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Israel-China Relations

China, the American Challenge and the Implications for Israel and the Jewish People

The US vs China: Confrontation Continues in 2021

What are the consequences of the Sino-American conflict for Israel and the Jewish people?

How do China’s reactions to the American challenge affect relations with Israel? This question is part of a broader global picture that must first be reviewed.

The change of the US administration in 2021 did not mitigate the conflict between the two powers, contrary to what the Chinese had hoped when the US invited two of their most senior policy makers to a first high-level meeting on American soil, in Alaska (March 18-19, 2021). There, the public encounter between the two sides began with an exchange of bitter rebukes, rare in the history of diplomacy. The Chinese were visibly taken aback. For China, this was perhaps a watershed event; one that seems to have confirmed their conviction that Western and particularly American hostility was deeply entrenched. On the American side, President Biden knew that opposition to China – to curb its violations of the “global order” in American parlance and its tension with neighbors – was one of two major policy issues on which Democrats and Republicans agreed, apart from a shared wish to focus on domestic issues and leave the Middle East. Biden had every reason not to open his flank to Republican or general public scorn by appearing to be “soft” on China.

At home, both countries kept struggling with the health, economic, social and public opinion fall-out of the ongoing Covid pandemic. Both threw their best assets into the health battle: China its enormous capacity of mass mobilization and control, the United States its great science and technology potential, as well as its freedom of thought, communication, and speech, the latter affecting the fight against the pandemic both positively and negatively. The earlier scientific consensus in the West that the coronavirus jumped from wild animals and not from a Chinese lab is now in doubt. Scientists do not have all the answers they hoped to get from China.

In both countries, the economy is growing again. The economic relations between the two are complex and in America less controllable by government dictate. America’s large companies have decided to remain in the Chinese market. Currently, the trade and payment relations between the two are not to America’s advantage. Their balance is tilting again in China’s favor, as it did when Trump decided to intervene. American consumer demand for Chinese products is apparently unstoppable, even by tariffs, whereas China is greatly reducing its purchases of US agricultural products. In general, Chinese investments in America have declined and, as a consequence of the pandemic, Chinese tourists are no longer streaming to America to spend their money. An Economist map comparing China and America reveals a global trade revolution: in 2000 only 12 countries traded more with China than America, in 2020 all countries of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Eastern Europe traded more with China than America, with only one exception: Israel. And all countries of South America, except three, traded more with China than America. America keeps pressuring its friends and allies to choose sides and limit or cut trade, investment, and technology links with China. Some acquiesced partly but not completely. All are waiting. The leaders of France and Germany said publicly that they refused to be dragged into an economic break with China. Others, such as Japan, keep assuring their American ally of unstinting solidarity, but Japan’s massive trade and investment links with China are barely changing.

Remembering the Past, Wondering about the Future

Nobody knows which country will win the global economic race, except that the winner will probably be the one with the most revolutionary new ideas and the most successful new technologies. Currently China is closing itself up, but it knows that a complete de-coupling from the rest of the world is not possible. At least it wants to reduce its dependence on essential foreign products, and is encouraging foreign residents to leave, reducing or severing relations with elite foreign universities and increasing state controls and censorship. Apparently, it fears foreign ideas no less than foreign Covid mutations. President Xi Jinping has mentioned his respect for Mao Zedong. Closing China to foreign influence can be seen as Neo-Maoist. The United States, on the other hand, is polarized, with much of its people showing contempt for its leaders and pessimistic about the future. The Chinese, and many others, including Americans, see the country in terminal decline. Emperor Napoleon III of France and Hitler believed this and were wrong. America still has an enormous capacity for adaptation, self-correction and recuperation – if the country only wants it.

In the last two or three years, military and political strategists in both countries have been increasingly talking about possible hot wars between China and America. This should deeply worry public opinion and the political classes, but apparently it does not. Neither China nor the US want war, but the same was rightly said of the main European nations in 1914. And still, they plunged their countries into a four-year slaughter which destroyed Europe. Today’s historians no longer look for a single culprit behind the outbreak of World War I. They blame a shared state of mind in the European leadership: a lack of imagination, and a conviction that in certain situations there were no other available options. The future will tell us whether America and China’s leadership have more imagination and know that there are always options.

