China-Israel: How Long Will Strong Relations Last?

Published August 3rd, 2022 - 04:47 GMT
China's President Xi Jinping (R) and ex-Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
China's President Xi Jinping (R) and former Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands in Beijing, China on 21 March 2017 [ETIENNE OLIVEAU/AFP/Getty Images]

Israel was the first player in the Middle East to recognize the People's Republic of China and vote in favor of China's membership in the United Nations in 1971. Following that, China and Israel opened their embassies and sent diplomatic missions in 1992.

In the past two decades, the relationship between these two actors has grown and expanded in various fields, including economy, trade, politics, military, security, culture, and technology. The growing relationship between Israel and China culminated with the signing of the Comprehensive Innovative Partnership between the two sides in 2017. Also, in January, China and Israel celebrated 30 years of official relations.

Geopolitics and politics

With a very ideological policy, China supported the Arab positions towards Israel for decades, but after adopting the open door policy and prioritizing the economy in the country's foreign policy, it took a neutral position and became balanced. Regarding geopolitics and strategy, China and Israel have somewhat different views and goals. Israel is close to the United States and China is also close to Russia and Iran, but China and Israel have been able to deepen relations beyond the differences.

In fact, Beijing is trying so that the development of relations with Israel does not have a negative effect on its relations with the Arab countries of the region and Iran. Therefore it considers the balance in relations with Israel. Also, the normalization of Israel's relations with the Arab countries of the region has a positive effect on their relations.

In another dimension, considering China's rise to the top world power in the next two decades, and Washington's gradual exit from the Middle East, relations with China have been prioritized in Israel's foreign policy. This is also an opportunity for Beijing. Also, the expansion of relations with Israel can be an important help in advancing China's ‘One Belt-One Road’ project, increasing China’s global position and being a global superpower and increasing its presence in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Apart from this, while China is constantly fighting with Taiwan and the West over the issue of Taiwan, Beijing is trying to force Israel to cut off relations with Taipei, by making  Israel maintain its loyalty to the ‘One China Policy’, mutual respect for sovereignty, and non-interference in each other's internal affairs. In addition, Israel can be a factor in reducing the tension between Washington and Beijing in critical times. In this regard, China is cautious in China's explicit support for Palestine, extensive criticism of Israel or conditionality of relations.

With approaches such as the four-point proposal regarding the situation of Palestine and Israel, the two-state solution, and maintaining relations with Palestine, China is seeking a stable Middle East, having a policy of friendship with everyone, and even a new military presence in the region.

In fact, Beijing also has a outlook to its long-term interests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Despite its political differences over the Palestinian issue, China wants to cooperate with the Israelis. China is even seeking to play a more active role in mediating and creating a fair solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

In the past decades, the Chinese government has tried to partially overcome its technological weakness in the military field by expanding relations and using Israeli military technology. In the current situation, despite Washington's objections, it seems that Israel is still one of the important partners in China's military sector and defense equipment and new technologies.

Strengthening soft power

Previously, variables such as issuing 10-year multiple-entry visas for each other's citizens, direct flights between Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Israelis cities, trips of more than a hundred thousand of citizens to the other country have led to the strengthening of the two-way tourism industry. Also, Israel studies and Hebrew courses are taught in some colleges and universities in China.

Beijing is also trying to prevent the spread of Sinophobia in Israel’s media. It also trying to make sure that the emergence of China and its presence in Israel do not arouse negative feelings towards China. In this regard, the very favorable position of China in the polls in Israel and support for the strengthening of economic relations, the establishment of the Hebrew language section of China International Radio (CRI), educational and cultural exchange programs, the existence of Confucius Institutes and Chinese language education in Israeli universities and schools are part China's successes in expanding its soft power in Israel.

Economy, trade and technology

In the past, Israel's exports to China included high-tech products, agricultural technology, and China's exports to Israel were mostly raw materials, textile products, and consumer goods. But passing from geopolitical disagreements has had many results for Israel and China. Now, the value of trade between the two countries has increased from only $50 million in 1992 to $22.8 billion in 2021.

By having signed numerous economic agreements in areas such as various economic projects, agriculture, high-tech projects, startups, new technologies, the New Silk Road project, ports and other Israeli infrastructure, etc., the two sides have developed their relations.

The economies of Israel and China have complemented each other. Israel is keen on China's billion-strong market and benefiting from Beijing's ability to invest in its infrastructure projects.

 Also, despite the many challenges, many in Israel see China as a growing power with huge economic potential, and they do not want to ignore their growing economic interests in this great Asian power. In addition, China sees Israel as one of the axes of its ‘One-Belt, One Road’ Initiative.

In fact, the ‘Comprehensive Innovation Partnership Agreement’ is just an important emphasis on trade. Therefore, one of China's main interests in Israel is advanced technology and exchange and investment in it. The past role of Israeli knowledge in agriculture, desertification, water engineering to its current role in innovation, digital skills, and artificial intelligence (AI) are important to China's economy and power.

Future challenges of relationships

Recently, US President, Joe Biden, traveled to the Middle East, to strengthen the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Israel as one of his top priorities. But it seems that the expansion of China-Israel relations will cause more disputes in relations between Tel Aviv and Washington. While China-Israel trade in goods increased significantly in 2021 compared to the previous year, and China recently surpassed the United States as the largest trading partner, Washington's concerns about China's presence, Israel's role in developing capabilities (strategic, military, and technological) of Beijing, China's surveillance of the Eastern Mediterranean and Beijing's negative role in relations between Israel and the West have increased.

Israeli innovations are areas of high-security sensitivity and many of them have direct military use. They can play an important role in strengthening Beijing's power. In the meantime, although Israeli leaders do not want to reduce the size of their relations with the West, Beijing's influence in Israel has definitely increased.

However, it seems that there are challenges to the way of increasing cooperation with China in areas such as the limitation of China's participation in infrastructure projects, increased monitoring of tenders or their rejection, putting the name of some Chinese companies on the US blacklist, and the American trade war with China.

In the political, geopolitical, and security dimensions, disagreements regarding ‘anti-Semitism’ in China, Israel's vote for resolutions in the United Nations on matters such as the Xinjiang, the type of communication between Israeli authorities and media with Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, and Tibet can cast a shadow on relationships. However, now some in Israel also believe that the American who abandons Taiwan will also abandon Israel, and China is a better option to fill the vacuum created by the US absence in the Middle East is a much better option than Russia or Iran. Therefore, Israel's interests and position are more important.

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