JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The chief of China's armed forces visited Israel on Sunday in what analysts saw as part of a Middle East reassessment by Beijing following the political upheaval of the "Arab Spring."
General Chen Bingde was scheduled to tour an army base and hear security briefings, the Israeli military spokesman said, describing the unprecedented visit as part of "the development and upkeep of international cooperation as a means of facing mutual challenges."
Israel and China established ties almost two decades ago, but the relationship has been clouded by U.S. disapproval of Israeli arms sales to the Asian superpower.
The Israelis have also been troubled by Beijing's past reluctance to back international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.
Gedaliah Afterman, China expert with the Jewish People Policy Institute, an Israeli think-tank, saw in Chen's visit a sign of "the growing Chinese interest in the relationship with Israel because of the instability in the surrounding Arab states."
"They were caught ill-prepared, they didn't expect the events in the Middle East," Afterman said, adding that China could try to renew defense deals with Israel.
There was no immediate comment from the Chinese embassy.
Israeli officials described Chen's visit as part of wider bilateral contacts and played down any prospect of defense deals being discussed. China hosted Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in June.
An Israeli defense ministry statement said Barak and Chen discussed "ties with the Palestinians Authority, the situation in Pakistan and Iran and the fight against international terrorism."