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Israel-Asia ties growing rapidly

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November 24, 2016 23:19

The warm reception accorded Burma's military chief, Min Aung Hlaing, when he visited Israel last week, raised some eyebrows.

Burma is only slowly coming out of its long international isolation, and its problematic human rights record means it is still subject to a Western arms embargo. As several human rights groups noted, General Hlaing toured a number of Israeli security companies during his visit.

But relations with Burma are only one part of Israel's bullish policy on Asia, which has seen the Netanyahu government seek to balance its increasingly damaged Western alliances with stronger ties in the east.

"It's not that we are about to replace our strategic alliance with the US, and Europe will probably remain our main trading partner for the foreseeable future," says one senior Israeli diplomat, "but there is massive untapped potential in the east. When things are rocky with the Obama administration and the EU is planning to label settlement products, it's a big change for Israeli ministers to have meetings with their Asian colleagues where all the talk is about co-operation, and the settlements simply do not come up."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to boost ties with the main eastern nations in recent years, moving diplomatic resources from Africa and the former Soviet Union to China, and building personal relations with two like-minded leaders, Japan's Shinzo Abe and India's Narendra Modi, who will become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel next year.

These ties are manifesting themselves in a shift in voting patterns at the various UN organisations, where India, once an automatic member of the pro-Arab camp, has taken to abstaining on Israel-related motions.

Meanwhile, trade delegations from China and Korea have been visiting Israel weekly in search of investment opportunities. One unnamed Asian country has even become a partner in the Iron Dome missile defence system.

The burgeoning ties have not been without criticism. Human rights activists are trying to raise the issue of arms sales to regimes fraught with difficulty such as Burma, while former defence heads, including ex-Mossad chief Efrayim Halevy, have warned that the sale of large Israeli firms, such as that of food giant Tnuva to a Chinese corporation last year, could carry security implications.

On Sunday, the cabinet voted in favour of the arrival of 20,000 construction workers from China, part of a wider plan to alleviate Israel's housing shortage. The ministers disregarded the objections of Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, who voiced the concern that the workers would be employed with insufficient regard for their basic rights. For now, nothing is being allowed to stand in the way of Israel's pivot to Asia.

November 24, 2016 23:19

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