In the days after the passing of Shimon Peres, the media called attention to the personal Weibo account of the late Israeli statesman as an example of his commitment to advancing Israel’s relations with China (as well as the nonagenarian’s embrace of new technology). Peres’s contribution to Sino-Israeli ties of course extends far beyond social media.
As Prime Minister in the late 1980s, his government created the first state vehicle to advance commercial exchange with China. After state-to-state relations were established in 1992 in the wake of the Oslo Accords that Peres helped engineer, Peres as foreign minister led the first state visit to China, accompanied by the Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin. And as President of Israel from 2007-2014, Shimon Peres played an active and enthusiastic role in the renaissance of bilateral ties. China, in fact, was the final country Shimon Peres made a state visit to as the capstone to his illustrious career as a public official.
These contributions do much to explain why China’s President Xi Jinping called Peres “the father of strategic relations” between Israel and China. But to truly appreciate the Peres legacy on one of Israel’s most important 21st century strategic partners, it is best to recognize the five themes that Peres personified that represent the two countries’ relations, historically and through the present day.
As Director-General of the Defense Ministry and later Deputy Defense Minister, Peres built Israel’s arms industry, establishing close ties with France in the 1950s and 1960s that laid the groundwork for Israel to become a global leader in the trade of advanced weaponry. Arms are what first attracted China to Israel and starting in the 1970s and continuing for three decades, the sale of Israeli weaponry to China was the linchpin of bilateral relations.
Hours before suffering the stroke that would end his life, Peres spent the morning with a delegation of visiting Chinese businessmen, enthralling them on the hi-tech ingenuity of ‘The Startup Nation.’ Peres emerged as the preeminent spokesman of Israel’s hi-tech industry in the last dozen years, and even played an active role in the establishment of some of the most ambitious local startups. His contribution to Israel’s emergence as a hi-tech economy went back to the 1980s, when, as Jerusalem Post reporter Niv Elis writes, “In one, 24-hour meeting in 1985, [Peres, Prime Minister at the time] helped implement a plan that broke the back of Israel’s hyper-inflation, and set the stage for its transformation into a modern economy.” Hi-tech is the modern linchpin of Sino-Israeli ties, having displaced weapons (banned after the 2005 Harpy crisis) as China seeks to modernize its own economy with the help of Israeli technological and entrepreneurial acumen.
Peres was well known as the leading advocate of the Israeli-Arab Peace Process, and as noted above, the Oslo Accords he engineered were critical in China and Israel establishing open ties in 1992. Even as contemporary bilateral relations are based on shared commercial interests, Beijing is keen to be seen as a global leader in achieving Israeli-Arab peace. China’s growing ties with Israel help burnish its credential as a global responsible stakeholder while its pronouncements on the peace process also assuage the concerns of its erstwhile Arab allies.
As the last of Israel’s founding fathers, Peres also represented Israel’s stability. China’s renewed interest in Israel since 2007 is partly due to Chinese political and business leaders’ shared appreciation for the country’s stability. Israeli society and, most importantly, the economy have flourished in spite of the 2008 global financial crisis and the political chaos of the Arab Spring. The same cannot be said of China’s traditional regional allies in Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Chinese leaders are keenly aware of Israel’s regional stability and the investment capital and senior visits that have poured into Israel from China in the last decade reflect this stability.
“My appetite to manage is over,” Peres told reporters in 2007, “My inclination to dream and to envisage is greater.” In the last dozen years of his long life, Peres indeed focused on big picture objectives, championing strategic goals for Israel, the Middle East and the world at large. Relations with the Far East were one of these strategic objectives, a goal Peres had learned from his political mentor, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Chinese leaders share this long-term approach to policy. Zhou Enlai is famously said to have told Nixon in 1972 that the impact of the French Revolution “is too early to say.” More recently, Beijing has embraced ambitious programs to transition Chinese into an innovation economy and construct a transportation grid across the Asian continent. Chinese leaders celebrated Peres as a wise old man in line with the respect wise men of lore are accorded in Chinese tradition. But his embrace of big picture goals, a rarity in Israeli politics, also attracted them.
With the passing of Shimon Peres, China and Israel have lost a figure whom not only played a consistent role over 40 years in advancing ties between the two countries, but also represented the shared bilateral interests that define the past and future of Sino-Israeli ties.