Israel-Indo Asian Relations Israeli and Chinese delegations meet in 2018. Photo: GPO Israel

Ken Stein
October 26, 2020

Until the 1990s, when Israel’s increased engagement with Asia notably expanded, her relations particularly with China, India and Japan, were limited for three broad reasons.  First, Israel’s state-seeking and state-building endeavors focused westwards on Europe, the Americas and Africa. Once statehood unfolded in 1948, no trade evolved with hostile Middle Eastern Arab neighbors after the conclusion of the first Arab-Israeli war that did not end in treaties; instead for well over fifty years, the Arab boycott of Israel closed Israel’s trade with the Middle East countries except for Iran and Turkey, non-Arab states. Europe and the United States became critical suppliers of arms while efforts to negotiate Arab Israeli agreements went through Washington, Europe and the United Nations. Moreover, Japan, China, and India coped with more pressing local and regional issues while Israel was piecing together a weak economy and absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants who had had sought refuge in Israel from Arab lands hostile to their Jewish populations.

Second, the critical reliance if not dependence of Asian countries on Middle Eastern Arab and Iranian oil took priority over developing relations with Israel well into the 1990s. Asian states could not alienate access to its thirsty and growing oil markets. And third, in the midst of the Cold War, with Russia and China remaining strategic competitors of Israel’s most valued ally, the United States, Jerusalem did not venture beyond Washington’s own openings to China in the 1970s. The end of the Cold War in the late1980s and the aftermath of promising 1993 Palestinian-Israeli negotiations encouraged Delhi, Peking and Tokyo to consider warming relations with Israel.  Once it appeared to the leaders of these three countries that Israel and the PLO were moving the peace negotiating process forward, they each separately increased their political and economic engagements with Israel.  

For its part, from the 1990s onward, Israel accelerated closer bi-lateral ties with Indo-Asian countries. At the end of the first decade of the 2000s, Israel’s economic and strategic relationships with each had grown significantly, catalyzed in great measure by the availability and competitive quality of Israel’s cutting-edge technologies in production of military equipment, industrial production innovations, medical devices, water and land management, and in Israel’s almost unsurpassed leadership in cyber-security. The need for Middle Eastern oil still influenced Peking, Delhi, and Tokyo, in the level of Israel’s embrace. Carefully but steadily each diligently balanced national strategic requirements in oil with their respective needs to access high tech requirements for burgeoning populations. Each of the Asian giants have endorsed the concept of a two-state solution to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not a view that these countries held a decade earlier. As Arab states themselves became more impatient with Palestinian diplomatic procrastination in reaching understandings with Israel, so also did these Asian giants.  In 2020, two-thirds of Israel’s trade remains going west, however each year since 2014, Israel has expanded its reach eastwards, beneficially expanding its political and economic embrace to include the demographically burgeoning Asian-Pacific region. 

Israel-India Relations

(L-R) Indian PM Narendra Modi Israeli PM Netanyahu during at the King David hotel in Jerusalem. Photo: AP

India informally recognized Israel in 1950, but ties were minimal. As a predominantly Hindu state, India, unlike its Middle Eastern neighbors, was not completely opposed to the idea of a Jewish state in the midst of the Muslim world. However, two considerations held India back from upgrading its relationship with Israel; India’s ties to Muslim oil-producing countries and its gravitation to the Non-Aligned Movement led by Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Yugoslavian President Tito, and Egyptian President Nasser. With an upsurge in diplomacy from the 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference and the 1993 Oslo Accord Agreement between Israel and the PLO, India sensed that if Israel and the PLO had recognized each other, India would not be putting its relationship with Muslim oil producers at risk. Gradually, Israel’s trade with India grew from less than half a billion dollars a year in the mid-1990s to well over $5 billion a year in 2019.  The Indian-Modi government has shown support for the Palestinian cause, while relations with Israel have flourished due in part to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s affinity for Israel.  Modi’s India has abstained from several UN resolutions that went against Israel. Also, Prime Minister Modi visited Israel in July 2017 “but did not feel the need to balance it with a visit to Ramallah, even though [Mahmoud Abbas] was warmly received in Delhi.” Modi and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have developed a highly friendly personal relationship in addition to their respective economies becoming deeply entwined with one another.

