Israel was the first of the Near and Middle East countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1950, while diplomatic relations have been established since January 24, 1992.
It is important to recall that the relations between Chinese and Jews are deeply rooted in the long history of these two peoples and go back thousands of years.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, government officials, scientists, universities and companies have carried out many programmes – through delegations – to deepen special cooperation on various issues such as economy, agriculture, technology and education.
Significant examples of the strengthening of relations can be found, inter alia, in the frequent visits of Chinese government officials to Israel and vice versa. For example, many Israeli Prime Ministers and Presidents have visited China over the years, as have their Chinese counterparts, such as the President of the Republic of China, Jiang Zemin, who visited the country in 2000, and the members of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Liu Chi (2007) and Liu Yunshan (2009). Significant visits were also paid to the country by Vice Premier Hui Yang (2010), Vice Premier Liu Iandong (2016), and a senior representative of the Chinese Parliament, Wang Da (September 2015), etc.
Israel-China relations in many areas are gaining momentum and there is considerable enthusiasm for their nature and depth, particularly for all that relates to business and the supply of Israeli technology.
Over the years, a series of agreements and memoranda of understanding have been signed between Israel and China to establish a free trade zone, to improve the mechanisms for granting visas to the citizens of the other country and to increase airline flights, with the aim of maximising the amount of goods, workers and tourists coming in and out.
China is also the only country in the world with which Israel has a mutual agreement to issue multiple-visit visas for a long period of time. These have borne immediate fruit, with over 100,000 Chinese tourists who have come to Israel since 2018. This means that more tourists come to Israel from China than tocountries such as Italy, Canada and Australia.
The different needs of the two countries are reflected in the nature of the goods and services they purchase from each other. Electronic components account for about half of Israel’s exports to China, and the rest is divided between chemicals, medical equipment, instrumentation, control, etc. Instead, imports from China focus on electrical machinery and equipment, textiles and metals.
China’s weaknesses are precisely the strengths of the Israeli market. Large-scale internal migration, accelerated urbanisation processes, lack of drinking water and management of severe environmental pollutants are some of China’s huge challenges.
Israel can rise up to these challenges with the help of advanced medical technologies, agricultural developments for increasing water shortages and difficult soil conditions, and innovative desalination technologies, etc. The match between the needs of China and Israel is perfect.
Furthermore, Israel has not been indifferent to the One Belt One Road (the Silk Road), i.e. the ambitious plan to connect the world with a network of roads, railways, lanes, ports and harbours, funded by the Asian Infrastructure Bank.
Israel has joined as a member of the Aib, striving to promote the involvement of Israeli companies in Chinese infrastructure projects and to position Israel as a strategic transition country in the trade routes of the modern Silk Road. Meanwhile, Chinese companies are involved in major infrastructure projects in Israel, such as the Minharot Ha Carmel (Carmel Tunnels) project, the construction and operation of the ports of Ashdod and Haifa, as well as the construction of a football stadium and light metro in Gush Dan, etc.
The economic revival of China-Israel relations, together with the leading status of China’s economy in recent years, have led many companies and executives to recognise the attractiveness of the Chinese market and the importance of learning about the Chinese economy and culture.
Obviously all this can only annoy the Administration of the bumbling U.S. President, Joe Biden, who is also supervising China-Israel relations, since Israel is about to be regarded by the White House as its own semi-colony.
According to the United States, Israel should start a rethinking dialogue with Biden’s Administration leading to an understanding of the Israel-China relation pattern so as not to “harm” the important U.S. interests.
The hopes of those who thought that Joe Biden’s election as U.S. President might ease the transatlantic pressure on Israel with regard to China have been dashed. Not only will the pressure not diminish, but it is also likely to increase.
Former Trump administration’s continued insistence on reducing Chinese involvement in Israel has been one of the key issues in the U.S.-Israeli agenda over the last two years. U.S. officials have warned their Israeli counterparts that the lack of a Jewish response would seriously undermine security cooperation between the two countries.
Instead, President Biden and his Administration’s plans should be more careful and encourage cooperation between the powers in specific areas, including the fight against climate change. At the same time, during the election campaign, Biden was more threatening than Trump on a number of China-related issues. Biden described the repression of Uygur Muslims (Weiwuer) in Xinjiang as “genocide” and called President Xi Jinping a “thug”. Not to mention the clumsy President’s epithets against Putin.
