Diplomatic Pouch / May 26, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Dozens of inventions used throughout Asia— from the electric hair remover to capsule endoscopy, from drip irrigation to the disk-on-key, originated in Israel — which earlier this month celebrated its 68th anniversary of independence.
With only eight million people, Israel is dwarfed by at least 25 Chinese and six Indian cities in population. And geographically speaking, China alone is 462 times the size of Israel. Yet the Jewish state has much to offer its fellow Asian countries, says Rebecca Zeffert, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Israel-Asia Center.
Speaking recently at the AIPAC 2016 Policy Conference in Washington, Zeffert said Israel is now playing catch-up in diplomatic terms; it established formal ties only in 1992 with China and India — both countries with which the Arab world had long enjoyed close friendships.
Despite the warm ties, no Indian head of state had set foot in Israel until President Pranab Mukherjee’s 2015 visit to Jerusalem. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Israel later this year, with bilateral trade reaching $4.5 billion in 2014, excluding military sales.
Likewise, two-way trade between Israel and China has jumped from $51 million in 1992 to more than $11 billion today. In late March, Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong visited Israel to co-host the second meeting of the China-Israel Joint Committee on Innovation Cooperation. During that trip, the two countries agreed to begin negotiations on launching a free-trade zone.
To date, four Israeli institutions of higher learning — Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the University of Haifa and the Technion — have established R&D centers in China.
More importantly Israel boasts no less than 200 foreign R&D centers, including those operated by Google, Facebook and Apple as well as Korean electronics conglomerate Samsung, Chinese mobile phone manufacturer Huawei and Singapore-based telecom giant Singtel.
“When I founded the Israel-Asia Center six years ago, we thought about how we could make a meaningful long-term impact,” said Zeffert, who immigrated to Israel 12 years ago from her native England and worked in Israeli media and PR before launching her Jerusalem-based nonprofit in 2009. “We need to invest in the very people who will be driving the Israel-Asia relationship in the next 15, 20 or 30 years.”
In her presentation, Zeffert explained why Asia clearly needs Israel.
“In China alone, 100 million people will move from the countryside to the cities in the next five years. This is putting phenomenal strains on China’s cities — in energy, water resources, transportation, waste management, housing and air quality,” she said.
“We will see six million cars on the road in Beijing by 2030,” she continued. “The pollution in Beijing often exceeds recommended levels by 20 times. Some days, you cannot see the other side of the street. And the average person in Jakarta sits in traffic four to six hours a day. If they’re not sitting in traffic, they’re talking about traffic.”
Furthermore, she warned, “there’s an increasing lack of access to clean water, and this will have an impact on food and security in the region. In India, 900 million still have no Internet access. This has huge implications in terms of providing equal access to healthcare and education.”
It is true, she said, that compared to China, India or Indonesia, “Israel is a mere dot” on the Asian landmass.
“Yet in its 68 years of existence, Israel has become adept at finding solutions,” she said. “I’m not claiming that Israel has all the answers, but it has become renown as an entrepreneurial economy, for its role as a world leader in technologies ranging from healthcare technologies and cyber tech to agritech and cleantech. This makes it a natural partner for Asian countries. We believe Israel can play a vital role in building a more sustainable future for East Asia.”
Leading Israeli innovators include Netafim, a worldwide pioneer in smart drip and micro-irrigation for growing food crops in water-scarce environments; and Takadu, which provides monitoring software to leading water utilities for detection and control of events such as leaks, bursts, zone breaches and inefficiencies.
Holding up a Chinese translation of the bestselling book “Start-Up Nation,” Zeffert said Asian countries — led by China, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea — have shown intense interest in Israeli innovation, particularly water technology.
“Asia can solve a lot of these challenges on its own, but what they’re really interested in is tapping into Israel’s unique entrepreneurial spirit and energy,” she noted. “Israel is increasingly being seen as an incubator for solving global challenges.”
To that end, the IAC has put 50 entrepreneurs, innovators, government officials, academics and others from 11 Asian nations through its Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship.
“We’re in the fifth year of that program, and 75 percent of our alumni are now directly engaged in shaping Israel-Asia relations, and securing tens of millions of dollars in investment from Asia in Israeli companies,” she said.
For example, Holo Zheng Xiaoxing, a participant in the 2014-15 Israel-Asia Leaders Fellowship, has just launched the TechCode Israel China Innovation Center in a newly renovated, five-story building along Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard. The goal: to help Israeli startups enter the Chinese market through business mentorship, professional support and direct access to Chinese investors, government officials and industrial parks.
“These are young people committed to Israel and to building a shared future between Israel and their home countries, but there’s still a long way to go. We need to identify more of these young and established leaders and connect them to Israel,” said Zeffert. Meanwhile, she noted that “Israel still lacks enough Asia-savvy leaders with the breadth and depth of knowledge compared to other countries that have much longer and established business and diplomatic ties with Asia.”
A big problem, she said, is that Israelis take three-year language courses that do not require any study abroad. “So most of these students finish courses in Mandarin, Korean or Japanese, and they’ve never been to the country. The level of Chinese fluency is growing but not at the rate it should be.”
On the other hand, she said, young Asians benefit from studying in Israel thanks to the chutzpah for which Jews in general — and Israelis in particular — are famous.
“Ours is a culture of questioning the status quo and questioning our teachers,” she said. “This is unthinkable in most Asian cultures, where you don’t question authority. It’s just not done.”