For the first time, in mid-August of 2022, China issued a stern warning to Israel against supporting Taiwan or aligning with the US position in support of the island, amid the current tension between Beijing on one hand and Washington and Taipei on the other. This coincides with Beijing’s and Tel Aviv’s celebration of 30 years of normalization of their relations, during which they have been able to maintain their close cooperation despite Israel’s reservations regarding its clear differences with Chinese positions on Middle Eastern issues, such as cooperation with Iran and Syria and support for the Palestinians. This confirms that Beijing and Tel Aviv are eager for agreement and rapprochement to achieve their strategic interests, which are advanced by the ongoing technological and military cooperation between the two countries. Washington has warned Tel Aviv against such cooperation, which will increase pressure on Israel in the future because it will be required to maintain a delicate balance in its cooperation with Beijing and Washington.
Normalization of relations between China and Israel took place in January of 1992. In 2000, the Chinese president made a historic first visit to Tel Aviv. Then, in 2013, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Beijing and declared that "Israel attaches long-term strategic importance to China and is working to establish an optimal relationship with it." Over the past three decades, no major crises had occurred between the two countries until May 17, 2020, when the body of China’s ambassador to Tel Aviv, Du Wei, was found in his residence. Despite questions about the nature of his death, Beijing contained the crisis. Cooperation between the two countries has taken numerous forms:
1. Support for the technological partnership between the two countries: Israel is seeking to become a regional hub for technological research and development in the field of semiconductors and electronic chips, whose manufacture Taiwan monopolizes, and China looks to benefit from all these Israeli ambitions. In May of 2014, the Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation was established, which included a plan to exchange technical researchers and scientists and establish joint laboratories. In 2017, the two countries signed an Innovative Partnership and created international technology transfer centers.
Over the past two decades, China and Israel have signed 507 economic deals, including 492 deals in information technology, communications, and artificial intelligence. In 2019, despite being blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce, Chinese company Huawei opened branches in Haifa and Hod HaSharon, employing about 500 researchers. In 2020, a Chinese government investment company bought an Israeli company that manufactures 5G optical components, and Israel exports billions of dollars of electronic chips to China annually from multinational corporations, such as Intel, which provides China a back door to learn about American technology.
2. Increase in rates of military cooperation: Military cooperation between China and Israel—known as "arms diplomacy"—began in the 1960’s, before normalization between the two parties. Tel Aviv exported Soviet weapons and Israeli defense technology to China, which helped modernize the Chinese army. In 1989, Israel exported weapons to China by circumventing the US and European military sanctions imposed on Beijing after the events of Tiananmen Square. Israel’s total defense exports to China from 1980-2000 approached $2 billion. Those deals enabled China to modernize its fighters and tanks, develop Chinese surveillance aircraft, and acquire the night vision technology and expertise in electronic warfare in which the United States had military superiority. In 2005, Israel signed a new deal with China under which it sold a number of Harpy drones and US Falcon advanced, early-warning, attack aircraft. Washington objected, and Israel cancelled some of those deals.
3. Chinese contribution to infrastructure development in Israel: China is looking to invest in infrastructure development in Israel to connect Israel with the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, enhance Beijing’s influence in the Middle East, and establish a window in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. In 2015, the Israeli Port Authority and the state-owned Shanghai International Port Group signed a 25-year contract to operate the Port of Haifa beginning in 2021, with two phases of investment totaling about $2 billion. Beijing also built the Port of Ashdod at a cost of $3 billion, which raised concern in Washington regarding Chinese proximity to locations frequented by ships of the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean.
4. Promotion of economic and cultural cooperation: During the first decade of Chinese-Israeli normalization, the volume of trade between the two countries reached $10 billion, and they signed cooperation agreements in the fields of industrial and agricultural development. From 2005-2016, China pumped nearly $13.5 billion worth of investment into the agricultural and high-tech sectors in Israel. In 2016, the two countries began negotiations for establishing a free-trade zone between them. The year 2018 marked a new development in which Israel imported most goods from China (about $10.4 billion), making it China’s second largest export destination.
In 2019, the volume of bilateral trade between China and Israel reached $14.767 billion, and China also become Israel’s largest trade partner in Asia and its third largest trade partner in the world. In 2021, China was Israel’s third largest trade partner, and their bilateral trade in 2022 amounted to $10.68 billion, while trade between Washington and Tel Aviv in 2022 was $10.71 billion, indicating that Beijing could surpass Washington for the first time to become Israel’s top trade partner. At the cultural level, there are student exchanges between the two countries, and the Chinese language is taught in Israel.
China and Israel have issues. Most notably, their relationship is three-dimensional, in that Washington objects to Chinese-Israeli military cooperation, while Beijing opposes rapprochement between Taiwan and Israel. Thus, the most significant issues in Chinese-Israeli relations can be noted as follows:
1. Escalation of US warnings to Israel: Washington has repeatedly warned Israel about the dangers of military and technological cooperation with China because it will lead to transferring modern American technologies to Beijing, where they will be further developed. In 2000 and 2005, Washington objected to the sale of advanced weapons from Tel Aviv to Beijing.