Israel and India solidified their “strategic partnership” in July 2017, which some described as a relationship of “diamonds and defense,” as Israel’s two largest exports to India involve the precious stone industry and military equipment, with the diamond industry dominating the trade balance by sheer size. The Israeli diamond industry is not only known to have conflict free-genuine diamonds, but Israelis are also known for their cutting-edge technology and great craftsmanship.  In 2008, Israeli global diamond exports amounted to a whopping $9.4 billion. In 2018, India purchased upwards of $1 billion in military equipment annually from Israel, which constitutes 40% of all military equipment sold by Israel across the world. 

 Israel – China Relations

(L-R) PM Netanyahu and Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping. Photo: Haim Zach/GPO Israel

China-Israel trade relations increased from 1992 for the same reason the India-Israel trade grew.  Like India, the dominant factor holding China back from fortifying relations with Israel was its ties to Arab oil-producing countries, which no longer were seen as a risk following the 1991 Madrid Conference, and the period  following the Oslo Accords in 1993. In 2020, China maintained a relatively moderate stance on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, advocating a ‘two state’ solution. Both Israeli and Chinese communities share admiration for each other, with common views about the historical longevity as respective communities, and positive attitudes toward family, education, business practices, etc.  Economic relations, known as the “Israel-China Corridor” have benefitted both parties, as the Chinese stock market is providing a desirable platform for Israeli companies to receive public funding.  Likewise, Israel “has laid out the welcoming mat to Chinese companies and investors who may face more troublesome regulations and scrutiny elsewhere.”  Whereas Israel used to look almost exclusively to the U.S. and EU for investment capital, now China invests in Israeli technology and start-ups.  As of 2016, Israel exported $1.8 billion in technology, of which their 2nd biggest export was to China, totaling $600 million in healthcare equipment.

In contrast to India’s Modi-government, China is more interested in economic ties than emphasizing diplomatic commonalities. China is interested in newer initiatives for sustainable agricultural and clean-environment goals.  In 2016 with Vice President Qishan’s visit, Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Liu Yandong met with Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian Authority leaders, and later on October 25, 2018, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan visited Israel.  Out of numerous items discussed between Yandong and Netanyahu, a few important agreements were reached, facilitating high-tech trade relations: “an agreement to establish an ecological park in the city of Dongying, where Israeli agricultural technologies will be developed, an agreement to promote cooperation in entrepreneurship and innovation between Israeli and Chinese universities, [and] an agreement between the Israeli Agriculture Ministry and the Chinese Science and Technology Ministry to establish a joint agricultural research project.” 

Dampening the budding Chinese-Israeli relationship is a deep anxiety among American officials that Peking is using her warming relationship with Israel to outflank American strategic interests in the Middle East.  In July 2019, following reports that Israel had reached a deal to allow a Chinese company to manage the busy Haifa Port (a port likewise used by American Navy vessels) from 2021 forward, “a major spending bill in the [US] Senate included a veiled warning to Israel not to allow Beijing to run one of its ports and reconsider massive investments flowing into Israel from China.”  While the US is reducing its physical footprint in the Middle East, it still remains deeply concerned about the expanding Chinese reach into other parts of the region.


Israel – Japan Relations  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C-R) and visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C-L) pose for a photo during a meeting with Japanese businessmen in Jerusalem on May 2, 2018. Photo: AFP/Abir Sultan

Japan and Israel’s history have many similar parallels. The two ancient civilizations were resuscitated as states after WWII. During World War II, Chieune Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat in Lithuania, contrary to his government’s policy, issued thousands of transit visas to escaping Jews who settled in Kobe and elsewhere in Japan.  After WWII, both Israel and Japan received western funding but particularly with United States leadership, guidance, and most of all, out of the desire of their respective populations. Residing in dangerous neighborhoods, both countries have a seventy-year history of relying upon the United States for important strategic defense arrangements, understandings and military supplies. Both countries in 2020 remain deeply attuned to toxic neighbors—Iran to Israel (2500km) and North Korea to Japan (1100km)—each with nuclear weapons capability, capacity to deliver them, and nefarious rogue leaders who regularly articulate a willingness to threaten if not devastate Israel and Japan respectively. Both of their respective populations are highly educated, driven to succeed, admire their ancestral histories, highly tuned toward technology and sustain foreign policy anxieties shaped by neighbors with simmering hostilities. 

In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert visited Japan’s Prime Minister Fukuda, and both issued a statement for the further development of bilateral relations. Prior, Israel and Japan had relatively few diplomatic contacts, minimal person-to-person or cultural exchanges, few transactions between companies, and a mutual lack of general popular knowledge regarding their respective histories and societies. The 2008 statement opened the way for high-level visits to each other’s capitals in 2015, made by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which catalyzed the exchange of ministerial delegations and facilitated numerous two-way trade missions. These in turn evolved into several important bilateral agreements in intelligence-sharing, cyber-security, artificial intelligence, robotics, agricultural research and development, and medical technology. While the country to country relationship remains strong, Abe’s resignation from office in 2020 gave Netanyahu one less close international friend in Asia.

