Shalom, Beijing

Israel and China just celebrated 20 years of friendship. But will this new special relationship come to the breaking point over Tehran?

Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images
Moshe Milner/GPO via Getty Images

TEL AVIV, Israel – It’s no secret that Israeli-American relations are under strain. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Barack Obama’s Oval Office last week may not have been as tense as last year’s, but the two leaders’ uneasy body language and discordant messaging have made it clear their relations remain, at best, professional.

But while Israel’s relationship with its longtime squeeze may have turned chilly, the Jewish state has discovered an unlikely candidate with which to forge a new special relationship: China.

Netanyahu may have needed a few takes to nail down his Mandarin delivery, but there he was, in late January, wishing the Chinese people a happy Year of the Dragon. "We are two ancient peoples whose values and traditions have left an indelible mark on humanity," he gushed. "But we are also two peoples embracing modernity, two dynamic civilizations transforming the world."

The message was promptly mirrored on the other side. "As two ancient civilizations, we have a great deal in common. Both of us enjoy profound histories and splendid cultures," Gao Yanping, China’s ambassador to Israel, told an Israeli newspaper a few days later.

Gao was even more poetic on the Chinese Embassy’s website. "Our relations are shining with new luster in the new era," she wrote. "It is my firm belief that, through our joint efforts, Sino-Israeli relations will enjoy wider and greater prospects!"

As they mark 20 years of diplomatic relations, China and Israel are exchanging far more than florid praise. Bilateral trade stands at almost $10 billion, a 200-fold rise in two decades. China is Israel’s third-largest export market, buying everything from telecommunications and information technology to agricultural hardware, solar energy equipment, and pharmaceuticals.

At least 1,000 Israeli firms now operate in China, home to a massive $10 billion kosher food industry that sends much of its output to Israel. Last September, the Israeli government announced Chinese participation in a rail project that would allow overland cargo transport through Israel’s Negev desert, bypassing the Suez Canal. Two months later, the Chinese vice minister of commerce announced the two countries were mulling a free trade agreement.

China’s links with the Jews stretch back at least a millennium. The central city of Kaifeng retains a tiny Jewish community, the remnant of merchants from Persia and India who passed through around the 10th century. In the 1930s and 1940s, China was a safe haven for nearly 20,000 Jews fleeing Europe from the Nazi menace — a shared history Chinese and Israeli officials often cite with pride. China’s Jewish population swelled to almost 40,000 by the end of World War II, though most left after the war for Israel or the West.

Israel and China are almost the same age: The Jewish state was born in 1948, the People’s Republic a year later. But though Israel was one of the first countries to recognize Mao Zedong’s communist regime, it would take more than four decades for the favor to be returned. That lag stemmed not from any ideological opposition to Israel (both Mao and his nationalist predecessor, Sun Yat-sen, were favorably disposed to Zionism), but the calculation that China had more to gain from friendly ties with Arab and Islamic states than with an embattled and economically feeble Jewish enclave.

Relations started to warm in the late 1970s, however, when — following China’s rupture with the Soviet Union and its establishment of ties with the United States — Beijing started cultivating secret links with the Israeli military. Israel had routed the Arab armies in the 1967 Six-Day War and suddenly found itself with enormous stockpiles of Soviet weaponry seized from its enemies. China’s weapons were also Soviet-made, and Israeli technicians quietly helped Beijing modernize thousands of its rusting tanks.

The secret partnership grew throughout the 1980s — extending beyond military ties into agriculture and high technology. The 1991 Madrid peace conference launched the peace process between Israel and its neighbors and provided the push for China’s establishment of official relations with Israel a year later.

Since then, Hebrew-language and Jewish studies centers have sprung up in universities nationwide. Indeed, one of the more curious elements in the Israel-China alliance is the latter’s widespread fascination with Jews. Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud are iconic figures in the country, and in the 1950s the Chinese communist government issued a postage stamp bearing the visage of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem. 

Many Chinese believe Jews to be highly intelligent and possessing an uncanny business sense. The bookshops of Beijing and Shanghai are stacked with titles like Jewish Business Sense and The Ancient and Great Jewish Writings for Getting Rich. Even the Talmud, the ancient text of Rabbinic law and commentary, is widely believed to be a sort of divine business manual. Travelers to Taiwan can stay in the Talmud Business Hotel, where rooms are "named after world famous successful individuals such as [Conrad] Hilton, [John D.] Rockefeller, [Alan] Greenspan, [George] Soros, [Warren] Buffett and Bill Gates" (only Greenspan and Soros are actually Jewish). Each room boasts a copy of the Talmud-Business Success Bible — "for anyone who would like to experience the Talmud way of becoming successful."