In 2018, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly accused the Chinese Communist Party of seeking to attain technology infrastructure and communications networks in Israel, which threatens cooperation between Washington and Tel Aviv. Pompeo also objected to Chinese investments in Israeli infrastructure, especially the development of the Haifa and Ashdod ports, making clear that "any Chinese investment in Israel is a security risk." This prompted Tel Aviv to cancel its contract with China for water desalination at the Sorek 2 plant. During Pompeo’s visit to Israel on May 13, 2020, he renewed Washington’s concerns about China’s growing strategic investments in Israel, which caused Israel to establish a foreign investment oversight committee in 2020. Recently, Israeli security experts warned that China is already attempting to spy on Israel’s military and technology by establishing Chinese civilian "front" companies aimed at transferring Israeli defense technologies to Beijing.
2. Chinese rejection of rapprochement between Israel and Taiwan: Beijing threatened to reconsider its relations with Tel Aviv at the end of May 2022, after an Israeli newspaper published an interview with the Taiwanese foreign minister and China demanded it be deleted. On August 18, 2022, Beijing warned Tel Aviv against siding with the US position on Taiwan, which would harm Chinese-Israeli relations. The head of the International Liaison Department of the Chinese Communist Party, Liu Jianchao, sent the Israeli ambassador in Beijing, Irit Ben-Abba, a strongly worded letter about the consequences of Israel offering any support to Taiwan, thus confirming that Beijing will not tolerate any country that supports Taiwan and that there will be a diplomatic crisis between Beijing and Tel Aviv if it ignores that fact.
3. Conflict of interest in Syria: Beijing recently criticized Israel’s military escalation in Syria, for fear of targeting its interests there, which include dozens of experts and thousands of Chinese workers who are rebuilding Syrian military facilities. Beijing has also provided frequent assistance to Damascus for the purpose of improving its communications infrastructure, raising concerns that they will be used to spy on Tel Aviv. The latter fears the improvement of Syria’s economic and military capabilities, which is a long-term threat to Israel. Israel is also concerned about Syria’s purchase of advanced Chinese defense systems that will raise Syrian air defense forces’ ability to repel any future Israeli aggression.
The former head of the Mossad, Dani Yatom, has previously warned against any Israeli error that would strike Chinese workers in Syria, which would lead to a crisis in Beijing’s relationship with Tel Aviv. The latter is also leery of the nature of Chinese investments and trade projects in Syria that may be a cover for military intelligence projects that could restrict Israel’s handling of Syria, especially since Beijing has helped Damascus obtain ballistic missile and chemical weapons programs.
4. Israeli reservations about Chinese-Iranian cooperation: Israeli President Isaac Herzog had his first phone call with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in 2021, during which he expressed to Beijing his concern about the implications of Iran’s nuclear program. Meanwhile, experts in Tel Aviv have called for convincing Beijing to pressure Tehran to modify its nuclear program and its destabilizing foreign policy in the Middle East. Tel Aviv also fears the close cooperation between Iran and China, particularly after the signing of a 25-year strategic agreement between Beijing and Tehran in 2021, under which $400 billion worth of Chinese investments will be pumped into Iran, in exchange for a Chinese security presence in Iran. This will strengthen Iran’s economy and allow it to overcome international sanctions. Security experts have also warned of the dangers of Chinese companies working on construction and infrastructure projects in both Iran and Israel, which exposes Tel Aviv to espionage operations and numerous security risks.
5. Chinese support for the Palestinian cause: Historically, China has supported the Palestinian cause, voted for all the UN resolutions in support of Palestine, and provided unwavering support for the UNRWA. Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a major speech to the Arab League in 2016, calling for the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In 2017, Beijing proposed a two-state solution, the rapid implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2334, and an immediate halt to the settlements. China also condemned all of Israel’s recent military operations in Gaza and the West Bank. On June 28, 2022, China’s UN representative, Zhang Jun, urged Israel to halt all settlement activity and to fulfill its obligations under international law to protect civilians in the occupied Palestinian territories.
6. Competition between the two countries to expand regional influence: Chinese and Israeli interests intersect in many regions, including Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Both Beijing and Tel Aviv are attempting to invest in those regions, sell advanced arms to their countries, and obtain rare raw materials from them. The special relationships between Israel, South Korea, and Japan—which are potential opponents of Beijing—are also a source of competition between Beijing and Tel Aviv.
In summary, it can be said that Chinese-Israeli relations, despite their recency, have achieved breakthroughs in several fields, such as technological and military cooperation. The US’s ongoing opposition to that cooperation, as well as China’s rejection of Israeli-Taiwanese rapprochement, always makes those relationships three-dimensional and predicts coming periods of tension in the relationship between Tel Aviv and Beijing, given their many disagreements. Accordingly, Israel must maintain a balance between its close cooperation with China and its strategic alliance with Washington. It can also be said that Washington wants to pressure Israel in order to damage its relations with China and Russia, in exchange for easing Israeli pressure on Washington before the conclusion of the Iranian nuclear agreement. In other words, Israel is preoccupied and distracted by foreign disputes, and then it chooses its relationships with the Western axis, led by the US, or the Eastern axis, led by Russia and China.