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Challenges of rising China tackled at Tel Aviv policy conference

"No government office or authority is thinking about where and how China is acting in its interests," says former Mossad chief at the 8th annual SIGNAL conference.

Carice Witte, SIGNAL's founder and Executive Director (left) speaks with former Mossad Director Ephraim Halevy, May 23, 2024. Photo by Raisa Verbitskaya/SIGNAL.
Carice Witte, SIGNAL's founder and Executive Director (left) speaks with former Mossad Director Ephraim Halevy, May 23, 2024. Photo by Raisa Verbitskaya/SIGNAL.

Speakers delivered harsh criticism of China for its post-Oct. 7 actions at the 8th Annual Conference on Israel’s China Policy, titled, “China’s Rise and the Global Israel Initiative,” held at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange on May 23.

Following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, China appeared to have sided with Israel’s enemies. Instead of condemning the terrorist assault, China called on all parties to “remain calm and exercise restraint.”  

And after Iran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at Israel on April 13, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Iran handled “the situation well… while safeguarding its sovereignty and dignity.”

“China has noted Iran’s statement that its action taken was limited and was an act of self-defense,” he said.

Former Meretz Party leader Nitzan Horowitz, who made some of the most unsparing remarks about China’s behavior at the conference, told the audience, “The whole balance of the relationship between the two countries [Israel and China] has changed.”

China not only refused to denounce the Oct. 7 massacre, but criticized Israel’s counter-attack, he said.

China also legitimized the massacre when it supported the “armed struggle” of the Palestinians at the International Court of Justice at the Hague in February, Horowitz noted.

Former Meretz Party Chairman Nitzan Horowitz speaks at the SIGNAL conference, May 23, 2024. Photo by Raisa Verbitskaya/SIGNAL.

The anti-Chinese rhetoric was such that Zhao Hai, director of International Political Studies at the National Institute for Global Strategy in Beijing, voiced his protest when it came his turn to speak.

Speaking from China via videoconference, he said, “I’ve listened in to this conference for almost an hour. And it deeply, deeply saddens me what Israelis are now thinking about China. Because there were so many misrepresentations and wrong information about China’s position.

“First of all, China categorically condemns any terrorist attacks on civilians, including [by] Hamas. So any previous speakers talking about China’s not condemning Hamas is wrong.”

Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevi, the final speaker at the conference, took a more optimistic view of Beijing’s response, saying, “I believe the Chinese have been very, very circumspect in the way they have commented on the situation.”

While on the face of it “it looks like they were immediately allied with our enemies, I don’t think in practical terms this had any result in the field,” he said, noting that “practically speaking” China didn’t support Hamas this time, even though it has done so in the past.

What concerned Halevi more was Israel’s lack of strategic thinking about China.

No government office or authority is thinking about where and how China is acting in its interests,” he said, referring specifically to China’s flooding of Israel’s market with cars and its outsized presence in Israel’s health sector.

“Within a year, 50% of the cars in Israel will be from China,” he said, warning further, “All the companies that provide complementary medical services in Israel today are Chinese owned. This has significance for public health in Israel. And no one addresses this issue.”

Carice Witte, founder and CEO of SIGNAL, opened the conference by introducing the organization’s new strategy, termed the Global Israel Initiative (GII), in which Israel views itself in a global context as a “middle power” rather than a Middle Eastern regional power.

She identified Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as countries that have successfully pursued a “middle power” strategy “to expand their influence and stature worldwide.”

She noted that Israel has in many ways become a middle power, “punching above its weight” through its contributions in nano, quantum and other technological fields.

Witte advised Israel to look toward the Indo-Pacific region.

“The GII brings these two concepts together: middle power and Indo-Pacific. Instead of putting so much energy into the west,” Israel should instead cultivate ties with countries like Japan, India, South Korea, Vietnam and others, she said.

The GII is designed to strengthen Israel in a world facing a rising China, she said, “A great power that is here to stay, one that will continue to influence global affairs including in Israel and the Middle East in ways that suit China’s interests.”

Israel’s new imperative, she said, “is to manage the pros and cons to Israel’s best possible benefit, among other things, by strengthening ties with the Indo-Pacific countries, as we have suggested as part of the Global Israel Initiative.”

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