Why Israel Should Think About Re-pivoting Toward China

China won't be replacing the U.S. as Israel's strongest ally anytime soon, but Israel should still look to build stronger bridges with the newest 'responsible adult' in the international community.

Niv Horesh
Niv Horesh
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Niv Horesh
Niv Horesh

Two recent developments raise the question of precisely where China is heading in the long run in terms of its geopolitical ambitions, and – domestically - how secure the Communist Party’s grip on power actually is. They also beg the question: What conclusions should Israel draw from these events, and what kind of relationship should it seek with the superpower-in-the-making?

The first of these events occurred last week, when Bo Xilai, one of China’s most popular politicians, was convicted of serious abuse of power. The trial once again drew China into the Western media’s limelight for all the wrong reasons, at least as far as the Communist Party was concerned. Quite naturally, Chinese state media has portrayed the conviction as a major achievement in President Xi Jinping’s new campaign to stamp out corruption at the highest echelons of the Party. Western commentators, however, view Bo’s ouster as the cynical outcome of a purely personal power struggle. The second was China’s endorsement of Vladimir Putin’s stance during the recent Syrian crisis – similarly noted with suspicion in the West.

China’s resurgence on the world stage and the roaring success the market reforms there (first launched in 1978) have proven are no longer a secret. Evidently, China is no longer perceived as “the sick man of Asia” as it had been at the beginning of the 20th century. Neither is it necessarily associated with communist austerity. Nevertheless, it seems some misconceptions about the life-style in China and the country’s ultimate aims still persist in the West.

In Israel, too, one is more likely to hear of China as the world’s factory for cheap consumer goods of dubious quality, or at best as an “emerging” market, than as a superpower in the making. To be sure, the prospect of Chinese state-run construction firms being invited to complete the Tel-Aviv to Eilat high-speed train project, or talk of such firms being permitted to erect high-rise tenements that would resolve the housing affordability crisis, might change China’s image in Israel somewhat. However, the American-mindedness of Israeli public discourse will not vanish overnight.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in the early 1990s, the U.S. became the world’s single superpower. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Middle East, where the U.S. fought two wars in Iraq, and has become chief broker between Israel and the Palestinians. The U.S. similarly led sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear programme. And it was President Obama’s momentous Cairo speech that in some ways paved the way for the outbreak of the so-called Arab Spring in 2010.

Quite rightly, Israel was wary of the implications, as many in the West were being swept up by a wave of springtime euphoria concerning the region’s future. A few liberal commentators even went a step further, predicting how Twitter and Facebook would galvanise mobile-phone wielding youths all around the world to topple tyrants. That popular backlash would, we were told, spread as far as China, and undermine the nominally-socialistic regime there.

In fact, what has happened since is that China’s position on the world stage solidified. In other words, once the Arab Spring degenerated into civil war in Syria and Egypt, and as negotiations over Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programmes reached deadlock, China regained the mantle of a “responsible adult” in the international community. To a greater extent, its presence was now globally seen as stable and moderating. At the same time, the notion that social media can immediately deliver substantive change across the developing world is no longer taken for granted.

In his first term in office, President Obama might have raised expectations of an impending American “return” to the Asia-Pacific arena as a means of containing China’s rise. By the same token, America was meant to pull itself out of the Middle Eastern quagmire. Yet, in his second term, Obama has dispatched John Kerry to the Middle East numerous times. Unlike former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama is now very careful not to offend the Chinese.

Today, China has enormous foreign-currency reserves and economic interest that straddle the entire plant. What China is sorely lacking, apart from military superiority, are soft power and better public relations. The Communist Party is acutely aware of this shortfall, and its visionaries are therefore engaged - by now, quite openly – in crafting an alternative ethical narrative to the one promoted by the U.S.

This Chinese aspirational narrative draws much more on the country’s illustrious pre-modern history than on Mao Zedong’s radical thought. In essence, the Chinese narrative conjures up a more harmonious world, in which diverse religions, cultures, values and lifestyles can peacefully coexist. Imperial China is cast as an exemplary tolerant polity where both Jews and Muslims, for example, could reach high office quite easily and without any discrimination. This historical pattern is contrasted with the Western legacy of bloody wars of faith. More pertinently, the Chinese narrative rejects neo-liberalism or the wholesale privatization of state assets as advocated by institutions like the IMF; “collective” values like poverty alleviation and universal education are cast as more important than “individual” values like free speech.

Such narrative has little appeal in the developed world, but it may prove attractive elsewhere in the future. China’s aspirations for global leadership are often erroneously construed as designed for purely domestic purposes, namely, a strategy of boosting the regime on the back of nationalism; a phantom concocted so as to distract the masses from the worsening inequalities and environmental degradation that are ripping Chinese society from within. Though not completely unwarranted, this explanation underestimates the complexity of China’s emerging narrative, the ambition with which it is animated, and its historical foundations. China’s prominence in pre-modern times is not a figment of this or that regime’s imagination. Neither is it merely the stuff of historians’ chatter. Rather, it is one that informs the world view of hundreds of million individuals.

That is certainly not to suggest America is a lost cause. American decline has been bemoaned so many times in the past so as to make the proposition sound ridiculous. The authors of China’s emerging narrative are all too aware of America’s fabled resilience. They therefore study the American historical trajectory in minute detail.

Where Sino-American rivalry is heading is too early to tell, but for Israel there may be an opportunity here to strengthen its geo-strategic position. A better understanding of China’s long history, and how it has intersected on occasion with Jewish history, could lead to friendship. It would be counter-productive to stoke up existing Western anxieties about China’s rise, or help demonize it. Ultimately, whether the Chinese economic powerhouse ends up offsetting U.S. global leadership, or recedes like Japan has in the 1980s – China is bound to affect our lives –in Israel, and globally - a lot more in years to come.

Niv Horesh is Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu With China's ambassador to Israel, Gao Yan Ping, at event marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment of relations with China.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

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