On August 26th, 2019, Madisen Siegel interviewed Mercy Kuo, an expert in all things China. She received her Doctorate Degree in Modern Chinese History at Oxford University, as well as a Master’s in Chinese History from the University of Michigan and a Bachelor’s in Asian Studies from Pomona College. Dr. Kuo worked for CHINADebate, the American Jewish Committee Asia Pacific Institute, and is a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Dr. Kuo is also a writer and has a column in The Diplomat, covering the impact of US policy and politics in Asia. Currently she is Vice President of Strategic Services for Pamir Consulting, LLC.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Madisen Siegel: Please tell us a little bit about yourself. When did your passion for Sino-Israeli relations begin?
Mercy Kuo: As a Chinese American kid, I was encouraged to read about historical female figures from all over the world. In my childhood, my mother gave me a biography of Gold Meir – Israel’s first and only female prime minister – which I read with fascination. My elementary school best friend was Jewish. When I attended her bat mitzvah, my interest in Jewish culture and the history of Israel grew. Each visit to Israel has deepened my appreciation for Israel’s contributions to humanity. In helping to bridge US-Israel-China relations, I serve on the advisory council of the Asia Pacific Institute of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
MS: How did you begin your professional career in Sino-Israeli relations? How did your career path lead you to where you are today?
MK: Having earned a PhD in modern history at Oxford University, followed by U.S. government service, then stints in the think tank and non-profit world, my professional career has focused on the geopolitics of US-China relations. In my current capacity at a corporate risk intelligence consultancy, I advise Fortune 500 companies on the impact of geopolitics risk on business strategy. With experience in U.S. and Chinese foreign policy, I also author a weekly column on US Asia policy in The Diplomat magazine. As an innovation technology powerhouse and the primary US ally in the Middle East, Israel’s relations with China and the United States is a key facet of my professional portfolio.
MS: In what ways do you feel that Israeli and Chinese culture are complementary? Different? How are culture clashes that you may have seen (both professional and personal) resolved?
MK: Israeli and Chinese cultures both place a high premium on family, education, entrepreneurship, hard work, and ingenuity. Both cultures also possess a deep sense of divine destiny. Israel is the cradle of Abrahamic faiths. In Chinese philology, “China” means “Middle Kingdom (zhongguo)” – denoting China’s geographical and primordial central position in the universe. Israel and China also share the common struggle to preserve and defend nationhood in the face of foreign persecution throughout their respective histories.
Differences between contemporary China and Israel can be found in governance system, social values and strategic orientation. As a communist country, the power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) pervades all aspects of Chinese society, economy and diplomacy. China’s strategic orientation reflects its status and stature as a great power on the world stage and a major stakeholder in setting and challenging international rules and norms. Time is a tool that serves Beijing’s long view in restoring China’s preeminence as a global player.
In contrast, Israel is a small, democratic country, surrounded by long-standing autocratic adversaries posing an existential threat. Israel’s strategic orientation is in constant defensive and offensive war footing. For Israel, time is measured according to defending the nation’s freedom and survival day by day. Being under constant siege also serves to germinate Israeli risk-taking and innovative mind-set to create cutting-edge solutions for high-stake challenges.
MS: How do you think the political environment of Israel and its relationship with China will affect business and academic relations between the two countries?
MK: Israel-China relations must be understood in a strategic context vis-à-vis the United States. As a global leader in dual-technology innovation, Israel could play a critical role in how the US-China contest unfolds. As US-China trade and technology relations become increasingly restricted and contentious, China’s interest in Israeli’s innovation ecosystem potentially poses a litmus test to US-Israel relations. China is projected to surpass the United States as Israel’s top source of foreign direct investment in the near future. Israel as the Start Up Nation and key US ally in the Middle East will face high stakes and hard choices in this timely window of strategic opportunity.
MS: How do you see Israel and China interacting in the future – in terms of diplomacy, trade/business, and cultural overlap?
MK: China has become Israel’s second most important export market after the United States, with exports of about $2.8 billion in the first half of 2018 – an increase of 80 percent compared to the first half of 2017. However, given Israel’s strategic partnership with the United States, Jerusalem will have to weigh risk trade-offs between attracting Chinese, FDI while concurrently limiting Chinese access to Israeli dual-use technology innovation. ports with naval bases, and advanced logistics and monitoring China’s cooperation with Israel’s neighbors. As an ally of Iran, China’s reliance on Iranian crude oil and financial support of $35 billion to Iran’s Central Bank highlights deepening ties between Beijing and Tehran. China-Israel people-to-people diplomacy through academic exchange and cultural interactions will help strengthen mutual understanding between both countries. The Israeli public’s awareness of China is burgeoning but training a new generation of Israeli experts on China remains a pressing necessity for Israel’s policy and academic communities.
MS: What do you believe are the most imminent future challenges ahead for Sino-Israeli relations?
MK: The escalation of US-China geostrategic rivalry and its implications for a full-blown technology war and effectively managing a recalcitrant Iran are primary challenges for China-Israel relations. It behooves Israel to develop a China strategy sooner rather than later.
MS: What role do you believe Israel plays in China’s Belt & Road Initiative?
MK: Israel’s deep expertise in technology innovation, logistics and infrastructure development, energy resources, and agriculture are attractive assets for China’s BRI developments across the Middle East. According to a 2019 RAND report on China-Israel relations:
“Israel has the potential to be a small but important stop on the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, connecting the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Suez Canal. BRI routes require not only sea ports, but also railways, logistic centers, warehouses, airports, and transport system hardware and software. Israeli companies could contribute to BRI projects by developing and integrating transportation and logistics technologies and related systems for trains, aircraft, and marine engineering, for example. One such Israeli company, Nextec Technologies, which developed measurement technology for the automotive and aviation industries, was acquired by a Chinese company in 2014.”
MS: What advice would you give to young professionals trying to enter the Sino-Israeli space?
MK: Find opportunities to study or work in China and Israel.Gain professional proficiency in Mandarin. Find mentors and advisors to help you understand how the geopolitics of US-China-Israel dynamics directly impacts the developments of business, investment, trade, and innovation between China and Israel.
Mercy Kuo is vice president of strategic services at Pamir, a global risk intelligence consultancy in metropolitan Washington DC, and author of a weekly column in The Diplomat magazine. The views expressed are solely those of the author.