After all, one of the clumsy President’s gimmicks in U.S. foreign policy is to rebuild relations with allies in view of a Salem-style crusade against China.
There is no reason to believe that Biden’s Administration will not expect from Israel what it expects from the rest of its allies. The illusion that Israel can continue to “do business as usual” with China and “get along” with U.S. demands is dangerous, because -as already said – Israel is not a U.S. colony.
Moreover, Israeli attempts not to submit to White House diktats could harm not only the relations between the Israeli government and the U.S. Administration, but also the relations with its most significant supporters in the Senate and Congress, who share China’s alleged threat to the United States.
The assessment that China is a tough adversary and a threat to the U.S. national security is the only political-strategic issue on which Democrats and Republicans agree.
For this reason, it is hard to believe that the United States will ignore Chinese investment in Israeli high-tech industry and cooperation between Israeli and Chinese research institutes in the high-tech sector: Big Data, artificial intelligence and cyber issues.
In terms of U.S. national interest, reducing China’s access to advanced technologies is a critical issue. Therefore, the U.S. interference in trade and financial relations in the high-tech industry and in research and development cooperation between Israel and China is probably only a matter of time.
In the two previous crises with the United States over defence exports to China (some fifteen and twenty years ago), Israel believed it would get away with it; hence it tried to implement the agreements with China “and get along” with the United States. In the end, Israel got out badly and there was a crisis in relations with both the United States and China.
In the race for technological superiority, the United States could see the sharing of Israeli knowledge and products with China as a far more significant threat to its national security than radar systems and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
The Israeli government’s ability to deal with the United States will be severely damaged if its policy towards China is presented as undermining U.S. national security.
Under these circumstances, the Israeli government – under threat – will surely change its approach to the issue, rather than wait for pressure and hope for the best. Israel should start a dialogue on an equal footing with Biden’s Administration to promote an understanding of the pattern of relations between Israel and China so as not to harm important U.S. interests. This could enable Israel to have a respectful dialogue with China on the future relations between the two countries.
As such, this would not be a ‘surrender’ to U.S. diktats. If the Israeli government expects the United States to start using the blackmail of Israeli interests vis-à-vis Iran, Israel in turn should show consideration for U.S. interests vis-à-vis China.
At the same time, however, Israel shall assess China’s aims and moves in the Near and Middle East region and develop a clear policy with it, by developing instruments and channels to achieve its aims in relations with China, without letting the United States put a spoke in its wheel or clip its wings.
Regarding Iran-Israel scenario issues, China has reiterated its proposal to hold an international meeting with the participation of all the countries involved in the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of July 14, 2015 between Iran and the five UN Security Council countries, plus Germany and the European Union), including the United States, to discuss the U.S. return to the agreement.
On the eve of the first telephone conversation between the U.S. and Chinese Presidents (February 11, 2021), a meeting took place between the U.S. special envoy on the Iranian issue and the Chinese vice-Foreign Minister to coordinate moves in this regard. The proactive mediation on the Iranian nuclear issue may be part of a broad Chinese policy designed to promote cooperation with Biden’s Administration on issues of substance for the United States, in exchange for maintaining important interests for China – such as the relations with Israel – and as part of its position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Few considerations are now appropriate with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. While Western pharmaceutical companies operate as independent, for-profit commercial entities, the Chinese government leads and orients the research and development efforts of its own governmental and private companies in the same way and integrates them as instruments into its policies through official visits on the international scene, cooperation agreements, vaccination commitments or loans. Therefore, as shown by the map of vaccination certificates in various countries, the vaccines developed in China are among the most sought-after ones.
Israel’s urban population is concentrated and dense. After the pandemic broke out, Covid-19 spread faster. In view of preventing its spread, multiple Israeli departments have strengthened joint prevention and control. At the same time, the Israeli government actively participates in international cooperation, and uses video conferences to learn from China’s anti-epidemic experience.
In conclusion, political diplomacy and the care with which China deals with every aspect, ranging from foreign affairs to health issues, pays off more than clumsy words tossed around randomly.