US vs China vs Israel: Fated to become Collateral Damage

This is the global context that Israel has to understand when defining its China policies. Disagreement over China is one of the oldest bones of contention between the US and Israel. In 2000 and 2004 the United States imposed an abrogation of Israeli weapon contracts with China, which provoked crisis between China and Israel. Ten years later, their relations began improving again, culminating in Israel’s fourth Innovation Summit hosted by Prime Minister Netanyahu and attended by Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan, the highest ranking Chinese official to visit Israel in many years (October 24-25, 2018). But several months before, President Trump had started his trade war against China. Israel took time to comprehend that its interest in strong China links would ultimately collide with its key ally’s decision to confront China. The US warned Israel that Chinese investments had strategic and intelligence value for China. These might endanger Israel’s security and even more, its friendship with the United States. Judging from a few public reactions, key Israeli security experts shared American concerns, but others did not. In general, Israel had a different view of the China issue. There is no old, negative historical baggage between the two countries as there is between China and the United States. Israeli public opinion was not hostile to China, on the contrary. China’s infrastructure investments were saving Israel billions of dollars, and mutual trade, second only to US trade, was growing faster than the latter. Moreover, Israel could not ignore China’s increasing political, economic, and military links with Muslim Middle Eastern countries. China is estimated to be the biggest foreign investor in the wider Middle East today. Some see its entry into the region as a strategy to upend and replace the American and Western position there without using military force. If Israel was getting a big new neighbor, it had to look for ways to ensure that this neighbor would not be hostile. The United States was little inclined to listen to such considerations. Worse, China’s support for Iran, highlighted by the 25-year “strategic partnership” and cooperation agreement signed by the two countries in March 2021, showed no concern for Iran’s murderous threats against Israel. This did nothing to help Israel argue its case for increased relations with China. At least Russia, another good friend of Iran, has publicly condemned Iran’s extermination threats.

The US Keeps Warning

From the Innovation Summit in October 2018 on, the United States has not stopped warning Israel of the perceived China danger. A few weeks after Vice President Wang Qishan had left Israel, a large number of American experts, all non-governmental but well connected, fired a salvo of warnings at Israel. It was a simultaneous assault, a coordinated media campaign cautioning Israel that its China links were “misguided” and could jeopardize America’s friendship. During 2019 and 2020, senior members of the Trump administration, and in August 2021, President Biden’s CIA chief, visited Israel to reiterate, among others, America’s concern about China’s influence in general, or about specific projects. The American interlocutors made sure the media reported their concerns. Israel’s main English-language paper, the Jerusalem Post, often does so, generally espousing the US view. Israel was not deaf to American complaints. At the end of 2019 the government set up a new oversight panel to review foreign investment proposals for security implications. As the panel had no enforcement mechanisms, Israel promised to strengthen its powers. Israel is more cautious and does not accept all Chinese investment proposals.

China Keeps Watching

During 2019 and 2020, China followed the arguments between the United States and Israel with some apprehension. If this little country had really no importance for China, as many keep saying, there would have been few, if any, Chinese reactions. But China’s Embassy in Israel protested publicly more than once, attacking the United States for “abusing ‘national security’ to smear and strike down normal business activities.” The Chinese media, often signaling what Chinese leaders are thinking, showed apprehension about American pressure on Israel. One Chinese daily expressed hope that Israel would “avoid efforts to drag it into the US-China trade war.” China was concerned about American attacks against its global economic and technological expansion. Arguably, it hoped to use Israel as a model for others, demonstrating that even one of America’s closest allies could have flourishing trade and investment links with China. If that was China’s intention, America has derailed it.

