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Should Netanyahu go to China?

It is not desirable to exacerbate the tensions with the United States just to increase access to the Chinese market.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening of the fourth Israel-China Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on Oct. 24, 2018. Photo: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the opening of the fourth Israel-China Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem on Oct. 24, 2018. Photo: Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90
Efraim Inbar

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to travel to China, a country with whom he has greatly expanded bilateral relations, something for which he deserves credit. Kudos also for contributing to opening the large Chinese market for Israeli exports—and China is a powerhouse in the international arena.

Nevertheless, it is not certain that a trip to China is advisable at this time. First, such a visit would be seen by many as being in defiance against U.S. President Joe Biden. The Biden administration already disagrees with the Israeli government on a number of issues, especially settlements and legal reform.

It is undesirable to exacerbate tensions with the United States over a non-existential issue for the State of Israel. Moreover, the negative U.S. attitude toward China is shared by both the Democratic and Republican parties. Indeed, China policy is one of the few issues on which the polarized American political system agrees. Israel has no reason to signal to our important ally that relations with Beijing are advancing as if this were not the case. A visit to China can wait.

The main issue in the developing international system is the rivalry between the United States and China. It is hard to imagine that Israel will not stand to the right of the United States in this struggle between the leader of the democratic world and a dictatorial power whose influence only seems to grow. Firm support for the United States, the State of Israel’s most important ally, requires Israel to show some reservation toward China.

Taking any other position will bewilder the West. It is noteworthy in this context that both the United States and European countries are moving toward reducing political and economic relations with China. There are efforts to minimize imports from China, especially in products where dependence on China becomes a national security problem.

Measures are also being taken to reduce investments from China, and efforts are being made to prevent industrial and technological espionage. Israel is also going in this direction, mainly due to pressure from Washington.

Israel is also currently facing criticism for its policy toward Ukraine. Western countries expect Israel to support Ukraine more in its war against Russia. Even if Israel’s cautious policy toward Ukraine makes sense, it is not wise for Israel to be portrayed as deviating in its foreign policy from the Western democratic camp, which would only be exacerbated by a China visit.

Israel should also consider its relations with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region, for example, India, Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore. In all of them, the threat perception regarding China has increased due to its aggressive policy in the region. Israel has extensive economic relations in Asia, as well as important security cooperation. Israel must be careful not to spoil relationships built with great effort because of the desire to increase sales of Israeli products to the Chinese market.

Today there are many questions about the strength of the Chinese economy. The economic growth rate after the epidemic is lower than expected. Furthermore, the Chinese economy suffers from structural problems such as heavy dependence on exports, high levels of state and Chinese corporate debt, large economic disparities between regions within China, ecological challenges and an aging population. Of course, the biggest problem is large state involvement in the economy, by owning many companies and via extensive government regulation. All this does not bode well for the Chinese economy.

We must not forget that China has never been Israel’s friend. Its voting patterns in the United Nations and international institutions are hostile. In March 2021, China signed with Iran a strategic agreement pledging significant Chinese investments in Iran in exchange for oil supplies for 25 years. The agreement’s text was not published, but its very signing helped Iran ease the economic isolation imposed by the United States and its allies. Iran is a bitter enemy of Israel. In March, China mediated between Saudi Arabia and Iran, thereby strengthening the position of the Islamic Republic in the region.

China is also a permanent supporter of the Palestinians. In December, China voted in favor of the resolution at the U.N. General Assembly, calling on the International Court of Justice in The Hague to advise on the consequences of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. It also signed a “strategic partnership” agreement with the Palestinian Authority in June.

Following the problematic Chinese policy toward Israel, a reevaluation of the Israeli position toward Taiwan—a democratic and prosperous country—is called for. Perhaps it is time to send a signal to China that there is a price for the negative Chinese attitude toward Israel.

Israel has no choice but to support the United States openly and strongly in the global struggle, even if it means we sell less to China. Nevertheless, if Netanyahu still thinks the trip to China is important, he should add more Asian capitals to his itinerary.

Originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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