The U.S. Role in Delaying Sino-Israeli Relations: Two's Company, Three's a Crowd*

By Shichor, Yitzhak | Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

The U.S. Role in Delaying Sino-Israeli Relations: Two's Company, Three's a Crowd*


Shichor, Yitzhak, Jewish Political Studies Review


Although by the mid-twentieth century no outstanding problems had existed between Israel and China and although both were interested in formalizing their ties, over four decades passed before diplomatic relations were finally established. The inevitable conclusion is that while bilateral issues had not been an obstacle, the interference of third parties had been responsible for the delay, notably by the United States. This interference, whose origins go back to the emerging Cold War and the so-called "loss of China," acquired momentum following the Korean War and especially after China's armed intervention. Washington applied direct and indirect pressure on Israeli representatives, including the foreign minister, some of whom did not favor relations with China anyway. These constraints caused Israel to procrastinate until Beijing began to realize the potential harbored by Arab and Muslim countries as allies against the West. By 1955, Israel's last-minute attempt to form relations with China was rejected by Beijing.

Diplomatic relations between two countries are usually abilateral issue determined by direct mutual interests either general (positive or negative cultural -historical-linguisticassociations; religious-ideological-political divergence or convergence; agreement or disagreement on sovereignty) or particular (shared ethnic minorities, border conflicts). Given these and other determinants, bilateral relations are shaped by four possibilities: A wants but B doesn't; B wants but A doesn't; both don't want; both want - in which case diplomatic relations should presumably be established. Yet this is not always the case. Sometimes two governments are fundamentally interested in forming bilateral relations but a third factor, another government or organization, or several, intervene to block or delay this option. Evidently, this third factor is more important to either A or B (or for both) than their prospective bilateral relations. Only when this third factor becomes less important, irrelevant, or weaker can bilateral relations finally be formed. Sino-Israeli relations (or lack thereof) provide a fascinating example.

By the mid-twentieth century no outstanding problems had existed between the two. They had been established within sixteen months of each other, Israel in May 1948 and the People's Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949. The two have never experienced any territorial conflict nor any historical, cultural, or religious friction. Anti-Semitism was hardly evident in modem, let alone in premodern China where Jewish communities were marginal at best, and by the beginning of the twentieth century had practically disappeared.

Governed by a leftist coalition with undisguised socialist inclinations, in the early 1 950s Israel appeared to be ideologically closer to the PRC than many Western governments. Moreover, Beijing was evidently aware that Israel was an outcome of a national liberation movement that had been engaged in a protracted struggle against "British imperialism," ultimately gaining its independence. In these early stages of the Moscow-Beijing alliance, a cardinal incentive for Beijing to form relations with Israel had been the Soviet support for the formation of Israel and the establishment of Soviet-Israeli diplomatic relations. In addition, unlike numerous Western as well as non- Western governments, Israel had never recognized the Republic of China (ROC),1 although the ROC recognized Israel in March 1949, a few months before its defeat and relocation to Taiwan. For its part, Israel was aware that during World War II China (though under Japanese rule) had provided European Jewish refugees with a safe haven. Finally, Israel was far too small to threaten China and China too far to threaten Israel.

Why, then, did it take forty -two years (from 1950 or mid-century) for the two countries to establish diplomatic relations?! The answer has to do with the interference of third parties, including the Soviet Union, the Arab and Muslim countries, but notably the United States. …

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