Israel and ASEAN Relations: Opportunities and Obstacles

Israel and ASEAN Relations: Opportunities and Obstacles

Despite a lack of publicity, for several years Israel has silently and cautiously cultivated deep-running political and economic cooperation with ASEAN countries. Regardless of the region's somewhat tempestuous history, its significance has not been overlooked in Israel. Moreover, a number of ASEAN member states, subsequently, have acknowledged the benefits of strengthening cooperation with the Jewish state.

The ties between Israel and most ASEAN countries began soon after the proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948. Nonetheless, the country is deprived of complete diplomacy due to persistent bilateral strains with ASEAN's majority Muslim countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.

Tel Aviv's ambition for untapped markets has witnessed the congregation of economic boundaries to forge a connection so captivating, it is quickly undermining adverse foreign policy.

As one of the world's major producers of technological advancements, Israel is well situated to assist the ASEAN bloc's attainment of its developmental goals in the spheres of healthcare, farming and research and development. Equally, ASEAN's regional economic integration and open-market initiatives offer lucrative investment opportunities for Israeli ventures.

For ASEAN countries, Israel's top-notch renewable and farming technologies are fundamental to realizing their agricultural abilities. It is reported that many ASEAN nations have begun to use Israeli technologies and management methods in their agricultural industries. Indeed, in the past several years, cooperation has expanded in the field of infrastructure and agriculture between Israel and Vietnam, with two-way trade volume standing at over $700 million. The relationship was further bolstered when Tel Aviv received the first Vietnamese Ambassador to Israel in 2009. Subsequently, a plan was developed to establish an embassy in the country. Both governments have also organised conferences to increase their two-way economic partnership; for example, 'Meet Israel'. It was said that the expanding ties have helped the bloc minimise the developmental rift between Vietnam and other ASEAN countries.

Furthermore, Israel has maintained cooperation with the Philippines for 57 years. In Manila, the Israeli government has established an economic attaché office to examine business and trade opportunities with the Philippines. For decades, Israel has also become one of Thailand's major agricultural partners. It is reported that there are more than 20,000 Thais working in Israel, and security ties are relatively strong between the two countries. In fact, a number of Thai forces has been reportedly trained by Israeli veterans.

Notably, rapid economic progression in ASEAN has roused demand for high-calibre and leading-edge healthcare services. As Israel has more than 700 medical enterprises and the highest number of patents in medical devices per capita, it has become a prominent provider of leading technological solutions in ASEAN's healthcare sector. In 2008, for instance, Israel signed a medical cooperation agreement with the Indonesian government to provide medical training to paramedics in Indonesia.

Indeed, even Indonesia, a nation with the largest Muslim population in the world, enjoys a cordial relationship with Israel. As I highlighted in the Diplomat Magazine last year, trade between Jakarta and Tel Aviv has reached $400-500 million; nearly 88% of which comprises Indonesian exports. Besides increased investments, the two countries have also established organisations that aim to bolster their reciprocal ties; namely, the Indonesia-Israel Public Affairs Committee (IIPAC) and the Israel-Indonesia Chamber of Commerce.

Meanwhile, Singapore, an acclaimed partner of Israel, offers a perfect proving ground for Israeli enterprises to develop more sophisticated technologies and product novelties for both regional and international markets. The trade between two countries has seen considerable growth in the past several years, reaching around $600 million. Yet while cooperation between the two countries is undeniably flourishing, it has much to do with the increasing economic partnership with Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.

It cannot be denied that Israel considers Singapore a hub for political and economic expansion to the wider Asia-Pacific. Consequently, the Singaporeans have long been providing ways for private cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. While these governments are associated publicly with a pro-Palestinian stance, trade relations and unofficial contacts continue to expand.

Likewise, Israel has maintained ties with the government in Kuala Lumpur. Despite public hostility towards Israel, in 2013 Malaysia was ranked as Israel's seventh largest export destination, with exports touching approximately $1.5 billion. While this corresponds predominantly to market appropriation of electronic products by major technology firms, the figure is indicative of loosening of trade and investment barricades.

Remarkably, Israel and ASEAN governments acknowledge the importance of overcoming linguistic-cultural barriers in order to maintain their expanding relationship. Therefore, they have worked collaboratively to increase the number of Israeli and ASEAN professionals who are acquainted with each other's societal norms and customs, methods of performing business, as well as national and institutional interests. Every year, for instance, over 100 trainees from Myanmar are enrolled at the Arava International Center for Agricultural Training. A similar program was run in Vietnam, where a group of Israeli experts was sent to organise courses on agriculture. In addition, several students from Indonesia reportedly have studied at a number of Israeli universities and there was a report that Singapore also engages in educational cooperation with Israel. The most significant step in the ASEAN-Israel educational partnership is the establishment of the Department of Asian Studies at Haifa University; thereby indicating Israel's deep interest in enhancing understanding of ASEAN and the wider Asia.

In conjuction with the forthcoming ASEAN Economic Community 2015, ties between Israel and the ASEAN bloc may increase in the future. While this may not present a problem for non-Muslim majority countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei may face a considerable internal pressure. Particularly, if the cooperation does become open, these countries are likely to encounter pressure from their domestic Islamic organisations and even their majority Muslim populations. Credit to social media, the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine is no longer uncommon in these countries. If relations become more public, the Muslim majority countries of ASEAN could well come under fire, given their public support for the Palestinian cause. Moreover, there could be repercussions for the standing of these countries in the Islamic world and their growing ties with Arab nations. Thus, it is possible the ties may well remain quiet in the coming years.

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