Mutual interests, including Japan’s need for technology and Israel’s quest for new markets have buttressed the relationship. In March 2017, Japan and Israel exchanged Memoranda of Understanding for agricultural research cooperation in Israel, focused on water use technology and agro-environmental science. In October 2018, the first politico-military dialogue was held between Japan and Israel; originally established at the May 2018 meeting between the Prime Ministers in Israel. Established in 1958, the Japan External Trade Organization, JETRO, by 2016 greatly expanded Israel-Japanese business contacts, with each year expanding contacts and trade agreements between the two countries.

Israel and South Korea

South Korean Trade Minister Yoo Myung-hee (left) and Israel Economy Minister Eli Cohen signed the Free Trade Agreement in Jerusalem on Aug. 21, 2019. [Source: the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy]

Israel and South Korea, have both gained independence in 1948, evolved with high tension expressed by multiple aggressive neighbors.  Likewise, both Israel and South Korea during the Cold War easily became allies of western South Korea and Israel found common cause during the 1950-53 Korean War. Israel, under the guidance of then Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, sided with South Korea and the United States in the war against communist aligned North Korea and China. Despite the early strategic alignment between the two young, small and Western-aligned countries, formal diplomatic relations were not established until April 1962, following a year of discussions between Israeli Foreign Minister Meir and South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Dock Shin. 

As Yaacov Cohen argues, “North Korea exploited the South’s establishing ties with Israel to forge full diplomatic relations with seven Middle Eastern Arab countries… The opening of the Israeli embassy in Seoul, however, facilitated interactions in the areas of agriculture, water, education, and especially in security industries…”  Despite attenuated public displays of close ties, in the 1960s South Korea was purchasing Uzi submachine guns from Israel, and delegation visits between the countries to discuss military and scientific ties were regular occurrences. This period saw the development of an economic and strategic framework for Israeli-South Korean relations still in place today. 

The Arab oil embargoes of 1973 and 1979 pushed South Korea to take a public stand on conflicts in the Middle East, recognizing the PLO and publicly expressing support for Arab positions against Israel. The need for Arab oil and the requisite support of Arab positions drove a diplomatic wedge between Seoul and Jerusalem at this time. In part a result of the cooling relations between the allies, in 1978, Foreign Minister Dayan closed Israel’s embassy in Seoul. This did not mean diplomatic relations had ended between Israel and South Korea, they were just forced underground, going through their mutual ally, Japan. For the next 13 years, this status quo between Seoul and Jerusalem was upheld. 

Following the first Gulf War in 1988 and the successes of the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, with Arab states warming to American military assistance to support of their sovereignty, South Korea too warmed relations with Israel. In 1992, Israel established formal diplomatic ties with 

China and India, and reopened its embassy in Seoul in January 1992. In 1993, the South Korean Minister of Science and Technology visited Israel, signing cooperation agreements with the Israeli government and public institutions of scientific research like the Weizmann Institute. In 1995, Israel and South Korea mutually canceled entry-visa requirements, opening further avenues for Israelis and South Koreans to interact. In 2001, Israel and South Korea established a joint Research and Development fund to bolster scientific cooperation between the two emergent tech giants, which included projects to be carried out between The Technion in Israel and South Korea’s Institute for Electronic Technology.

Since the early 2000s, the relationship between Israel and South Korea—largely framed upon mutual technology, economic and strategic interests – grew exponentially. Even though Korea relies largely on Middle Eastern countries for oil, and has to temper its public support of Israel at times, South Korean firms have invested billions of dollars in Israeli tech companies; cooperation agreements between the countries in the realm of technology continue to be signed. In July 2019, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited South Korea. During this official visit, which included signing academic cooperation agreements, Rivlin stated, “…the key to our global connections, in Israel and in Korea, lies in higher education. Higher education is the key to mutual understanding, to universal solidarity to prosperity and peace. That is because science is blind to color, to nationality, to gender or to race.” Technology and mutual political alignments have kept Israeli-Korean relations alive since the two nations were established.  In September 2020, Israel and South Korea signed a Free Trade Agreement, further solidifying their economic ties. Already one-third of the cars sold in Israel are imported from South Korea. And Israel is a significant supplier of military equipment to Seoul.

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