The Absence of Riyadh in the Turbulent Afghanistan
As the situation in Afghanistan becoming increasingly turbulent, the NATO allies led by the United States are fully focused on military withdrawal. As this has to be done within tight deadline, there have been some disagreements between the United States and the European Union. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, publicly accused the U.S. military in Afghanistan, which was responsible for the internal security of Kabul Airport, of deliberately obstructing the EU evacuation operations.
China and Russia on the other hand, are more cautious in expressing their positions while actively involving in the Afghanistan issue. This is especially true for Russia, which after both the Taliban and the anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) led by Ahmad Massoud have pleaded Russia for mediation, Moscow has now become a major player in the issue.
Compared with these major powers, Saudi Arabia, another regional power in the Middle East, appears to be quite low-key. So far, only the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia has issued a diplomatic statement on the day after the Taliban settled in Kabul, stating that it hopes the Taliban can maintain the security, stability and prosperity of Afghanistan. Considering the role that Saudi Arabia has played in Afghanistan, such near silent treatment is quite intriguing.
As the Taliban were originally anti-Soviet Sunni Jihadists, they were deeply influenced by Wahhabism, and were naturally leaning towards Riyadh. During the period when the Taliban took over Afghanistan for the first time, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries in the international community that publicly recognized the legitimacy of the Taliban regime.
Although the Taliban quickly lost its power under the impact of the anti-terror wars initiated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Saudis were pressured by Washington to criticize the Taliban on the surface, yet in reality they continuously provided financial aid to the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda organization which was in symbiotic relations with the Taliban.
However, after 2010, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, the Riyadh authorities had decreased their funding for their “partners” in Afghanistan due to the increase in financial aid targets.
In June 2017, after Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and took power, Saudi Arabia’s overall foreign policy began to undergo major changes. It gradually abandoned the policy of exporting its religious ideology and switched to “religious diplomacy” that focuses on economic, trade and industrial cooperation with main economies. Under such approach, Saudi Arabia’s Afghanistan policy will inevitably undergo major adjustments.
With the reformation initiated by the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has drastically reduced its financial aid to the Taliban. In addition, Riyadh also further ordered the Taliban to minimize armed hostilities and put its main energy on the path of “peaceful nation-building”. This sudden reversal of the stance of Saudi Arabia means that Riyadh has greatly weakened the voices of the Taliban in the global scenes.
In recent years, the Taliban have disassociated with Saudi Arabia in rounds of Afghanistan peace talks. After Kabul was taken over by the Taliban on August 19, a senior Taliban official clearly stated that the Taliban does not accept Wahhabism, and Afghanistan has no place for Wahhabism. Although this statement means that Al-Qaeda’s religious claims will no longer be supported by the Taliban, it also indicates that the Taliban has reached the tipping point of breaking up with Riyadh.
Under such circumstance, for the Riyadh authorities under Mohammed bin Salman, the most appropriate action is probably wait-and-see as Afghanistan changes again.
Gulf security: It’s not all bad news
Gulf states are in a pickle.
They fear that the emerging parameters of a reconfigured US commitment to security in the Middle East threaten to upend a more-than-a-century-old pillar of regional security and leave them with no good alternatives.
The shaky pillar is the Gulf monarchies’ reliance on a powerful external ally that, in the words of Middle East scholar Roby C. Barrett, “shares the strategic, if not dynastic, interests of the Arab States.” The ally was Britain and France in the first half of the 20th century and the United States since then.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, the revered founder of the United Arab Emirates, implicitly recognised Gulf states’ need for external support when he noted in a 2001 contribution to a book that the six monarchies that form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) “only support the GCC when it suited them.”
Going forward question marks about the reliability of the United States may be unsettling but the emerging contours of what a future US approach could look like they are not all bad news from the perspective of the region’s autocratic regimes.
The contours coupled with the uncertainty, the Gulf states’ unwillingness to integrate their defence strategies, a realisation that neither China nor Russia would step into the United States’ shoes, and a need to attract foreign investment to diversify their energy-dependent economies, is driving efforts to dial down regional tensions and strengthen regional alliances.
Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid and Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his UAE counterpart, are headed to Washington this week for a tripartite meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The three officials intend “to discuss accomplishments” since last year’s establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries “and other important issues,” Mr Blinken tweeted.
The Israeli foreign ministry suggested those other issues include “further opportunities to promote peace in the Middle East” as well as regional stability and security, in a guarded reference to Iran.
