China and Israel established diplomatic relations only 19 years ago, and today the Chinese Chief-of-Staff is in the second day of his official visit in Israel. A lot has changed since China was automatically positioned in the forefront of the international anti-Israel front.
In the old days, the joke was that Chairman Mao inquired as to where is this State Israel that is so much in the news? When told that its entire population was only 2 million, the Chairman responded that they could all be put in a hotel in Beijing, and no more conflict in the Middle East.
Jokes aside, China was one of the big powers alongside Russia and India which established full diplomatic relations with Israel following the collapse of the Soviet Union. That was a move that dramatically changed Israel's standing in the international arena and was preceded by quiet military cooperation which started in the late 1980's. Today China is Israel's third largest trade partner.
The current visit is not supposed to bring about any dramatic new deals between the two countries, but its significance is its very existence. China is engaged now in a concerted effort to enhance its military profile and is showing signs of growing interest in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. A visit in Israel at a time of talks about the declining stature of the US in the region and instability in so many Arab countries is a clear political statement by the Chinese, "we are here and Israel is our friend".
For the Israelis the visit comes at an opportune moment, exactly because of the instability in the Middle East and the impending UN session about the Palestinian application to be recognized as an independent state. The Israelis will surely use this visit to demonstrate that they are not isolated in the international arena as the conventional wisdom goes. One thing that Netanyahu can't expect to gain from this visit is to use it to divert attention from the social/economic protest in Israel towards foreign policy issues. That will happen only in September during the UN deliberations and the almost inevitable tension on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians.
So, beyond the fanfare and symbolism surrounding the visit, can we expect to view a leap forward in the relations? To start with, there really is a solid basis for friendship between the two countries. China has never been infected with the anti-Semitic virus, and even a superficial survey there will reveal a distinct level of high regard for Israel and the Jewish people.
Very few know that there was a thriving Jewish community in China between the two world wars. One former PM of Israel is a scion of a family who lived in China. Nor is there in Israel any sign of the anti-Chinese feelings that still characterize some right-wing, conservative circles in the US. No Red-China scare in Israel...
In fact, some Israeli right-wingers toy with the idea that Israel should try to get much closer to countries like Russia and China, particularly in times of stress in the Israel-US relationships. Former PM Sharon, before ascending to the job, publicly spoke about such a scenario, and current FM Lieberman may entertain such thoughts as well. It is however unrealistic to expect anything like this happening in the foreseeable future. The Israeli-American friendship/alliance is as strong as ever, and interestingly enough, the defense/security relations have been greatly boosted under the Obama administration.
It is important to mention this, exactly at a time when the Chinese Chief-of-Staff is in Israel. A few years ago, Israel learned the hard way the limitations imposed by the US on Israeli-Chinese relations, when the Bush administration, surely a very pro-Israel one, vetoed the Falcon [intelligence-gathering plane] deal, something that was justifiably resented by the Chinese. The Falcon fiasco did not put an end to the bilateral military exchanges between Israel and China, but clearly put them in a proper, realistic context. The fact that Israel's Defense Minister was in China recently, and now the Chinese no. 1 soldier is in Israel clearly indicates that the two countries still share enough in common strategically while realizing also the limitations.
The same applies to two other issues, which are very much on the Israeli agenda: Iran and the Palestinians. China alongside Russia still blocks any meaningful action against the Iranian nuclear program. The Israelis can't really expect any change in this regard following the current visit. The Chinese-Iranian connection is mostly a reflection of China's opposition to American policy with regard to Iran, as well as to other rogue regimes, which the Chinese consider as hegemonic in nature. The Israelis will be happy were China was to downgrade the level of its cooperation with Iran, as well as a more nuanced and balanced Chinese attitude towards the Palestinian issue.
They may be somewhat satisfied with regard to the former, and not so about the latter, thus indicating that the friendship has its limitations.