During the two years in which Israel was politically paralyzed, no fundamental changes occurred. Israel maneuvered to strengthen its indispensable security alliance with the United States, and at the same time tried to protect its valuable economic relations with China. In 2020, Israel noted China’s cool reaction to the Abraham Accords. President Xi Jinping’s had more than once declared that the Palestinian question was the core issue of the Middle East. This was in fact Mao’s position and is an element of Xi’s “Neo-Maoism.” The Abraham Accords were seen as challenging Xi’s belief and, thus, could not garner China’s applause. In addition, China probably suspected an American plot to replace Chinese investment money and influence in Israel with Gulf money and influence. Whatever the reasons, China’s lack of enthusiasm did not mean hostility to Israel.

China had Enough and Turns more Hostile – For Now.

This changed in spring 2021 when China’s attitude toward Israel deteriorated, for the first time in more than 15 years. It became visible at three levels: Chinese leadership contacts with Middle Eastern leaders, China’s position in the United Nations, and in Chinese social media. Chinese leaders, often the foreign minister, meet with Middle Eastern leaders once a year if not more often, directly or via Zoom. The Chinese are courting not only the big countries, but also the small Gulf states that host American military bases. Israel is the only country in the Middle East with which China did not have any known high-level contacts in 2020/2021. Obviously, this sends a message to the Middle East. Second, there was a change of Chinese policy in the United Nations. China has always – vocally – supported the Palestinians in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It sought permanent Arab and Muslim support in the UN but did not go beyond voting for all pro-Palestinian resolutions. In May 2021, China abandoned its long-standing policy of non-activism in the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the UN Security Council discussions of the Gaza conflict, China convened special meetings, formulated declarations condemning Israel, and asked for investigations of Israeli “war-crimes” without mentioning Hamas rockets. It used the conflict not primarily as a means to please the Arabs but to hit back at the United States and its defense of Israel. The United States keeps infuriating the Chinese by condemning the forced labor and education camps in the province of Xinjiang where one million Muslim Uyghurs are allegedly kept.

But Israel was not ready to let China’s hostile activism at the UN pass without reply. A few weeks later, at the end of June, Israel voted with 40 other Western countries in the UN Human Rights Council to condemn Chinese “abuses” in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Israel was under contradictory pressures, by both China and the United States. The Chinese were angry and blamed Israel for abandoning its former neutrality. They warned that its vote would have consequences. While these “events” – proverbial “tempests in UN teapots” – unfolded, a wave of genuine antisemitic, not only anti-Israeli, comments appeared in China’s social media. Wrote one: “Why does America always support Israel? Because the Jews control the American government and own all the money.” Chinese historians of Judaism were sure that antisemitism was unknown in China. Now they are worried: on the internet they can read China’s young people – even if some observers have also seen an Arab hand in Chinese internet antisemitism. It must be understood, however, that using the term “antisemitism” for China does not carry the same horrible historical baggage it does in the West or Arab world, a baggage of discrimination, persecution, expulsion, and murder. However, one particular incident shows the power of words in an emotional context. In June 2021 the Jerusalem Post published, for the second time, an unsigned editorial bluntly titled: “China has proven to be a bad actor. We owe them nothing.” This editorial had already been published a year earlier (19.8.2020). Among others, the author belittles the well-known story of Shanghai saving 20,000 Jews during the Holocaust, a source of pride for China. When the article appeared in Chinese, it triggered a spike of antisemitic replies on the internet.

Did you say “Genocide”?

China’s American adversaries, including officials, continually call the forced labor and education camps in Xinjiang a “genocide.” Human rights violations are reported from there, though not all have been verified by impartial sources. China retorted that “genocide” was the premeditated mass-murder of most European Jews or the mass-murder of the Tutsi people in Rwanda and other cases, but in Xinjiang there is no genocide. Even separately from the China case, Israel and the Jewish people may come to regret the widespread misuse of the term “genocide.” This has emptied the word of its true meaning, so that it is now used even against Israel. The term “genocide” was coined by a Jewish survivor from Poland where 90% of the Jewish population, and the survivor’s entire family, were exterminated. American Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and others, have recently thrown the genocide slur at China, in pursuit of some “progressive” agenda. They are desecrating the memory of the Shoah, offending Jewish survivors, harming Israel and, by the way, are not helping the Uyghurs. The Chinese have probably abandoned their hopes of many years that American Jews would have some understanding for their country and help reduce tensions between the two great powers. Now it is the new progressive members of the US Congress, all Israel critics and in some cases borderline antisemites, who have taken on this role. They are led by Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar. In May 2021, the progressives sent warnings to President Biden and Congress against “fueling anti-Chinese hatred” by depicting China as an “existential threat.” An ironic inversion of roles which cannot have been lost on China’s diplomacy, and one more reason for China to distance itself from Israel.

