In the 1930s, David Ben-Gurion said that China would be one of the great world powers of the future. Though he was prescient, Ben-Gurion could not win over the Chinese during its early years. In 1947, China abstained on the vote for partition and later expressed support for the Palestinians.
Until the 1980s, China refused to grant visas to Israelis unless they held dual citizenship and carried a passport of a country other than Israel. Following the Sino-Soviet split, and China’s 1979 establishment of diplomatic relations with the United States, China and Israel began to secretly build military ties. Both countries supplied weapons to the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets.
China eased travel restrictions, while Israel reopened its consulate in Hong Kong (then under British administration), which would serve as the main point for diplomatic and economic contact.
In 1987, Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, appointed Amos Yudan to set up the first official Government owned company to establish and foster commercial activities between companies in China and Israel. The company was active until 1992.
Prior to the establishment of full diplomatic relations, Israel and China established representative offices in Beijing and Tel Aviv, which functioned as de facto embassies. The Israeli office was formally known as the Liaison Office of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. This was opened in June 1990. China was similarly represented by a branch of the China International Travel Service, which also opened in 1990.
Israel and China first established diplomatic relations in January 1992. They have since developed their relations steadily, culminating in the historic visit of Chinese President Jiang Zeming to Israel in 2000.
Four Israeli presidents and three prime ministers, including most recently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March 2017, have made diplomatic and trade visits to Beijing. China’s receptive and friendly embrace of the Jewish people is based in part on their admiration for their contributions to humanity, their ability to survive, the sharing of Chinese values such as family, frugality, hard work, and education, and being products of ancient civilizations.
There is also a more political reason why China is interested in improving ties with Israel. Matan Vilnai, Israel’s former ambassador to China, explained: “We are important for them [China], because they see us as a bridge to America.” The Chinese “are convinced that we can influence inside the U.S. on things that will serve China.”
China is now Israel’s third largest trading partner globally and largest trading partner in East Asia. Trade volume increased from $50 million in 1992 to $13.1 billion in 2017.
Exports from Israel to China are still dwarfed in comparison to exports from Israel to the EU/the United States. Israel exported approximately $36 billion worth of products to the European Union and the United States in 2017, while Israel only exported $4 billion to China during the same period.
China’s investment in Israeli startups tripled in the period from 2012-2015 and Chinese investment in the Israeli tech sector totaled a record $16.5 billion during 2016, driven by investment in Israeli medical, web, and cybersecurity startups.
Zhou Hui, China’s former economic and commercial attaché to Israel, confirmed in 2008 that his government encourages Chinese firms to come to Israel. That year, the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) was awarded the contract for digging the Carmel Tunnel in Haifa as well as for the civil engineering aspect of the Red Line of Tel Aviv‘s light-rail project, which will connect Petah Tikvah with Bat Yam. The same year, ZPMC, a Chinese manufacturer of cranes and metal equipment, won the tender to supply seven bridge cranes to the Haifa port.
In May 2013, during his second visit to Beijing, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu oversaw the signing of a $400 million trade agreement. Later, H.E. Gao Yanping, China’s Ambassador to Israel, wrote: “With the interdependence between countries deepening in the globalized world, China and Israel have a shared destiny. The closer our cooperation is, the more benefits will accrue for both our peoples, and the more contributions we will be able to make to regional stability, world peace and global prosperity.”
In December 2013, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Israel on a commerce trip to “pursue stronger cooperation between our two countries,” he told Netanyahu. The Chinese and Israeli economies “are highly complementary, and the mutually beneficial cooperation between us enjoys a very bright future.”
In 2015, the Israeli Radware company helped China Railways develop an online ticketing system that allowed it to determine seat availability and price options. China Railways Tunnel Group was awarded a $750 million project by Israel’s NTA Mass Transit System to build a subway in Tel Aviv.
Israeli and Chinese officials signed an agreement in January 2016, with the goal of expanding cooperation in the fields of energy technology research and development and renewable energy resources.
Also in 2016, the world’s tallest and longest glass-bottomed bridge opened. The bridge is 1,000 feet above a ravine in Zhangjiajie National Park, in China’s Hunan province. The bridge cost $3.4 million and was designed by Israeli architect Haim Dotan.
Two companies based in China’s Shandong province announced in July 2017 the recruitment of 6,000 Chinese steel fixers, carpenters, tilers and plasterers to be sent to Israel to work on construction projects. Later that year, Israeli and Chinese officials signed a $300 million trade agreement in Beijing, which will increase the Israeli exports of environmentally-friendly agricultural and energy technologies to China.
The fourth-annual China-Israel Investment Summit took place in South China’s Guangdong Province in 2018. More than 140 Israeli and 800 Chinese companies participated in forums on topics such as smart manufacturing, biomedicine, smart cities, biopharmaceuticals, the digital economy, and healthcare.
