The External Affairs Minister S.M.Krishna’s visit to Israel in January appears to have failed to arrest the huge upward swing in the Israel-China strategic ties that has been lately evident. Neither Israel nor China will be arrested on its track. An interesting diplomatic tango is consequently developing — involving India, Israel and China with Iran and the United States standing by as ‘stakeholders’.
The unprecedented 7-day visit (March 15-22) by Israeli deputy prime minister and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman to China underscores the high importance that Beijing is attributing to the ties with Tel Aviv. The fact that he has been received by China’s vice-president Xi Jinping soon after arrival in Beijing reinforces the point. Xi told AL China wants closer exchanges and cooperation with Israel and a deepening of political trust.
Earlier, Chinese FM Yang Jiechi told AL that Beijing is ready to work with Tel Aviv to “jointly promote the greater development of bilateral cooperation.”
AL’s talks will probably set the stage for a historic visit by PM Benjamin Netanyahu to China in a near future. Defence Minister Ehud Barack visited China already in June last year (which was followed by a visit to israel in August by Chen Bingde, chief of General Staff of the PLA).
Clearly, China is pitching hard for securing the energy project tapping into Israel’s vast hyrdrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. AL’s visit suggests that there could be progress on this front. Krishna made a determined effort to secure the project for Indian companies. But Israelis are great pragmatists when it comes to national interests and they know that the proposed energy project is a chance in a million to play into the great game.
Why not? To my mind, in a toss-up between China and India, they would probably have no second thoughts in holding the Chinese hand. The Israeli national security advisor recently visited New Delhi.
The Israelis are capable of driving a hard bargain. In this case, israel would look for a whittling down of China’s dealings with Iran. How far can China oblige Israel on this score is an open question. But suffice to say, Israelis also are realists and are well-versed with the practice of politics as the art of the possible.
On the other hand, the blossoming of the Israel-China ties coincides with a nip in the air that Netanyahu and Barack Obama together breathe. This is yet another facet of the israeli personality — the ultimate lone ranger. With or without Obama, Israel has to pursue its permanent interests. Nothing like it, of course, if Israel could have both Obama and Xi on either side.
India has miles to go on the learning curve. Chinese diplomacy presents a fantastic sight on the Middle Eastern tapestry. Its panache would astonish Turkey’s famous whirling dervishes in Konya. Beijing is stalling a western military intervention in Syria; it is a significant peacekeeper in Lebanon; it is a partner for Iraq.
As if all that isn’t enough, China fosters ties with both Iran and the GCC states. It blocks further sanctions against Iran at the UN Security Council and is backing Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, while it counts on Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to build up its new Strategic Oil Reserves.
My hunch is that China cannot afford to dump Iran and pick up Israel. China wants both countries as its strategic partners. When Obama aspires to have a normal relationship with Tehran while keeping the axis with Tel Aviv intact — and if israel can learn to live with it — there is no reason why Tel Aviv should grudge China a similar geopolitical matrix.
There is an old Malayali tale of two misers meeting at dusk. The host felt there was no point keeping the oil lantern burning while they talked, when, after all, they could hear each other perfectly well in darkness. The guest was much impressed by his host’s wisdom. But when the rendezvous was over and the host wanted to light the lantern to see off his guest at the gate, the latter pleaded for a minute’s delay — so that he could wear his lungi, which he had folded carefully and kept aside while they talked, since nakedness is, after all, not visible in darkness.
The host was no less impressed. On balance, it is difficult to say who will impress whom more this week — AL or his host in Beijing.
– March 17, 2012