From the Gulf’s perspective, the good news is also that the Biden administration’s focus on China may mean that it is reconfiguring its military presence in the Middle East with the moving of some assets from the Gulf to Jordan and the withdrawal from the region of others, but is not about to pull out lock, stock and barrel.
Beyond having an interest in ensuring the free flow of trade and energy, the US’s strategic interest in a counterterrorism presence in the Gulf has increased following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The US now relies on an ’over the horizon’ approach for which the Middle East remains crucial.
Moreover, domestic US politics mitigate towards a continued, if perhaps reduced, military presence even if Americans are tired of foreign military adventures, despite the emergence of a Biden doctrine that de-emphasises military engagement. Moreover, the Washington foreign policy elite’s focus is now on Asia rather than the Middle East.
Various powerful lobbies and interest groups, including Jews, Israelis, Gulf states, Evangelists, and the oil and defence industries retain a stake in a continued US presence in the region. Their voices are likely to resonate louder in the run-up to crucial mid-term Congressional elections in 2022. A recent Pew Research survey concluded that the number of white Evangelicals had increased from 25 per cent of the US population in 2016 to 29 per cent in 2020.
Similarly, like Afghanistan, the fading hope for a revival of the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, from which former President Donald J. Trump withdrew in 2018, and the risk of a major military conflagration makes a full-fledged US military withdrawal unlikely any time soon. It also increases the incentive to continue major arms sales to Gulf countries.
That’s further good news for Gulf regimes against the backdrop of an emerging US arms sales policy that the Biden administration would like to project as emphasising respect for human rights and rule of law. However, that de facto approach is unlikely to affect big-ticket prestige items like the F-35 fighter jets promised to the UAE.
Instead, the policy will probably apply to smaller weapons such as assault rifles and surveillance equipment, that police or paramilitary forces could use against protesters. Those are not the technological edge items where the United States has a definitive competitive advantage.
The big-ticket items with proper maintenance and training would allow Gulf states to support US regional operations as the UAE and Qatar did in 2011 in Libya, and, the UAE in Somalia and Afghanistan as part of peacekeeping missions.
In other words, the Gulf states can relax. The Biden administration is not embracing what some arms trade experts define as the meaning of ending endless wars such as Afghanistan.
“Ending endless war means more than troop withdrawal. It also means ending the militarized approach to foreign policy — including the transfer of deadly weapons around the world — that has undermined human rights and that few Americans believe makes the country any safer,” the experts said in a statement in April.
There is little indication that the views expressed in the statement that stroke with thinking in the progressive wing of Mr. Biden’s Democratic Party is taking root in the policymaking corridors of Washington. As long as that doesn’t happen, Gulf states have less to worry about.
Reducing Middle East tensions potentially lessens sectarianism and opens doors for women
Two separate developments involving improved relations between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and women’s sporting rights demonstrate major shifts in how rivalry for leadership of the Muslim world and competition to define Islam in the 21st century is playing out in a world in which Middle Eastern states can no longer depend on the United States coming to their defence.
The developments fit into a regional effort by conservative, status quo states, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt; and proponents of different forms of political Islam, Iran, Turkey, and Qatar; to manage rather than resolve their differences in a bid to ensure that they do not spin out of control. The efforts have had the greatest success with the lifting in January of a 3.5-year-long Saudi-UAE-Egyptian-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar.
The reconciliation moves also signal the pressure on Middle Eastern players in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam to change perceptions of the region as being wracked by civil wars, sectarian tensions, extremism, jihadism, and autocracy. Altering that perception is key to the successful implementation of plans to diversify oil and gas export dependent economies in the Gulf, develop resource-poor countries in the region, tackle an economic crisis in Turkey, and enable Iran to cope with crippling US sanctions.
Finally, these developments are also the harbinger of the next phase in the competition for religious soft power and leadership of the Muslim world. In a break with the past decade, lofty declarations extolling Islam’s embrace of tolerance, pluralism and respect for others’ rights that are not followed up by deeds no longer cut ice. Similarly, proponents of socially conservative expressions of political Islam need to be seen as adopting degrees of moderation that so far have been the preserve of their rivals who prefer the geopolitical status quo ante.
