March 27, 2017
By Roie Yellinek*
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu visited Beijing on March 20-21, 2017 – his second visit to China during the term of China’s current president, Xi Jinping. The trip was the product of an invitation from Xi, a point emphasized by Netanyahu’s office to deflect criticism over the frequency of his foreign junkets. The official reason for the visit was the marking of the twenty-fifth anniversary of diplomatic relations between the countries, but it could represent an opportunity for Israel to play a more prominent role on the international scene.
The prime minister’s office has stated that beyond marking the anniversary of the Chinese-Israeli bilateral relationship, PM Netanyahu’s visit to China this month had primarily a financial objective. The main goals were to continue building up the countries’ financial relationship, enhance cooperation, draw Chinese investment to Israel, and open the door for more diverse Israeli investment in the Chinese market. In addition, the trip was intended to continue an ongoing dialogue about establishing a free trade agreement between China and Israel, as well as mutual participation in the third Innovation Conference. During his visit, the prime minister met with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and the heads of the largest corporations in China.
Unlike Western foreign policies, which generally prioritize political issues and relations, Chinese foreign policy is focused on financial development. This is consistent with China’s guiding principle of nonintervention in the doings of other countries. Whereas Western countries keep Israel’s political challenges at the forefront of their perceptions, China does not particularly concern itself with the conflict that has been raging around Israel for many years. The Chinese government views Israel, despite its small size, as a producer of natural resources as well as a potential contributor to China’s developing economy.
The visit to China of the Israeli prime minister had the anticipated positive results with regard to the development of the two countries’ financial relationship. The agreements signed, and the show of mutual good will, might lower barriers that exist today inhibiting the penetration of Israeli companies into China. They might even pull more Chinese money into the Israeli economy.
But did the visit have other, less conspicuous purposes? It is not possible to say for certain, but it appears that several non-financial subjects occupied the leaders during their meetings, including relations with the US, the role Russia is playing in the Middle East, and terror threats from Islamic sources.
With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the US, the international system is redesigning itself. The relationship between China and the US, too, is going through a stage that can be described as the midpoint between redesign and crisis. This probably stems from the desire of both sides to establish strong negotiating positions.
In mid-February, Netanyahu met with President Trump and was welcomed with great affection. He appears to have Trump’s ear, a point that has intensified China’s interest in him. It is reasonable to assume that the closeness between the prime minister of Israel and the American president will be used by the Chinese government to relay messages and lower the international temperature, which rose after blows were exchanged by the Chinese administration and Trump immediately after the US election.
From Netanyahu’s perspective, allowing himself to be employed as a middleman between China and the US can help him carve out legacy as a leader who affected not only his own country the entire international system. Netanyahu, who is occupied at home by exhausting battles both inside and outside the government, can find refuge by involving himself in other countries’ issues.
Between his visits to China and the US, Netanyahu also found time to visit Russian president Vladimir Putin. According to Kremlin reports, the short visit featured a “comprehensive exchange of opinions”. Presumably the main issues under discussion were the Russian role in fighting Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Israeli resistance to Iran’s consolidation of Islamic Shiite terrorist organizations close to the Israeli border.
The Chinese government, which strives for global stability that will support its economy, wants to see the fighting in Syria fade away, to be replaced by a stable and responsible central governing body. In addition, the Chinese government fears consequences inside China from the fighting in Syria. Still, despite ISIS’s direct threat towards China about four weeks ago, the Chinese government does not appear to be taking action against it.
The Chinese government is nevertheless very concerned about the joining of ISIS by several hundred young Uighurs (an Islamic minority from northeast China). These young people, who might return to China trained and motivated to act, could conceivably destabilize the country. The Chinese government does not fear that it will fall, because the number of hostile fighters in question is so small. But because China is run by a single party, any damage to its sovereignty constitutes a threat that has to be prevented.
Israel, which has coped with terror for its entire existence and has developed practical and theoretical tools with which to deal with it, can help China tackle this threat. If this and other security subjects were indeed discussed during the leaders’ meeting, Israel would do well to take steps to promote security as well as financial cooperation with China. In addition, Netanyahu would be well advised to use his proximity to President Trump, the warmth with which he is greeted in China, and the open channel he has with Vladimir Putin to establish Israel as a key state on the international scene.
*Roie Yellinek is a doctoral student in the department of Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University.
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 434, March 27, 2017