Soft-power is notoriously hard to pin down. But like air moisture or gravity, it encapsulates the relationships between nation-states, their respective corporate entities and cultural frameworks.
For the purposes of this short discussion, soft-power is defined by the extent to which it can be commoditized as products and services for the benefit of national economies.
Innovation refers to the ability to harness technological advantages in the service of this soft-power.
In 2015, a YouTube video on Israeli innovation made its rounds on Facebook; a male voice with a crisp British accent narrated that it would be all but impossible to boycott Israeli products in the modern West. From driving a car to the office, posting a picture on social media to writing an email, Israeli-linked innovation is at the heart of modern life.
By way of Silicon Valley through Tel Aviv and the international startup community, this historically crucial state is at the beating heart of the global economy.
Israeli soft-power flows from its ability to harness and maximize innovation through the auspices of the market.
Military-grade laboratory research and government think tanks create the baseline knowledge which is then filtered into firms.
In Israel this is literally represented by the 8200 EISP accelerator where serving military veterans with extensive international startup experience, enter the international market for innovation.
Innovation may be financed by the market dynamics of the global consumer, but it frequently stems from the nation-state system’s military and strategic defense laboratories.
Hence, the social and political context in which innovation is created cannot be neglected.
But what does this have to do with China?
1. The global acquisition spree for infrastructure and research capabilities by Chinese corporates has extended into Israel. The Ping An Group’s US$100 million investment in Israeli R&D is one of the notable examples.
2. There is rising interest in Israel’s agility in actualizing products without having to resort to the round-about route of Silicon Valley. Where once IPO rounds on Wall Street were paramount, the focus is now on actualizing product segments with the DNA of Silicon Valley’s success – Israel’s global pool of government-funded military talent.
3. China’s increasing reliance on Middle Eastern energy exports and African industrial commodities is making it as sensitive to the region as the United States. Beijing understands this and it’s reflected by the People’s Liberation Army’s increasing involvement in the Horn of Africa and the Syrian civil war.
4. The elephant in the room remains that of the historical and religious weight of Beijing and Tel Aviv. While Israel’s innovative prowess and cultural clout is a legacy of its extensive role in the development of the modern West, it cannot afford to neglect the rapid resurgence of Chinese economic and political power.
As much as Washington has to be sensitive to Tel Aviv’s political and strategic concerns, a growing attraction between Israel and Beijing would raise eyebrows given seven decades of extensive ties with the Americans.
All of the US technological and military allies have growing linkages with China. But none of them have the emotional and political attachments as Tel Aviv.
Israel is one of the cradles of global faith. China boasts a historical legacy on par with that of Jerusalem. If we were to evaluate the emotional and intellectual bargaining power of both, this evens out the chips in a manner far different from Israel’s traditional ties with the West.
5. Last, the importance of scientific and technical education in the modern identity of both China and Israel underscores these ties.
Leveraging on innovation as a soft-power is dependent on both sides’ ability to hone in on the opportunities on the technological horizon.
The respect, verging on worship, of technical education for both is an unspoken variable within their soft-power connection.
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