INSS Insight No. 422, May 2, 2013.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to make an official visit to China in early May 2013. This would be the first visit by an Israeli prime minister to China in over six years, and given the rarity of the meetings between the two heads of state and China’s increased influence internationally, the trip is important. Furthermore, this past March China completed a change of government, and new people are now holding top leadership positions. This will be an opportunity for Israel to meet China’s new leaders, some of whom are expected to remain in their positions for the next ten years.
No less important, China has been rethinking its Middle Eastern policy since the start of the Arab Spring. Since China opened up to the world in the late 1970s, its approach to the Middle East has been characterized by a lack of significant involvement in political and diplomatic processes in the region, exclusive focus on promoting its economic interests, and maintenance of a balanced policy toward states and other actors in the region.
The Arab Spring, which damaged China’s economic interests in the region, coupled with Beijing’s declared intention in recent years to acquire a significant status in world politics, led China to presume that its existing policy toward the Middle East has exhausted itself. Instead, it must deepen its ties in the region in order to establish a firm, long term foothold while exploiting the fact that the regional array of forces is undergoing significant change. The highly influential October 2012 article by Wang Jisi, China’s leading Chinese scholar of international relations, created a stir by asserting that China needs to adopt a new strategy, “march West,” strengthening its influence and position in Central Asia and the Middle East.
This trend entails a significant challenge for Israel. If China assumes that Israel’s close relations with the United States will prevent Israel from strengthening its relationship with China, and at the same time, Beijing assesses that its dependence on Arab (and Iranian) oil will grow, the process of its increasing involvement in the Middle East is liable to bypass Israel. In the meantime, as is demonstrated by China’s invitation to Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, at the same time Netanyahu will be visiting there (albeit for a slightly shorter visit), China is adhering to its balanced approach to Israel and the Palestinians and is linking bilateral relations with Israel to its regional policy. Clearly, the Sino-Israeli bilateral relationship still does not stand fully on its own.
Finding common interests with China is of great importance for Israel, and a meeting between the heads of state at this time can promote this. In spite of China’s traditional support for the Arab line and its energy ties with the Muslim states, it credits Israel with several important assets. One is that Israel holds one of the main keys to stability in the region, an issue in …read more