That next phase of the battle is being shaped not only by doubts among US allies in the Middle East about the reliability of the United States as a security guarantor, reinforced by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also being informed by a realisation that neither China nor Russia can (or will) attempt to replace the US defence umbrella in the Gulf.
The battles’ shifting playing field is further being determined by setbacks suffered by political Islam starting with the 2013 military coup that toppled Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother and Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president and brutally decimated the Muslim Brotherhood. More recently, political Islamists suffered a stunning electoral defeat in Morocco and witnessed the autocratic takeover of power in Tunisia by President Kais Saied.
A just published survey of Tunisian public opinion showed 45 percent of those polled blaming Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Islamist Ennahada party, for the country’s crisis and 66 percent saying they had no confidence in the party.
The Middle East’s rivalries and shifting sands lend added significance to a planned visit in the coming weeks to Najaf, an Iraqi citadel of Shiite Muslim learning and home of 91-year-old Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, by Ahmed El-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s foremost historic educational institution.
The visit takes place against the backdrop of Iraqi-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two major centres of Islam’s two main strands, that are aimed at dialling down tensions between them that reverberate throughout the Muslim world. The talks are likely to help the two regional powers manage rather than resolve their differences.
The rivalry was long marked by Saudi-inspired, religiously-cloaked anti-Shiite rhetoric and violence in a limited number of cases and Iranian concerns about the country’s Sunni minority and its opting for a strategy centred on Shiite Muslim proxies in third countries and support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Implicit in Saudi and Iranian sectarianism was the perception of Shiite minorities in Saudi Arabia and other Sunni majority countries, and Sunnis in Iran and Iraq after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, as fifth wheels of the other.
Imam El-Tayeb’s visit, a signal of improvement in long-strained Egyptian-Iraqi relations, as well as a possible later meeting between the Sunni cleric, a Shiite cleric other than Ayatollah Al-Sistani who is too old and fragile to travel, and Pope Francis, are intended to put sectarianism on the backburner. Ayatollah Al-Sistani met with the pope during his visit to Iraq in March.
The visit takes on added significance in the wake of this week’s suicide bombing of a Hazara Shiite mosque in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz that killed at least 50 people and wounded 100 others. The South Asian affiliate of the Islamic State, Islamic State-Khorasan, claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst since the Taliban came to power in August. It was likely designed to fuel tension between the Sunni Muslim group and the Hazara who account for 20 percent of the Afghan population.
Imam El-Tayeb’s travel to Najaf is likely to be followed by a visit by Mohamed al-Issa, secretary-general of the Saudi-dominated Muslim World League. The League was long a prime vehicle for the propagation of anti-Shiite Saudi ultra-conservatism. Since coming to office, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has recast the League as a tool to project his vaguely defined notion of a state-controlled ‘moderate’ Islam that is tolerant and pluralistic.
In a similar vein, hard-line Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi took many by surprise by allowing women into Tehran’s Azadi Stadium to attend this month’s World Cup qualifier between Iran and South Korea. Iran is the only country to ban women from attending men’s sporting events. It was unclear whether the move was a one-off measure or signalled a loosening or lifting of the ban.
Mr Raisi was believed to see it as a way to rally domestic support and improve the Islamic republic’s image as much in China and Russia as in the West. No doubt, Mr. Raisi will have noted that China and Russia have joined the United States, Europe, and others in pressuring the Taliban in Afghanistan to recognize women’s rights.
To be sure, women in Iran enjoy education rights and populate universities. They can occupy senior positions in business and government even if Iran remains a patriarchal society. However, the ban on women in stadia, coupled with the chador, the head to foot covering of women, has come to dominate the perception of Iran’s gender policies.
Allowing women to attend the World Cup qualifier suggests a degree of flexibility on Mr. Raisi’s part. During his presidential campaign Mr. Raisi argued that granting women access to stadiums would not solve their problems.
It also demonstrates that the government, with hardliners in control of all branches, can shave off sharp edges of its Islamic rule far easier than reformists like Mr. Raisi’s predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, were able to do.
The question is whether that is Mr. Raisi’s intention. Mr. Raisi may be testing the waters with this month’ soccer match, only time will tell.
It may be too big a leap in the immediate future but, like Imam El-Tayeb’s visit to Najaf, it indicates that the dialling down of regional tensions puts a greater premium on soft power which in turn builds up pressure for less harsh expressions of religion.
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