In China, myths of Jewish wealth and influence have rarely engendered envy or malice. Instead, in a country hurtling toward a market economy, they have forged a uniquely Chinese form of philo-Semitism. The same legends may partly explain China’s initial eagerness to court the Jewish state — a ticket, it believed, to winning over America’s supposedly all-powerful "Jewish lobby."

Those illusions began to dissolve in 2000, when U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration put the kibosh on Israel’s planned $1 billion sale to Beijing of its Phalcon airborne warning and control system. Washington feared China’s acquisition of cutting-edge radar equipment could destabilize the entire Pacific region, and it threatened to downsize its annual aid to Israel if the sale went through. Five years later, George W. Bush’s administration pressured Israel to cancel the sale of drone aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to China, prompting furious denunciations from Beijing over American "carping."

Since then, Israel has barred its companies from selling China any kind of high-tech military equipment that might aggravate relations with Washington. Nevertheless, despite the ban, intergovernmental ties and intelligence-sharing have flourished. Ehud Barak visited China in June 2011 — the first Israeli defense minister to do so in a decade. Gen. Chen Bingde, head of the People’s Liberation Army’s General Staff, landed in Israel two months later in the first-ever visit of a Chinese military chief to Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv. The exact purpose of Chen’s visit remains unclear; the Chinese Defense Ministry said only that he had arrived to "deepen understanding, enhance friendships, expand consensus and promote cooperation."

As Chinese-Israeli cooperation deepens and expands, one issue is becoming harder to avoid: Iran. China is Iran’s largest destination for exports — it buys 80 percent of Iran’s oil — and its second-largest source of imports (barely edged out by the trade hub of Dubai). Chinese trade with Iran is valued at over $30 billion — at least three times larger than Chinese trade with Israel — and is projected to reach $50 billion by 2015. And with sanctions edging Western companies out of Iran, China has rushed in to fill the void: At least 100 state-run companies now operate in the Islamic Republic, many heavily invested in its fuel and infrastructure industries.

The Chinese officially support a peaceful Iranian nuclear program, but have dragged their feet in condemning Tehran’s move toward weapons-grade uranium enrichment. They grudgingly voted in favor of all U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Iran, but each time expressed reservations over the imposition of sanctions and urged more time be given for negotiations.

"China only agreed to sanctions that don’t apply real pressure on Iran — namely, those that don’t touch its financial or energy sectors," says Yoram Evron of the University of Haifa and the Institute for National Security Studies. "China’s participation might have given the sanctions legitimacy, but it has effectively weakened international pressure."

"The Chinese want to irk the Americans," adds Yitzhak Shichor, also of the University of Haifa. "If, for example, the U.S. says it wants to sell arms to Taiwan, the Chinese can do nothing but weep and wail — instead they react on the Iranian front."

For years, Israeli officials have attempted to convince Beijing to change course on Tehran. In February 2010, a high-level Israeli delegation again traveled to China, ostensibly to reiterate the dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. This time they tried a different tack: explaining the consequences of an Israeli strike on that program — a prospect they described as inevitable should sanctions fail. "They really sat up in their chairs when we described what a preemptive attack would do to the region and on oil supplies they have come to depend on," an Israeli official said at the time.

The campaign appears to have paid off, and by mid-2010, China’s tone had perceptibly changed. In June of that year, when the Security Council slapped Iran with a fourth round of sanctions, Beijing abandoned its initial opposition and ultimately backed the resolution, saying it supported a "two-way method" of continued talks alongside harder sanctions. This January, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao issued an unusually blunt warning that his government "adamantly opposes" Iran’s nuclear-weapons drive.

China’s apparent shift has not gone unnoticed in Tehran. In 2010 Ali Akbar Salehi, then head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, cautioned that "Beijing might gradually lose its respectable status in the Islamic world and wake up when it is already too late."

These days, China’s diplomatic waltz — keeping one foot in Tehran and the other in Tel Aviv — is beginning to look increasingly awkward. As the People’s Republic discovers the Jews, it should remember an old Yiddish proverb: You can’t dance at two weddings at once.

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