This week, Israel and the People’s Republic of China mark 25 years of diplomatic relations. On 24 January 1992, in Beijing, the respective foreign ministers, David Levy and Qian Qichen, signed the agreement establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The establishment of diplomatic relations with China and, a week later, with India, opened up the gates of Asia to Israel, which continues to reap the benefits of these relations up to today.
The strong link between the Israeli and Chinese peoples is an ancient one, dating from the Jewish community in Kaifeng a thousand years ago. Jewish communities prospered also in Harbin, Tianjin and Shanghai, where thousands of Jews found refuge from the Nazis during World War II.
The relations between the two peoples, then and now, were and still are based on mutual appreciation and respect. Both peoples come from ancient cultures that succeeded in preserving their unique character and their moral heritage throughout thousands of years of history.
Israel recognized the People’s Republic of China in January 1950, the first state in the Middle East to do so. Nevertheless, diplomatic relations were only established in January 1992. Since then, the two states have enjoyed cooperation in a variety of areas, reaching new heights in recent years.
In light of China’s increasing importance in the world, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has invested effort and resources in enhancing our relations. Israel opened two missions in China – one in Guangzhou and one in Chengdu, in addition to the embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai – with a corresponding increase in the number of Foreign Ministry staff serving in the country.
For the last two years, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has led an intergovernmental committee for innovation that includes about ten governmental ministries and agencies from each country. The committee is chaired by PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Chinese Vice-Premier Liu Yandong. Under a three-year plan signed in 2014, every government ministry in Israel promotes, together with its Chinese counterpart, joint projects in innovative research, science, academia, agriculture and health.
The third meeting of the Israel-China innovation committee will take place in the presence of senior officials at a festive gathering also marking 25 years of relations.
An additional governmental platform is the Israel-China economic task force, headed by the Israeli PM’S Office and China’s National Development and Reform Commission. A three-plan plan is expected to be signed in the course of the year.
Mutual trade, which stood at $50 million at the time relations were established, has now reached more than $11 billion. China is Israel’s third-largest trade partner in the world, and its largest partner in Asia; more than a third of hi-tech investments in Israel during the past year came from China. Negotiations have begun on a free-trade agreement that will significantly increase these numbers.
As part of a government decision to strengthen ties with China, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiated and is the driving force behind a program to bring young Chinese leaders to Israel, with an emphasis on innovation cooperation. The program was launched at the beginning of 2016 and so far, 27 delegations have come from leading bodies in China. The program is meant to continue for three years and will help build a strong foundation of ties with the next generation of Chinese leaders.
Israeli missions in China have helped to open doors for Israeli academia. There is broad cooperation on research projects, and the biggest Chinese universities are opening innovation centers in cooperation with Israeli universities (for instance, the innovation center of Tsinghua – China’s leading university – that was established at Tel Aviv University). The Technion chose to open a branch – only its second branch outside Israel – in the city of Shantou in South China; the new campus should be finished by the end of this year.
Another move by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to remove barriers to bilateral cooperation was advancement of a reciprocal agreement to grant ten-year business and tourist visas. Israel was the third country – after the US and Canada – to sign such an agreement with China.
Another important development was the start of direct flights between Tel Aviv and Beijing on Hainan Airlines, China’s leading airline, in addition to the El Al direct flight on the same route.
All of these factors contributed to the doubling of the number of tourists and businesspersons (totaling about 80,000) who visited Israel in 2016.
Israeli diplomatic staff in China is using traditional and social media to promote Israel’s image as a leader in technology and innovation. The Israeli embassy was rated a few weeks ago as the foreign embassy in Beijing with the highest number of followers (close to two million regular followers).