Israel Must Choose the Right Friends in Asia

May 20, 2022 | Daniel Samet
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In the past few decades, the Jewish state has vastly expanded its diplomatic, economic, and sometimes military ties with South and East Asia, while doing its best to stay away from the conflicts that divide the countries in the region. Daniel Samet surveys the potential for these relationships, urging Jerusalem to avoid deepening cooperation with China and instead to focus on cultivating further its alliances-in-the-making with China’s competitors:

The main contenders here are India, Japan, and South Korea. Despite their many differences, these three countries are democracies with dynamic economies, and they, too, would benefit from deeper ties with the Jewish state. What’s more, they are three of the most important players in the world’s most important region. Casting its lot with these nations, as opposed to China, is a far better bet for Israel, and one that Israelis can make and still sleep soundly.

There is surely the will on both sides to keep expanding ties.

Both Israel and India are democracies threatened by radical Islamic terrorism. Beyond weapons sales, intelligence-sharing has proliferated among the two countries in recent years. . . . The same is true of economic relations. Bilateral trade between the two nations reached nearly $3.4 billion in 2020, the most recent year for which such data are available. India has become Israel’s third-largest trading partner in Asia and its seventh-largest worldwide. Gems and chemicals make up the lion’s share of bilateral trade, augmented by a surge in the exchange of consumer goods such as high-tech wares and communications systems.

Skeptics of this alliance have pointed to the problems with the government of India’s President Narendra Modi, who has cracked down on civil society and is broadly accused of encouraging ethnic and religious violence. To these arguments, Samet replies:

The questions are fair and worth wrestling with. But let’s dispel any sort of moral equivalence between totalitarian China and democratic India. No one in the former has the right to vote. The latter has universal suffrage. China represses ethnic and religious minorities on a massive scale. India is home to more than 2,000 ethnic groups that—despite democratic backsliding under the [ruling party], BJP—enjoy a degree of pluralism unthinkable in China. Doing business with New Delhi is not the same as doing business with Beijing. And for all Modi’s faults, he won’t be around forever. . . . For the time being, India’s record of illiberalism isn’t enough to warrant torpedoing the relationship.

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