welcome by Israeli leaders.
Meanwhile, Israelis appear enchanted with China, and they claim the feeling is mutual. Israeli visitors to the East not only say the Chinese are big admirers of Israel and the Jewish people’s history of beating the odds, but they also report that the Chinese appear refreshingly free of the anti-Semitism that has long tainted the West.
China is unlikely to turn away from other important trading partners, including Arab and Muslim states, but Beijing’s omnivorous trade policy, its need for high-level technology to move its economy beyond the model of low-cost producer and its soaring demand for agricultural production to feed more than a billion mouths make Israel an ideal candidate for stronger relations.
Israeli tourism officials are boosting links, and high-level visits are becoming more common. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was in Beijing earlier this year, and plans are underway for a visit by Netanyahu.
Military ties suffered a blow in 2000, when the Clinton administration stopped Israel from selling $1 billion worth of airborne defense systems to China’s military. Since then, Israel has maintained a strict ban on high-tech defense sales to Beijing. Clearly, Israel’s relations with Washington trump all others. But military-to-military ties with China have recently improved.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak traveled to Beijing last summer. A few months later, the head of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff, Gen. Chen Bingde, traveled to Israel, the first such visit.
It is, however, in the area of trade that the change is most dramatic. The two countries didn’t have formal diplomatic relations until 1992, but even before official ties were forged, secret channels aiming mostly at developing commercial relations were already active. Back then, the Chinese urgently sought Israeli help to boost agricultural production, technological development and infrastructure construction.
Once diplomatic relations were established, trade grew from a negligible $8 million in 1990 to $6.7 billion in 2010. Current estimates show that commercial exchanges are about to top $10 billion per year. It’s a drop in the bucket for China — trade with Iran alone is more than three times that size — and it is less than one-quarter the size of Israel’s trade with U.S. But the pace of growth is remarkable.
About 1,000 Israeli companies already operate in China. Israelis are building a massive water desalination plant in Tianjin as well as selling fertilizers, microprocessors, electrical equipment and much more. Israel has opened trade offices in the southeast cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen and in the center of the country in Chengdu, and it is about to open a new one in the northeastern city of Dalian.
For Israelis, the potential for good relations with China offers very tangible economic opportunities and is, in fact, already producing results. The prospect that China will turn into a major diplomatic partner seems less likely to bear fruit. Still, Israel has little if anything to lose by promoting the relationship.
In the meantime, China is already doing a booming business in, of all things, kosher food production. Almost all of it is being exported to Israel. But some of it is occasionally diverted to official functions in Beijing to feed visiting Israeli dignitaries, hungry to see the relationship give them even more reasons to celebrate.
Frida Ghitis is an independent commentator on world affairs and a World Politics Review contributing editor. Her weekly column, World Citizen, appears every Thursday.
View original World Politics Review publication at: http://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/12153/world-citizen-red-to-med-deal-highlights-growing-israel-china-ties