Chinese technology companies, such as Alibaba, are increasing their investments in Israel. In 2018, more than 50 Chinese companies participated in financing Israeli technology companies. Offices representing many Chinese cities and provinces are opening offices in Israel “supporting commercial activities between their localities and Israel, attracting new sources of Chinese capital and assisting Israeli companies in establishing operations in China.”
In late March 2020, as the number of coronavirus cases in Israel was escalating, Israeli genealogy and genetic testing company MyHeritage announced it would collaborate with China’s BGI Genomics to set up a coronavirus testing lab in Israel.
In 2012, the Council for Higher Education of Israel initiated a program that provides grants for joint research via the Israel Science Foundation and the Natural Sciences Foundation of China. More than 1,000 scholarships have been provided for students and post-doctoral researchers from China.
In September 2013, Tel Aviv University President, Professor Joseph Klafter, and Professor Zhang Zhi, President of the Jiao-Tong University in Shanghai, China, signed an agreement to establish a special research center for Israel Studies at the Chinese college. The research center, which will address contemporary issues in the Middle East and Israel, is the first of its kind in China.
In October 2013, Chinese magnate Li Ka-Shing, among Asia’s richest businessmen, donated $130 million to Israel’s Technion Institute of Technology as part of a joint venture with Shantou University to establish the Technion Guangdong Institute of Technology (TGIT). The gift was one of the largest ever to an Israeli university and also marked the first time a school from any other country has been invited to establish an entirely new academic college based in China. The Institute will foster creativity and collaboration between the two nations, and is expected to ring in a new era of cooperation in agricultural and consumer technology.
In May 2014, Tel Aviv University announced a partnership with Beijing’s Tsinghua University to invest $300 million to establish the XIN Research Center that will focus on researching early-stage and developed technologies in biotech, solar energy, water and the environment.
In 2016, Ben-Gurion University and China’s biggest university, Jilin University, signed a cooperative agreement to establish a joint R&D center for entrepreneurship and innovation.
The number of Chinese students attending Israeli universities has risen significantly. The University of Haifa boasted 200 Chinese students among its student body in 2016, a 100% increase from 2013 when the school had just 20 Chinese attendees. Most of these students were on exchange programs from the University of East China Normal University in Shanghai, which is Haifa’s sister city in China. During the 2016-2017 academic year, the Technion Israel Institute of Technology had 117 full-time Chinese students and 177 Chinese students enrolled in its summer engineering program.
A seminar with the topic of strengthening higher education cooperation between China and Israel was held on May 13, 2019, at Hebrew University of Jerusalem along with an exhibition on Chinese higher education. A second exhibition was held at the University of Haifa. Representatives from 27 Chinese universities participated. This was the first time the exhibitions were held in Israel. Both events were co-organized by the China Education Association for International Exchange and the Council for Higher Education of Israel.
Participants discussed the efforts to further promote student mobility and collaboration on scientific research with peers from seven Israeli universities. The hope is that more students will study in each country. In 2018, more than 1,000 Chinese students were enrolled in Israel and about 500 Israeli students studied in China.
“These events demonstrate the close ties between the Chinese and Israeli academia and the high level of interest in further strengthening those ties,” said Yaffa Zilbershats, chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee (PBC) of the Council for Higher Education of Israel.
The PBC also signed an agreement with China’s southwestern province of Sichuan, which will provide scholarships for Israeli students to study in summer programs in the Chinese province.
In 2017, China became Israel’s fastest growing source of tourists. That year, for the first time, the number of Chinese tourists surpassed 100,000, doubling the figure for 2015.
The Israeli Ministry of Tourism presented certificates to 40 Chinese tour guides in November 2017, after they graduated from the Ministry’s first ever training course for Mandarin-speaking guides. Tour leaders from travel agencies in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu participated in the course. The course was offered due to a shortage of Chinese tour guides as tourism from China increased.
Israel’s Chinese Cultural Center opened in November 2017, with the goals of further exposing Israelis to Chinese culture, facilitating cultural cooperation, and providing a welcoming place for Chinese tourists in the country. Situated in Tel Aviv’s business district, the 1,000 square-meter facility boasts a large multi-purpose hall, many meeting/training rooms, a library, and a multimedia room. Art performances, cultural exhibitions, academic seminars, and community events will take place at the facility.
China and Israel have developed close strategic military links with each other. Bilateral military relations have evolved from an initial Chinese policy of secret non-official ties to a close strategic partnership.
Israel has provided China with military assistance, expertise and technology. According to a report from the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “Israel ranks second only to Russia as a weapons system provider to China and as a conduit for sophisticated cutting edge military technology, followed by France and Germany.”
