When we think of Israel, we usually think of the Middle East (its neighborhood), North America (its close ally the United States) and Europe (the long history of Ashkenazi Jews). Rarely do we think about Israel and Asia, even less about Asia as Israel's new frontier. We don't think of Asia as playing any significant role in Israel's evolution given the tiny Asian Jewish population, the lack of significant Jewish history in Asia, and minimal relations between Israel and most Asian countries for the first 40 years (1948-1988) of Israel's existence.
Yet, last year Israel called 2012 "the year of Asia in Israel." The Israeli government sponsored an Asian Science Camp attracting over 220 Asian students to join nearly 40 Israeli students for a week long program of lectures by world class Israeli researchers
How did such a gathering ever happen? Many factors propelled Israel-Asian relations to the forefront. Historically, Asia largely lacks the anti-Semitism that was so prominent in Europe and also the Middle East. Geographically, Israel is in West Asia, only four hours by air from India and 11 hours by air from China. Historically, Israel, like most Asian states, is a new state born after World War II after a struggle with a Western colonial power, in this case Great Britain.
Economically, Israel's rapid transition from Third World power to First World "start-up nation" echoes the great transformation underway in such Asian countries as India, China and the Four Tigers. Scientifically, Israel has emerged as a high-tech superpower (with Tel Aviv rated #2 in the world for its startup companies, thereby very attractive to Asian high tech [powers in Bangalore, Xinchu Park and Beijing Silicon Valleys]. Politically, the growing threat of Islamism in the regime draws many of these countries towards a country that is in the forefront of fighting this threat to governments around the world. And, militarily, the Israeli military, a world leader in anti-missile technology (Iron Dome), UAVs (which they sell even to the Russians) and 5 billion dollars of military exports, is attractive to Asian countries developing their own militaries as they rise economically. Finally, in intelligence matters, which are so critical to many developing countries, Mossad, with its strong human intelligence capabilities, is attractive for helping these countries overcome foreign threats to their rise to power.
Most of all, Israel has developed strong relations with the two Asian countries in the BRICs—China and India. Both of these countries, which had no diplomatic relations with Israel before 1992, now have major Israeli embassies in their capitals (Beijing and New Delhi) as well as consulates in their leading cities (Shanghai and Mumbai).
Militarily, Israel is the second biggest arms exporter to India today, and sold it the Phalcon AIWACS system for a billion dollars back in 2004. In turn India in 2004 launched a 300 kilogram Israeli satellite in orbit which dramatically increased Israeli intelligence gathering capabilities against the Iranian nuclear program with clear images in all kinds of weather. At one time in the '90s Israel was the second biggest arms exporter to China (4 billion dollars worth of exports). In turn Israeli intelligence works closely with Indian intelligence against radical Islamic threats and is on friendly terms with its Chinese counterparts.
Economically, Israel can claim $5 billion worth of trade with India and over $8 billion dollars with China. It hopes to boost trade with the world's second largest economy by GDP to $10 billion in the coming years. Back to India, Israel is working with it on the framework for a Free Trade Zone that within five years could triple annual exchange between producers in each country to $15 billion. Politically, Israel supports India in its fight over Kashmir and against Pakistan, while China also battles Islamic fundamentalism in Xinjiang Province.
Outside the two BRIC members, Israel has developed diplomatic relations with a large range of Asian countries. It has extensive trade with a number of these nations—ranging from $2 billion with Japan and South Korea, to several hundred million dollars worth of trade with Vietnam. It also has growing economic and educational ties with Singapore. Israel has developed strong relations too with a series of newly independent states formerly part of the Soviet Union, including Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan.
Not all of these relations have been easy. Few Asian states face serious existential threats as Israel has and continues to face. And it can't be forgotten that some of them are Muslim states (as Pakistan and Indonesia), plus very few have attained Israel's strong First World economy ($33,000 GNP/person) status.
But it seems as China and India have risen economically, so has Israel's global status. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's four day to visit to China this week highlights the importance of China to Israel. Excitingly for Israel, the importance is mutual. As Chinese Ambassador to Israel Gao Yanping stated ahead of the visit, "China views its relationship with Israel with tremendous importance."Truly Asia is the new frontier for Israel in the 21st century.
Jonathan Adelman is a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and Asaf Romirowsky is the acting executive director for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).