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INSS: A New Stage in Sino-Israeli Relations?

INSS Insight – Mark A. Heller
January 21, 2007 - No. 8

Olmert’s Visit to China: A New Stage in Sino-Israeli Relations?

Aron Shai
Department of East Asian Studies,
Tel Aviv University

From January 9 to January 12, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert carried out a state visit to China. Olmert and his party, which this time did not include businessmen, came to a different China, one which in the past few months has decided not to content itself any longer with foreign expressions of admiration for its unprecedented building boom or impressive production and trade figures; that praise always smacked a bit of paternalism by the developed world for a backward country. Instead, China is now focusing on the need to translate the astonishing results of its “open door” economic policy – adopted in the early 1980s – into global political and diplomatic influence. The recent visits of its leaders to Africa and South America are part of this new thrust, which is not only a matter of pride and prestige but is also intended to secure the influence that will allow China to entrench its gains in the global arena. Official China understands that the real struggle now is over raw materials.

Chinese historians have recently studied the rise and fall of great powers like Spain, Imperial Britain and even the United States. An updated version of their research has been presented to members of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party and shown as a twelve-part series on television. After all, China has itself become an empire (albeit one without colonies), a major international power, and it has done almost overnight, before international public opinion has had time to internalize this development. For example, China has amassed foreign currency reserves of over one trillion dollars, and if Beijing decided to transfer a large part of its investments into Euro-denominated holdings, it could do considerable damage to the American economy. Thus, China has become a major factor capable of influencing the fate of the world’s leading power. Similarly, China has recently invested about $10 billion in various projects in Africa, most of them intended, directly or indirectly, to exploit mines, oil and other natural resources.

In light of all this, Olmert’s visit was vital, not only to “service” relations between the two countries but especially to make clear to Beijing, a permanent member of the Security Council, that Israel expects it to act appropriately with respect to Iran’s efforts to acquire a strategic nuclear capability. Specifically, Olmert expressed his appreciation of China’s vote for Security Council Resolution 1737 of December that imposed sanctions on Iran, but he also firmly impressed on the President and Prime Minister of China Israel’s belief that that step was not enough and that Beijing ought to cooperate in more far-reaching measures by the major powers.

However, notwithstanding the impression conveyed by members of Olmert’s party, the Chinese did not budge from their traditional stance: they agree that Iran’s nuclear program should be blocked but are not prepared to deviate from what they consider the proper “balanced policy.” It is therefore not surprising that just before Olmert landed in China, Beijing hosted Ali Larijani, the head of Iran’s National Security Council and its chief negotiator on nuclear issues. Larijani took advantage of his visit to clarify and warn that in situations in which Iran felt threatened, it might well develop a nuclear program, not only for peaceful purposes, but also one with military applications. Nevertheless, even after Olmert’s visit, China remains committed to its gentle diplomatic approach. After all, it is unwilling to ignore the important economic dimensions of its relationship with Iran, which provides 12% of China’s oil needs. It is true that in a crisis situation, China could purchase what it needs from other sources, such as Saudi Arabia. But China has always preferred to rely on as wide a range of suppliers as possible. Besides, Iran also purchases large quantities of Chinese goods, and China bases its economic future on a persistently favorable balance of trade.

Olmert’s visit marked fifteen years of full Sino-Israeli diplomatic relations. During his stay there, he declared that Israel is going to open another consulate in China, in Guangzhou, capital of the economically powerful Guangdong Province. This action is designed to promote more Israeli trade with China and it shows that Israel has moved a long way since the late 1970s, when the Foreign Ministry, facing budgetary cutbacks, decided to close Israeli missions in Hong Kong and South Korea. In those days, Israel’s Eurocentric orientation was so strong that the appointment of another diplomat in Paris or in the Consulate-General in New York was seen as more urgent than maintaining legations in East Asia.

Other objectives of Olmert’s visit included stepping up cooperation in agriculture and technology for peaceful purposes and promoting more Chinese tourism to Israel. These measures, intended to double the volume of Sino-Israeli trade (which now stands at about $3 billion per annum), are necessary in view of the limitations on Israeli exports to China currently imposed by the United States. Following the embarrassing episodes known as the “Phalcon Affair” and the “RPV (Harpy) Affair,” the U.S. insisted on virtually unprecedented restrictions. Almost every item exported from Israel to China now requires American approval, and this practice also impinges on Israel’s civilian trade, because it entails difficult and time-consuming bureaucratic procedures. As a result, it cramps the potential for developing ties between Israel and a country whose economic and political importance will inevitably grow in the near future.

Consequently, Olmert’s visit may well symbolize an effort to design and implement new tactics and to alter somewhat the mix of attention and resources that Israel invests in its foreign relations. That would reflect a determination to adapt to the changes already taking place in the global arena and that may well produce a different international system in the coming decades of the Twenty-first Century.


INSS Insight is published
through the generosity of
Sari and Israel Roizman, Philadelphia

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