Israel was the first country in the Middle East and the seventh member of the United Nations to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Despite this, schisms developed between the leaders of the two nations.
Based on an anti-Western position combined with economic self-interest, China positioned itself in favor of the Arab bloc. Due to Israel’s alliance with the United States and the West, Israel’s relationship with China was largely subject to goodwill between Beijing and Western nations. The pro-Western policies of subsequent Israeli governments contributed to the Jewish state being the last country in the Middle East to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing.
In 1992, when Israel and China finally established official ties, the bilateral relationship focused on limited areas of cooperation. Business and trade emphasized Israel’s contributions in the areas of agricultural and water solutions, technology sorely needed in China.
Trade between China and Israel grew steadily until this past decade, when relations and trade suffered a serious setback due to Washington compelling Israel to cancel the sale of four Phalcon Advanced Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) to China.
The political situation further deteriorated in 2004, when China sent the Harpy Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), which it purchased from Israel in the mid-1990s, for routine maintenance repair in Israel. For the second time in four years, Israel bowed to strong U.S. pressure and impounded the drones. However, over time and with great effort by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, valuable Israeli technology and businesses continued to be introduced into China, re-opening the door for improved relations.
With this ongoing exposure to the Middle Kingdom, the past couple of years have seen Israel and Israelis begin to appreciate the elaborate tapestry that is China. In 2011, Chinese language courses were introduced into the academic curriculum in select Israeli elementary and high schools.
Despite the impressive developments in mutual relations, Israel is still catching up with much of the rest of the world when it comes to engaging China.
In the view of SIGNAL (Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership), the dearth of high-level scholarly interchange in the field of international relations greatly limited understanding between China and Israel. SIGNAL, established in 2011 to advance Chinese-Israeli relations through the realm of academia, conducted research showing that Chinese misconceptions about Israel and the Jewish people abound. SIGNAL further discovered that Chinese and Israeli academics were actively interested in advancing high-level scholarly interchange. To redress widespread misunderstandings, SIGNAL established the first website providing introductory to advanced scholarly materials about Israel and its people in Chinese (sino-israel.org).
To lay the foundation for interaction between scholars and experts in the field of Sino-Israel relations, SIGNAL held the first China-Israel academic event focusing on geopolitical areas of mutual interest and concern. In September 2011, SIGNAL and its co-host, the Lauder School of Government’s Center for Global Strategic International Research, held its first annual China-Israel Strategy & Security Symposium.
The event was carried out in affiliation with the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. In attendance were leading scholars and influential analysts and former military and diplomatic experts from the Chinese and Israeli academia and community. Conference veterans lauded the event as exciting, much overdue and greatly needed. Perhaps the most promising outcome of the symposium was the agreement by scholars on both sides to continue the dialogue to gain greater shared understanding.
The impact of the personal bonds forged in the symposium were immediately felt when SIGNAL traveled to China to inaugurate the first Israel Studies Program (ISP) ever established at a Chinese university. During SIGNAL’s China trip, four additional ISPs advanced to varying stages of development. In Shanghai, SIGNAL concluded an agreement with Shanghai International Studies University to launch an ISP in January 2012. SIGNAL held meetings with the vice president of Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU) and the dean of the International Relations School to establish the SIGNAL-SJTU Sino-Israel Research Center — the first in the world. The Center for Contemporary Sino-Israel Studies (CCSIS) focuses on comparative politics and strategic analysis between the two nations.
The SIGNAL-Henan University ISP began in the fall of 2011, when one of the Jewish Studies scholars received a SIGNAL scholarship to attend the SIGNAL-Bar Ilan University Israel Studies training program. Other universities include Shanghai International Studies University in Shanghai, Shihezi University of Xinjiang Province and Sichuan International Studies University of Chongqing. Now in its second year and with co-sponsorship by Yad Vashem, the SIGNAL ISP program will host lecturers from the four universities to be trained in teaching Israel Studies at their home universities.
In 2012, SIGNAL along with Bar Ilan University, Fudan University and Shanghai International Studies University co-hosted the premier Israel Studies Conference in China, bringing together leading Israeli, Chinese and American academics in the field of Israel Studies. In the process of forging new bonds and strengthening old friendships, the scholars discussed how ancient Jewish and Chinese civilizations inform modern day nation states. Additionally, the conference featured special sessions on Sino-Israel business, oil alternatives and energy security.
The success of such historic academic cooperation has roused the interest of scholars for further interchange.
In all fields, the bilateral relationship is expected to grow through a natural evolution and officially channeled resources.
The growing network of connections in business, science, technology, culture, diplomacy and academia will surely strengthen the foundations of the China-Israel bond, creating a robust framework that can lead to flourishing relations.
(Carice Witte is the founder and executive director of SIGNAL, Sino-Israel Global Network & Academic Leadership, which advances China-Israel relations through high-level academic interchange.)