Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inspects Chinese honor guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Monday. Netanyahu is on a state visit to China from March 19 to 22. Photo: AFP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with 500 business leaders in Beijing on Monday during a visit to China that experts expect will enhance economic ties as the two sides speed up negotiations on a free trade deal.
Netanyahu arrived in Beijing on Sunday for a three-day visit that marks the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
He chaired a business and innovation forum on Monday, which saw over 500 participants from both countries, and included the heads of Chinese conglomerates like Baidu, Alibaba, Wanda and Lenovo. Netanyahu said that he expects investments and jobs in Israel from these companies.
He later met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People, who said the two countries should consolidate political mutual trust and push forward the "comprehensive innovative partnership."
Netanyahu's delegation includes five ministers and some 90 business leaders from various industries, making it the largest-ever business group to join a prime minister on a foreign trip, according to the Times of Israel.
China is Israel's largest trading partner in Asia and the third-largest in the world, with bilateral trade volume surpassing $11 billion annually, more than 200 times higher than 1992 when the two countries established diplomatic ties, Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang said at the forum.
"But economic and trade cooperation hasn't reached the limit, and there is still great potential for growth," Wan said, adding that the One Belt and One Road initiative is an extension of bilateral economic and trade ties.
"Israel is a founding member of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, which shows the importance with which Israel views the Belt and Road initiative. Israel would like to participate in projects under the initiative and hopes China will contribute from its experience in infrastructure to help promote the stability and economic development in the Middle East," Alexander B. Pevzner, founding director of the Chinese Media Center under the College of Management Academic Studies in Israel, told the Global Times.
According to Wan, the third joint Israel-China innovation conference is also on the agenda for the trip, as well as talks on establishing a free trade agreement (FTA) between the two countries. The two sides first launched negotiations on an FTA in 2016.
"China-Israel relations have seen fast development in various fields since Netanyahu's previous visit to China in 2013. Though compared with other countries, bilateral trade volume is not as big, it's enjoying a very impressive growth," said Li Guofu, director of Middle East Studies at the China Institute of International Studies.
There are no big obstacles between China and Israel; on the contrary, the two countries have a lot in common, including the Belt and Road initiative and the commitment to innovation, Li said.
"Though it's hard to predict the outcomes of the trip, it is expected that it will generate bigger and more impressive achievements, including the talks on the FTA, which both sides are keen to promote," Li told the Global Times.
Due to China's increasing influence on international issues, especially its growing economic strength, Israel and other countries in the Middle East have all shown a bigger interest in enhancing cooperation with China, experts said.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud just finished his state visit to China from Wednesday to Saturday.
The trip saw a commitment to an all-round strategic partnership from both sides, as well as deals worth up to $65 billion.
"Israel has shifted from encouraging China not to be involved in Israel-related affairs during the early period of bilateral ties to expecting China to play a greater role in the Middle East," Li Weijian, a Middle East expert with the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told the Global Times.
"The intention during Netanyahu's visit is to define the relationship between Israel and China as a 'comprehensive innovative partnership,' a definition expressing both sides' understanding of the center of gravity of their relations," The Algemeiner, a Jewish newspaper in America, cited an analysis published by the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv as saying.
"The two have clearly agreed to avoid calling the partnership 'strategic,' as in the background are Israel's relationship with the US and China's relationship with other Middle East states," the report said.
China's stance toward the Middle East is to pursue mutual benefits and shared profits, instead of taking sides, said Li Guofu.
"The visits of the Israeli prime minister and the Saudi king show that the two countries hope to bond their development with China's Belt and Road initiative," he said.
"The region goes through a lot of wars and conflicts because it lacks the necessary development. China is pushing for peace in Middle East by boosting the region's development," he said.