As China FM visits, high tech may take backseat to diplomacy

17 December 2013 1:36 PM

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As China FM visits, high tech may take backseat to diplomacy

Wang Yi to travel to Israel, West Bank; seeks to study region for Beijing even as Netanyahu wants expanding economic cooperation to be at fore

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is due to arrive in Israel Tuesday night for a high-profile visit, which is expected, for the first time, to focus on political issues such as Iran and the peace process in addition to efforts to foster economic cooperation.

Wang, who became Beijing’s top diplomat in March, is also scheduled to visit the Palestinian territories, Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. This is the first trip to Israel of a Chinese foreign minister since Yang Jiechi visited in 2009.

On Wednesday morning, Wang will first travel to Bethlehem and Ramallah, where he is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other top officials. At around 4 p.m., Wang will arrive in Jerusalem for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Wang is set to meet with President Shimon Peres in his residence on Thursday morning before heading to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum, where he will lay a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman will then host him for lunch, after which he will attend a seminar on the peace process with Israeli and Palestinian academics. On Friday, Wang plans to tour Jerusalem’s Old City and visit the Western Wall before leaving Israel for Algeria.

“The prime minister has declared upgrading ties with China to be a major national priority,” a government official told The Times of Israel Tuesday. “If Israel’s economy is to continue to grow, we have to expand our present cooperation with East Asia and specifically with China.”

The Iranian nuclear threat and the current effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian will also be discussed, the official added, but Netanyahu’s main focus will be extending cooperation mainly in the area of trade and high-tech.

But according to sources familiar with Beijing’s planning of the visit, Wang and his delegation are coming here primarily to learn more about the Middle East in anticipation of China’s increased involvement in regional affairs.

This first visit to the region “aims to implement the four-point proposal of [Chinese] President Xi Jinping on the solution of Palestine issue raised in May this year, and to further promote peace and talks between Palestine and Israel,” Wang said Sunday. Xi’s peace plan is based on the creation of a Palestinian state on the basis of the pre-1967 lines and East Jerusalem as its capital, which respects Israel’s “Israel’s right to exist and its legitimate security concerns.”

Wang made these comments after a conversation with US Secretary of State John Kerry, during which the two mostly discussed the Middle East. “China believes that under the current situation, both Palestine and Israel should seize the opportunity, adhere to the path of peace talks, take more practical measures, build up and accumulate mutual trust, and try hard to make substantial progress in peace talks as soon as possible,” Wang said.

Besides meetings with Israeli political leaders, a key event in Wang’s schedule this week is Thursday’s academic seminar on the peace process. Twenty Israeli and Palestinian scholars have been invited to attend, three of whom will address the Chinese foreign minister and his delegation and make recommendations about how Beijing should get involved in trying to end the conflict.

“The visit’s main thrust is political; the focus will be Iran and the peace process with the Palestinians,” confirmed a source knowledgeable in Sino-Israeli relations, adding that the Chinese leadership is keen to gain more insights into the Middle East’s most burning issues. Beijing started eyeing a stronger role in the Middle East several years ago. About three months ago, the political elite issued a directive to educational institutions asking them to provide decision-makers with a deeper understanding of the region, the source said.

A permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China feels that Washington is increasingly pivoting toward Asia and slowly abandoning the Middle East, and Beijing thus feels the need to fill the power vacuum, according to analysts. Also, China is interested in the region because it needs oil more urgently than Russia or the US.

China realizes that Israel is a global player and thus seeks to strengthen engagement with Israel, the source said, adding that within 10 to 12 months Beijing can be expected to present a clearer Middle East policy. Which way this new policy will lead is yet unclear, the source said, expecting it, however, not to be too heavy-handed on either side.

Netanyahu, who visited China in May and met with Prime Minister Li Keqiang, is certainly trying to come down on the Asian giant’s good side. Besides hosting Chinese officials with marked friendliness and declaring ties a national top priority, he appears to be bowing to Chinese pressure even at the expense of his position on an issue he generally champions: fighting terrorism. In the so-called Bank of China case, he had to choose between supporting victims of Palestinian terrorism or jeopardizing ties with Beijing.

Last month, Jerusalem moved to quash a subpoena issued to a former Israeli security official to testify as a star witness in a landmark court case filed by families of victims of suicide bombers who accuse the Bank of China of facilitating terrorist funding via accounts in the US. Critics say that after initially encouraging the claims against the bank, Israel faced second thoughts, fearing it could jeopardize valuable trade ties with China if it allows the former official, who is sworn to secrecy, to testify.

On November 8, Netanyahu met with Communist Party of China Central Committee Political Bureau member Meng Jianzhu. The prime minister said the visit “was a sign of the rapidly improving relations between Israel and China,” his bureau stated at the time.

Later that month, the Communist Party delegation from the Hebei province paid a “goodwill visit” to Israel, where it met with some high-tech companies and the National Economic Council in the Prime Minister’s Office. Chinese Ambassador in Tel Aviv Gao Yanping also spoke to the delegation, saying that “China-Israel pragmatic cooperation will reach a new height.”


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