The head of Tel Aviv’s new Israel-China Policy Center recently said that diplomatic relations between Israel and China have become more complex and difficult than the recent “honeymoon” phase..
“The honeymoon in relations between Israel and China is over,” said ret. Brig. Gen. Assaf Orion at the opening of the new policy center on Aug. 4. The Israel-China Policy Center is a joint initiative of the Institute for National Security Studies and the Diane and Guilford Glazer Foundation.
“A series of indicators show that we are in a new period in relations between the countries and ties are now more complex and freighted than before,” Orion said.
The former general pointed out Chinese investments in Israel and Israeli exports to China peaked in 2018 but have been in decline since. In the last six years, the number of Israeli firms exporting to China has dropped by 15%, to 480 companies.
In 2019, after much pressure from the United States, Israel’s security cabinet announced it would establish an advisory panel on foreign investments in Israel to ensure that the state’s national security is not compromised when conducting business with China.
The U.S. had pressured Israel for several years on the matter, expressing concerns about Chinese investments in Israel, especially those in sensitive areas, such as high-tech and infrastructure. In 2019, the city of Haifa signed a 25-year contract with the Shanghai International Port Group to build and operate a shipping seaport in the Haifa Bay.
While the advisory panel was too late to intervene in current, ongoing projects, such as the Haifa Bay Port and the Tel Aviv Light Rail, it has managed to stall other deals.
Chinese Ambassador to Israel Cai Run, who was present and welcomed the opening of the China-Israel Policy Center, did not appear to share Orion’s assessment of the situation. Instead, Run said the economic relationship remains strong, noting that bilateral trade shot up from $15 million in 1992 to $22.8 billion in 2021.
“China has become the largest trade partner in Asia and the second largest in the world,” the ambassador said. “Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, direct flights were open between Tel Aviv and five Chinese cities.”
“The newly launched center can bring much value to China-Israel relations and open new doors for Israeli understanding of China and with this, promote friendly relations and practical cooperation,” Run added.
According to The Times of Israel, China remains Israel’s largest trading partner in Asia; Israel imports more from China than from anywhere else and exports more to China than to any other Asian country. From 2011 to 2021, the share of Israeli exports to Asia that went to China rose from 25% to 42%.
Orion noted that Israelis no longer view China as positively as they once did, although China is viewed more favorably in Israel than in any other country surveyed.
According to a June 2022 Pew survey, 48% of Israelis hold favorable views of China. Israeli respondents showed the least concern about human rights issues in China or the growing military power of the country.
Orion pointed out that in 2019, 66% of Israelis held favorable opinions of China and only 25% were unfavorable, according to the poll.
Israel’s Minister of Intelligence Elazar Stern represented the government at the center opening, expressing hope that the relationship between the countries will regain full strength.
“We hope Orion is wrong in his assessments of the downward trend,” he said. “Of course, Orion as a researcher cannot ignore data-based trends, so we look at it as a challenge, to change the situation and bring it back to where we were.”
Stern also said he hoped the new center would contribute to strengthening relations with China.
“This is a significant milestone in the development of the relations between Israel and China,” he said. “We will continue to cooperate and further our joint success in the future, as well. I want to thank our Chinese partners for the fruitful and successful cooperation between our two countries.”
Orion explained that the center is necessary to fill gaps in Israeli expertise on China, in policy, skills, knowledge and awareness.
“With the requisite humility, but with dedication and in partnership, we strive to narrow these gaps,” Orion said. “Our goal is to promote fruitful and safe relations between Israel and China.”
Prof. Yitzhak Shichor, a leading scholar in Israel-China relations, explained in an interview with The Institute for National Security Studies that Washington has left "Israel no choice but to maneuver between the two great powers."
"Israel does not have to give in to the American dictates in the Chinese context," Shichor agued. "Israel is a sovereign country, and should make its own decisions."
He added that the U.S. policy on China is the problem and has forced China "to fall in line, frequently unwillingly, first with the Soviet Union and later with Russia."
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.