“Wolves” and “Pandas”

Taken together, the absence of high-level meetings, intensified hostility to Israel in the UN, and social media antisemitism, is no coincidence. However, many relations between Israel and China continue as usual. Bilateral trade has so far not been disturbed by Chinese restrictions, but then, too little time has passed since spring 2021 for a political intervention to become visible. Chinese imports keep rising as in the US, while exports are stagnant or declining slightly which can have many non-political reasons. Next year we will know more about trade, and whether the large Chinese infrastructure companies continue competing for Israeli tenders. Chinese students continue to study in Israeli universities. The links between Chinese and Israeli universities and think tanks do not seem to be affected. China’s interest in, and respect for, Israel’s professional competence on the Middle East remains huge. Chinese and Israeli Middle East expert groups continue to meet via Zoom. Teaching of Jewish history, culture, and religion continues in Chinese universities, and so does work in the Israel Centers the Israeli NGO SIGNAL has set up in 14 Chinese universities. The Chinese want to know a lot about Israel and Israel helps them by its own means. Did Israel ever ask for a benefit?

One cannot exclude that China pursues two different tracks and speaks in two languages. Reports from China, including in Chinese media, mention two factions in China’s policy making apparatus, a “wolf” faction and a “panda” faction. The wolves argue for attacks against the West, the pandas advise a softer, more cautious approach. President Xi himself recently suggested a more conciliatory policy towards the West. Chinese citizens who immigrated to the West report that China’s middle classes feel uneasy about the current confrontation. It is in these growing middle classes – the reading public and the intellectuals – that Israel enjoyed a large amount of good will, or soft power. This soft power did not dissipate overnight because a Chinese UN diplomat excoriated Israel – and the United States – over the recent Gaza conflict.

Yin and Yang: Change is Permanent

If China’s views of Israel are changing, this would not be the first “cold” period in their bilateral relations. Change could happen again but not before the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in December 2022. There, President Xi wants to be reelected.

  • In the meantime, if Israel has fallen into the cracks between wolves and pandas, it should think of ways to maintain its soft power among China’s middle classes and work against hostile voices in social media.
  • A sure way to enhance Israel’s global importance in Chinese eyes is to enlarge and improve Israel’s relations with the entire Muslim world and with Asia. The current Israeli priority to improve relations with Europe and US Democrats, important in itself, will have little effect in Beijing.
  • The importance of greatly increasing links with Asia is not sufficiently understood. One of China’s top foreign policy priorities, apart from the struggle with the United States, is strengthening its impact on all surrounding Asian countries, most of which have been influenced for centuries by Chinese history and civilization. Israel’s presence in these countries will be noticed.
  • China regards Israel today as little more than an American vassal state. If Israel is happy with this classification, so be it. If not, Israel must find ways to prove to the Chinese that it is not so, without jeopardizing its strategic relations with the United States.
  • Israel must explain to its friends in the Jewish world, and to Israeli journalists, that accusing China of genocide is inappropriate, causes deep resentment, and triggers anti-Jewish sentiment. China’s public is probably better informed about the Shoah than any other public in Asia.
  • Israel is underprepared to understand and deal with China, which gives China a major advantage in its relations with Israel and the Middle East. The number of China experts and Chinese speakers in Israel’s governmental sector, in industry, academia, and the media is too small compared to what Israel needs today.