Israel sold technology to upgrade Chinese tanks and planes in the 1980s. Israel Aircraft Industries’ Lavi and UAV technology may also have been sold to China. Expertise in fitting western equipment in Soviet made hardware helped in modernization of Chinese army and air force, this way Chinese defense modernization complemented Israel’s need of cash to fund its domestic made high-tech weapons programs.
The U.S. worries that China may repackage advanced Israeli defense technologies for resale to America’s rivals and nations hostile to it throughout the world. Consequently, the United States has pressured Israel not to sell sophisticated equipment and technology to China. In 2000, for example, Israel was ready to sell China the Phalcon airborne early-warning radar system until the United States forced it to cancel the deal, costing Israel billions of dollars.
In 2018-19, another conflict arose over Israel’s decision to allow a Chinese company to manage Haifa Port. In 2015, Israel signed an agreement with the Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG) – a company in which the Chinese government has a majority stake – to upgrade and manage the port in Haifa. The U.S. Sixth Fleet and other naval vessels frequently use the port and Washington is concerned that China will use its access to gather intelligence on American ships and other regional interests. The United States was pressuring Israel to cancel the deal.
Some Israelis thought the U.S. position was unfair and simplistic. One critic noted that the Chinese could conduct the same type of espionage activities the Americans feared by renting an apartment near the port. Others worry that China will steal Israeli technology and engage in industrial espionage. For example, Matan Vilnai, Israel’s former ambassador to China and an ex-deputy defense minister, criticized the arrangement because it created tension with the United States and also threatened Israel’s security. He said it was acceptable for Israel to deal with the Chinese on infrastructure projects “up to the point where there are Israeli security interests involved – and the classic example of this is the Haifa Port, because it is a national security asset.”
The two countries do not agree on the future of relations between Israel and the Palestinians. China has historically supported the Palestinian’s position as reflected by Chinese President Xi Jinping address to the Arab League in 2016 when he called for the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
China has also criticized Israel’s construction of settlements and the security barrier. After the victory of Hamas in the 2006 Palestinian election, China acknowledged Hamas as the legitimately elected political entity in the Gaza Strip despite Israeli and U.S. opposition.
One major disagreement between the two countries is over Iran. China has been a major trading partner and opposed sanctions imposed during negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Israel would like to see China significantly reduce if not end its commercial relationship with Iran until it abandons its desire to build nuclear weapons.
Flights from China began arriving in early April 2020 carrying needed medical supplies to help Israel fight the coronavirus. The first shipment, carrying 20 tons of medical equipment, included more than 900,000 surgical masks and half a million protective suits.
Donations are coming from wealthy people in China, Chinese cities and people who love Israel. Yossi Ben Shritrit, the strategic adviser to the Israeli consulate in Shanghai, said that people are inundating the diplomatic mission with medical materials for shipping to Tel Aviv. One shipment of protective suits, face shields, eye goggles, N95 masks and surgical masks were being sent to Bar Ilan University and paid for by Chinese alumni, mostly from people who became academics after postdoctoral fellowships in Israel.
In the latest example of the United States pressuring Israel to curb ties with China, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Jerusalem on May 13, 2020, his first overseas trip since the onset of the coronavirus, to deliver the message that Israel should stop all Chinese investment in Israel, either in high tech companies or infrastructure. According to Breaking Defense, Israeli officials said Pompeo warned Israel “to stop any action that strengthens the Chinese Communist Party, even if that means canceling projects already planned.”
In an interview, Pompeo said, “We don’t want the Chinese Communist Party to have access to Israeli infrastructure and to Israeli communication systems – all of the things that put Israeli citizens at risk… We think these risks are very real, and we share information about that,” he said.
Breaking Defense reported that Israel’s National Authority for Data Protection has already “barred China from building communications infrastructures of any kind in the country, and Israeli communications companies are not using Chinese components in their communications equipment.”
China is still involved in other sensitive projects, notably construction in the ports of Haifa and Ashdod. The U.S. has already expressed opposition to the former. According to Breaking Defense, Israeli security officials are also worried about China’s role in constructing a light train in Tel Aviv that will pass by Israel’s military headquarters.
In response to Pompeo’s warnings, Wang Yongjun, the spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy to Israel, said that “by the end of 2018, China’s investment in Israel only accounts for 0.4% of China’s investment across the world and 3% of the foreign investment flown into Israel.” He also asserted that “over the past 5 years, only 4% of the investment in Israeli hi-tech industries are from China, and only 3% of merger and acquisition deals among Israeli start-ups are with Chinese companies.” Yongjun asked rhetorically, “With such limited investment, how would Israel depend on China? And how would China buy up Israel?”
Following U.S. pressure against allowing China to participate in infrastructure projects, Israel decided to award an Israeli group a contract to build the world’s largest desalination plant.
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