China to overtake US as biggest investor in Israel

February 01, 2018 10:00
The GoforIsrael conference, to be held in Tel Aviv in March, is drawing the participation of many Chinese companies. Photo:

China will soon overtake the United States as the biggest foreign investor in Israel.

That was the astonishing prediction made by the Jerusalem Post in December. In 2016, Chinese investment in the Jewish state reached a record US$16.5 billion, according to Thomson Reuters.

Driving this are Chinese companies eager to invest in high-technology and Internet startups, of which Israel is one of the world centers. Historically, it has been American and European capital that invested in them and took them public. In Europe, 101 Israeli firms have launched IPOs and, in the United States, 272.

Last September, Sisram Medical did an IPO in Hong Kong, becoming the first Israeli hi-tech firm to go public on a Chinese stock exchange. Fosun Pharmaceutical owns a controlling stake in the firm; Fosun is owned by mainland tycoon Guo Guangchang.

More Israeli firms will follow the example of Sisram Medical and list in China. An estimated 120 hi-tech Israeli firms have Chinese investment.

In March, many Chinese companies will attend the GoforIsrael Conference at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv, to meet dozens of bio-tech, fintech, ag-tech and life sciences firms. Chairman of the conference is Ronnie Chan, chief of Hang Lung Properties. He is one of the key speakers, together with Chen Shuang, chief executive of China Everbright.

This change reflects several factors – a surplus of capital among Chinese companies and individuals: their favorable view of the 'startup' nation and of Jewish people as among the most gifted in the world; and the warm welcome given by Israel, often warmer than in the US and some European countries.

The Middle East conflict and the rights of the Palestinians are not an issue in the Chinese media or public, as they are in the US and Europe.

A milestone in Sino-Israel high-technology cooperation came last December 19, with the official inauguration in Shantou of the Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a joint venture between Shantou University and Technion. Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing attended the event.

Technion Institute of Technology is the MIT of Israel. It is the oldest university in Israel, set up in 1912, 36 years before the Jewish was re-established. The Guangdong site is only its second branch outside Israel.

In 2013, Li donated US$130 million to Technion. A large part of the money came from the profits he made from the IPO of Waze, a GPS-based map software company, in which he held a 11 percent stake. His was the largest donation ever made to Technion and one of the biggest to any Israeli academic institution. Li has been the pioneer of Chinese investment in Israel.

The cornerstone-laying ceremony for the new institution was held in December 2015; in attendance was Shimon Peres, ninth president of Israel. In his address, Technion President Professor Peretz Lavie said: "This partnership, which combines the spirit of Israeli innovation with the power of China, will benefit all parties – the Technion and the University of Shantou, Israel and China – and will give a significant boost to the Chinese education system. The outcomes of this historic project will affect the whole of humanity."

Chinese firms are also investing in other sectors in Israel. In the major sea port of Ashdod, China Harbour Engineering is building a new pier at a cost of US$1 billion. Five state-owned Chinese construction firms are building thousands of new homes in Israel; each can import 1,000 workers.

In 2017, a record 185,000 Chinese tourists visited Israel, an increase of 46 percent over a year earlier.

The Israeli government and big business welcome this inflow of Chinese money, because it brings new investment and reduces the country's economic dependence on the United States and Europe.

But not everyone is so supportive. China is a major exporter of arms; its customers include countries and organizations in the Middle East hostile to Israel, including Syria, Iran and Yemen. Its short-range missiles and rockets delivered to these countries have reached Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Beijing has not used its considerable diplomatic weight to work actively for a peace settlement in the Middle East.

Two Chinese bids to buy Israeli insurance firms failed because of regulatory opposition; these companies manage money of the public and require closer official scrutiny than buying a high-tech start-up or manufacturing firm.

Critics also question whether China will protect the intellectual property rights of Israelis and Israeli companies.

For the moment, however, this opposition is in a minority. This year and next the flood of Chinese investment into Israel will continue.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.