Zionism’s and Israel’s long efforts of seeking contact and friendship with China and India are a major chapter in Jewish diplomatic history. These efforts started in 1918 and were patiently continued by a few committed Zionist Jews, pushed by a visionary David Ben-Gurion in the 1930s and driven since 1948 by a small number of dedicated Israeli diplomats and businessmen. The Jewish and Israeli public were indifferent. They had more urgent priorities, and Asia was far from their sight.
These efforts coincided in 1990 with the emergence of the United States as the sole super-power. Together this turned the erstwhile hostility of the two giants into normal diplomatic relations (1992), and finally into cooperation, respect and friendship. Israel’s influence in the U.S. has been perceived by Asian governments as very significant and many believed that the road to Washington passes through Jerusalem. This influence was based mainly on the strong Jewish community which became a strategic asset for Israel and for the Jewish People.
The global balance of power, however, is changing. In 2011, the Paris-based OECD predicted that in 2060 China and India together will produce 46 percent of the global GDP, as against 16 percent for the USA and 9 percent for the Euro-Zone. Implausible? By 2018, the growth rates of both countries have already borne out the OECD forecast for the first seven years of the reference period. Reaching out to Asia is a necessity for every trading nation, and particularly for Israel which has to strengthen its links with all accessible non-Western countries. Even more compelling is that the footprints of China and India in the Middle East are spreading fast. Their energy, trade, investment and personal links with the Muslim Middle East are growing exponentially, accompanied by political and military links. Today, the Arab countries and Iran listen to Xi Jinping’s China and Modi’s India and seek their support. The two giants are their nearest great powers and do not carry the West’s colonial baggage or the anti-Semitic and biblical traditions. China’s “One-Belt-One-Road” initiative plans to spend billions in infrastructure investments throughout the entire Muslim world. India has eight million of its nationals working in the Middle East and has recently shown its political clout when it persuaded Saudi Arabia to open its airspace for direct Air India flights to Israel. In 2009, U.S. President Obama asked for the same concession, but the Saudis rejected his request.
Engaging with Asia while holding its special relationship with America, Israel could be increasingly forced to cope with conflicting objectives. Israel got a foretaste of things to come in 2000 when strong American pressure forced it to break a contract to supply reconnaissance planes to China. This put Sino-Israeli relations back by many years. In 2004, a smaller repeat episode of this clash, then about Israeli drones sold to China, did not help. The United States is not the only source of problems in this regard. In summer 2017 China and India disagreed about their common border in the Himalayas, which triggered military tensions between the two. A wave of anti-Israeli comments appeared on China’s social media, including television because the Chinese public suddenly discovered Israel’s strong defense relations with India.
The tensions between the United States and a rising China will continue for a long time, fueled by broader issues than defense. So will tensions involving other major Asian powers, including Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Israel will need a better understanding of Asia at government, academic and think-tank levels, in order to formulate a vision of its future place in Asia and better coordinate its policies.
Like all Western countries, Israel has spent years developing its economic and technological relations with Asia, particularly China and India. In four more decades Asia is expected to represent more than half of the world economy. By then, Israel will likely have at least half of its trade and economic relations with Asia. A shift of global economic power of such magnitude will have geopolitical, military and cultural consequences. Israel would be well advised to prepare for these by forging deeper, civilizational links to Asia, as David Ben-Gurion demanded decades ago. Today Israel is increasingly assertive about its specific historic, religious and cultural identity. It demands to be recognized as a “Jewish State” and shuns European notions of multiculturalism. Asserting their identity is also a distinguishing feature of China, India and other Asian countries. China’s President Xi Jinping called the “defense and assertion of Chinese values” a key national goal. Could this help Israel find common ground with Asian countries? The national languages of Asia (except in Muslim countries) had until recently not even a word for “Jew”, but these countries are now discovering Israel, Jews and Judaism. Most Asian reactions to Israel and Jews are very welcoming, free of historic and religious baggage and not affected by negative voting records in the United Nations. But the Bible and Judaism are foundations of Western civilization. Israel will not abandon its links with the West and its cultural and democratic values, certainly not with the United States and American Judaism. Could Israel then become a bridge between East and West? Being a part of two worlds means that Israel’s political dilemmas might grow. As indicated, it will have to cope increasingly with competing objectives. It will have to convince the United States and its Jews that it would serve neither long-term American nor Jewish objectives if Israel is seen only as the West’s permanent outpost in the Middle East. However, a bridge has to stand on two pillars, and Israel’s Asia pillar is still weak.
Israel needs coordinated, long-term Asia, China and India policies with a clear view of Israel’s long-term interests. It should greatly strengthen defense links with all Asian countries that do not have adversarial relations with the United States with a careful eye towards Israel’s relations with China. It must also greatly increase its cultural, artistic, and intellectual outreach to Asia in order to accumulate “soft power” in this rising continent.