Asian countries have a consistent anti-Israel voting pattern in the United Nations (U.N.), yet Israel’s relationship with several Asian countries is blossoming. Take Chinese imports to Israel, for example: a decade ago, they amounted to about 0.6 percent of Israeli imports, now they comprise more than 10 percent of Israeli imports. We shouldn’t put undue weight on U.N. votes against Israel by Asian countries. Instead, we should look at the strategic reasoning behind Asian votes in the U.N. and the opportunity Israel and Asia see in each other when it comes to economic, academic, and military cooperation.
Israel has responded to the changing and increasingly threatening environment in Europe with a long-term pivot to Asia. Europe has become a hotbed for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, whose influence is seeping into its public policy. For example, in 2013, the European Union issued guidelines about Israel to all of its 28 member states, saying they should totally disengage themselves from business or academic relationships in the territories occupied by Israel since the Six Day War. Europe still makes up a sizeable 32 percent of Israeli exports, and 23 percent of their imports, but in the long-term it may not continue be as large a trading partner, so it would make sense to expand to new markets.
Besides a weak BDS/anti-Israel movement that is active only in smaller, Muslim-majority nations, Asia offers opportunities in investment, technology, and arms deals. India, the largest buyer of weapons in the world, has Israel as its fourth largest supplier of arms. In 2015, for instance, India bought ten armed Heron drones for $400 million. Overall, the trade relationship with India is now worth two billion dollars per year, and growing.
Historically, India has had an anti-Israel stance in the U.N. this is partly because during the Cold War, India was a leader of the Non-Aligned bloc and it was too dependent upon the other leaders of the bloc, Arab countries, to support Israel. Today it gets 62 percent of its growing oil imports from the Middle East, which affects their public stance on Israel greatly.
Israel’s relationship with Malaysia is similar to that with India: Malaysia buys 2.2 percent of Israeli exports, including $1.42 billion worth of integrated circuits for computers, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC). But they have also have a dismal track record when it comes to Israel in the U.N. They actually voted for U.N. Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli settlements. There are two reasons behind this vote and their abysmal voting record: they, like India, were part of the Non-Aligned bloc during the Cold War; and the country’s majority Muslim (60 percent) population, including extremist factions sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, could cause domestic trouble if Malaysia’s openly supported Israel in the UN.
With China, the relationship is different. Israel hasn’t sold arms to China in 17 years, unlike many other major countries with whom Israel has economic ties. In 2000, Israel tried to sell upgraded spy planes to China, but the U.S. blocked it, and the Israelis had to pay the Chinese a $350 million cancellation fee. This left a strain on relations between China and Israel, which still influences the partnership today.
China voted against Israel in December 2016 on Resolution 2334, but the two countries are involved in growing academic and economic partnerships. These include a deal between China’s largest university, Jilin, and Ben Gurion University of the Negev to build a Center for Innovation to help Chinese and Israeli students learn about the newest technologies. China is now an importer of about three billion dollars of Israeli goods, far more than any other Asian country, purchasing a total of five percent of Israeli exports according to the OEC. In conjunction with this, China has been experiencing Islamist terrorism in Xinjiang province, and is getting assistance from Israel. Today there is some intelligence sharing, but mostly counter-terrorism and prevention.
Japan’s relationship with the Middle East is almost solely based on Japan’s need for energy. Japan imports the most energy in the world, largely from Arab countries, buying 16 percent and 21 percent of Iran and Qatar’s crude petroleum exports respectively. It also purchases large amounts of liquified natural gas (LNG) in Asia, which is abundant and cheap.
Since the price of oil has fallen, coupled with a glut of LNG, Japan no longer feels as indebted to the Arabs. Although Israel isn’t an oil producer, it still is the strongest military power in the Middle East and still has one of the fastest growing and strongest economies in the world. A new relationship has begun with Japan, who now buys 2.3 percent of Israel’s exports, and supplies two percent of Israel’s imports.
Even with falling oil prices and the rise of LNG, keeping the Arab countries on good terms is still important to many Asian countries, mainly because of lack natural energy resources at home. They continue to rely on Middle East oil to fuel their gigantic economies, at least for the foreseeable future. They receive much of Sunni and Shiite countries’ oil exports, meaning Asia has an outsized influence on these countries’ economies and governments that Israel should try to leverage.
In today’s interconnected world, Asian countries are still dependent upon the Middle East for oil, and they don’t want to upset their suppliers by publicly supporting Israel on international stages like the U.N. Behind the scenes though, these countries have thriving relationships with Israel. We should recognize this rather than place an undue focus on superficial gestures of appeasement to some of Israel’s enemies.
By Meshulam Ungar
Meshulam Ungar is in 10th grade at the Berman Hebrew Academy and attends both Kemp Mill Synagogue and Young Israel Shomrai Emunah in Silver Spring, Maryland.