China’s establishment of full relations with Israel, the culmination of a diplomatic initiative begun more than four decades ago, represents an important achievement for the Jewish state at a strategic moment in its history, political observers say.
The two countries formally established relations at the ambassadorial level last Friday, when Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy and his Chinese counterpart, Qian Qichen, signed the required protocols at a ceremony in Beijing’s elaborate Diaoyutai state guesthouse.
Levy was euphoric as he exchanged Hebrew toasts of L’chayim (To Life) with his host. He told reporters it was a “great honor” to be the first Israeli Cabinet minister ever to visit China officially and be welcomed by the Chinese leadership.
But the trip began on a much lower key, as the Israeli foreign minister was taken on private tours of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and other attractions. His arrival was hardly mentioned in the Chinese press.
On Friday, the veil of semi-secrecy was lifted. Blue-and-white Israeli flags blossomed suddenly all over the Chinese capital as the Israeli minister dedicated the building that will serve as Israel’s first embassy in the world’s most populous nation.
China, the last of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, has long had friendly relations with the Arab states.
Qian promised it would use its influence to narrow the gaps between Arabs and Israelis when it entered the Middle East peace process directly for the first time this week as a participant in the multinational conference on regional matters in Moscow.
NO CHINESE ROLE IN BILATERAL TALKS
Speaking to Israeli journalists, Levy praised China’s participation in the Moscow talks, but stressed there was no room for outside intervention in the bilateral talks between Israelis and Arabs, which recently recessed until next month.
Levy left Beijing on Sunday for Moscow, to head the Israeli delegation to the multilateral talks.
It was the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel that provided China with its entry to the Moscow conference, since Israel refused to talk to powers from outside the region with which it had no formal ties.
China’s move also was apparently calculated to influence American Jewish entrepreneurs and investors to help strengthen commerce between China and the United States.
But the diplomatic move also opens up long-range trade possibilities for Israel.
Israel’s quest for normal relation with China began in 1950 when Israel officially recognized the newly declared People’s Republic of China.
The political philosophy of the Jewish state, which had gained its own independence only two years earlier and was struggling for international acceptance, was to grant recognition to every newly independent country.
But progress toward mutual recognition and an exchange of ambassadors with China ended in 1952 with China entry into the Korean War.
Israel supported the U.S.-led U.N. “police action” aimed at driving the North Korean invaders out of South Korea. China backed the North.
The two countries were further distanced when China became a founding member of the Bandung Conference of Unaligned and Third World countries, led by the Egyptian president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The first signs of thaw in Beijing’s frozen attitude toward Israel came in 1980, when secret, unofficial trade contacts developed, mainly at the initiative of Israeli businessman and international entrepreneur Saul Eisenberg.
Through Eisenberg’s varied contacts in the Far East and with the active support of the Israeli Defense Ministry, trade in military equipment began within a few years, though it was never officially acknowledged.
Levy indirectly confirmed the arms trade when he told Israeli reporters accompanying him on his trip that “there is an exaggeration in the defense cooperation between Israel and China.”
Semi-diplomatic contacts in recent years remained unofficial but were not entirely concealed. An Israeli Academic and Scientific Liaison Office was established in Beijing and a Chinese Government Tourism Office opened in Tel Aviv.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.