By: Maxine Dovere
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invited him to be Israel’s ambassador to China in 2012, Matan Vilnai’s decorated career had included time as a cabinet minister, military general, and Knesset member. But there was one hole in his resumé.
“I knew nothing at all about China,” Amb. Vilnai tells JNS.org in an exclusive interview from his Beijing office.
To prepare for his current role, Vilnai embarked on an intensive six-month study program that included learning basic Mandarin, the official language of China. His teacher, Shalva Jin—an Israeli Jewish woman of Chinese descent—traces her heritage to the ancient Kaifeng Jewish community and made aliyah in 2000.
Vilnai says China and Israel “have become very important allies” in a relationship that is “always improving.”
“The Jewish people and the Chinese people are the oldest civilizations in the world. Both are well-connected to their respective histories,” says Vilnai, who notes “similar values” among the two peoples.
“In the writings of [the Chinese scholar] Confucius, you will find the ideas and values of our and their culture…the family values, the values between people. This is the very solid common denominator,” he says.
But while the Israeli and Chinese populations are strongly aligned at the “grassroots” level, the diplomatic front is not as rosy.
“It’s politics, it’s economic interests—it’s absolutely different,” says Vilnai. “Despite philosophical similarities, the practical interests of the Chinese government clearly differ from those of Israel. The Chinese must be aware of energy sources, especially the importance of supplies from the Arab nations (some 60 percent of China’s energy comes from Arab countries)….It is because of the energy that they remain on the other side and traditionally support the Arabs. The Chinese have voted against us in all the forums, including the United Nations.”
“China says Israel is the strong state of the Middle East—the superpower,” he adds. “They say, ‘You have to solve the problems by yourselves.’…I hope that [this diplomatic attitude] will be changed, but it’s a long way [off]—a very long way.”
Israel declared its independence on May 15, 1948. The formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was announced on Oct. 1, 1949.
“We supported them, acknowledged them in the U.N.,” Vilnai recalls. In fact, Israel was the first Middle Eastern country to recognize China. Yet the Israeli-Chinese relationship developed slowly. On the official level, Israel had little to do with the PRC until 1992.
“Israel had recognized the PRC in the beginning, yet we had nothing,” Vilnai says.
In 1991, U.S. president George H.W. Bush convened the Madrid Conference, where Israel and many Arab nations sat together. China also sat at that table, and full diplomatic relations with Israel took form in 1992 upon the opening of embassies in Beijing and Tel Aviv.
As the quarter-century anniversary of Israeli-Chinese relations approaches, China has developed an active interest in Israeli technology and innovation. Vilnai describes a recent international competition in Beijing sponsored by Shengjing, a Chinese investment company. Three Israeli start-ups were among the 20 finalists.
“The first prize,” says the ambassador with obvious pride, was won by an Israeli company presenting an innovative methodology for cardiac ultrasound.
“The Chinese can’t understand how, from a ‘small town’ of 8 million, we have so many Nobel Prizes and so much new technology,” Vilnai says.
The Chinese are particularly intrigued by Israeli technology related to desertification prevention, water desalination, agricultural advances, and high-tech in general. There is also a trend of rising academic exchanges between Israel and China.
“In Israel, all the universities have Chinese students,” says Vilnai. “The Chinese government provides many scholarships. There are special summer courses in every Israeli university.”
The construction of a new, state-of-the-art campus for the Haifa-based Technion – Israel Institute of Technology is underway in China’s Guangdong Province. The heavily industrialized region is the home of Chinese billionaire Li Ka-shing, who founded Shantou University there. Ka-shing’s foundation donated more than $130 million to Technion to fund the development of what the ambassador calls a “customized campus.” Additional funds for the initiative—approximately $150 million—will come from Chinese government sources. An Israeli of Chinese-Jewish descent, IDF Brig. Gen. (res.) Dr. Moshe Marom, is the site director of the ongoing project.
“He had to learn Chinese,” Vilnai says with a chuckle.
Trade between Israel and China continues to increase dramatically. China’s Fosun International, the largest privately owned investment conglomerate in the country, has agreed to acquire a majority share of Ahava, the Israeli Dead Sea mineral cosmetics company, for $76 million.
Under Vilnai’s watch as ambassador, the Shanghai International Port Group was awarded a 25-year, $2-billion-plus contract to manage the new port being developed in Haifa. Meanwhile, China Harbor Engineering Company won the bid to construct a new port in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod.
Although small, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Israel is growing. Direct flights from Beijing to Tel Aviv, to be operated by China’s Hainan Airways, are anticipated to begin shortly. The only other direct flights between China and Israel are run by the Israeli carrier El Al.
“There is increasing demand from both the business and tourist sectors for more direct flights,” Vilnai says.
Asked about the current status of Chinese Jewry, the ambassador says there is “no Jewish community in China” beyond the presence of Chabad-Lubavitch centers, which primarily serve tourists.
“There is some kind of Jewish community in Hong Kong. There are several thousand Jews, and they behave like a Jewish community. They are the only ones. They have a school and a synagogue. But in Beijing, there is no Jewish community,” Vilnai says. Indeed, there are five religions officially recognized by the Chinese government, and Judaism is not one of them. (They are Buddhism, Catholicism, Daoism, Islam, and Protestantism.)
When Vilnai leaves his post in Beijing, his tenure will have witnessed the significant expansion of the Israeli-Chinese relationship in various areas. Yet he acknowledges that there is much left to be done, as the nations remain somewhat “suspicious” of each other.
“You don’t know, you don’t understand,” he says. “China is absolutely not our culture, not the culture of the West. It is a unique culture…a very strong one, very smart one, very impressive.”