Israel’s relationship with China is no longer just about trade, but also about geopolitics.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was China between March 19-21, leading a trade mission that included five ministers in his government.
Netanyahu met with President Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, and the head of the country’s parliament, Zhang Dejiang, as the two countries marked a quarter-century of diplomatic relations.
While the focus was, understandably, on economic matters, Netanyahu also noted that “there is a great deal of convulsion in the world, including in our part of the world.” He told Prime Minister Li, “I would like to have the opportunity to exchange views with you and to see how we can cooperate together for the advancement of security, peace and stability, and prosperity.”
China’s political involvement in the Middle East has been minor and its small military presence is limited to peacekeeping missions, even though more than half of China’s oil imports come from the region.
Chinese envoys occasionally visit Israel and the Palestinian territories, but Chinese efforts to mediate or play a role in that long-standing dispute have never amounted to much. But it has been trying to get more involved.
And Israel has shifted from discouraging China from involvement in Israel-related affairs during the early period of bilateral ties “to expecting China to play a greater role in the Middle East,” Li Weijian, a Middle East expert with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told the Global Times of China.
“China has relations with everyone in the Middle East. So this is not only about Israel’s business interests, but also its political and strategic interests,” said political commentator Uri Dromi, the director general of the Jerusalem Press Club.
China welcomed Netanyahu just days after hosting Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and the signing of deals worth as much as $65 billion with Riyadh, as China steps up its tentative engagement with the Middle East.
However, the Chinese and Israeli governments are far apart when it comes to diplomatic issues. China, one of five permanent members on the United Nations Security Council, supported Resolution 2334 in December 2016 condemning Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
China has recognized Palestine as a state and often votes against Israel at the UN. “As a friend of both Israel and Palestine, China hopes to see the peaceful coexistence of the two sides and stability in the Middle East,” Li told Netanyahu.
The issue of Iran was on the agenda in Beijing. China was one of the six world powers that in 2015 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Tehran’s nuclear capability, over vociferous Israeli objections.
“China’s position on the matter is very clear. We think that it is necessary to observe the comprehensive nuclear agreement reached with Iran, and that it is necessary to uphold the international non-proliferation regime,” Deng Li, director general of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s West Asian and North African Affairs Department, told reporters after a meeting between the two prime ministers.
Still, the two countries are probably cooperating in many other ways. “You shouldn’t ask me this question,” Deng responded, when the journalists asked whether Li and Netanyahu had discussed intelligence sharing.
In any case, Netanyahu hopes that Israel’s increasingly strong economic relations with China may yet change the country’s traditionally anti-Israel voting patterns at international organizations such as the UN. He noted that President Xi had remarked that “strong economic ties help diplomacy.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.