Closer China-Saudi Arabia Ties

All eyes on Saudi King Salman’s China visit in anticipation of major agreements

By Hichem Karoui | Beijing Review (March 2017)

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia pays his first state visit to China at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, the talks between the two leaders are expected to further the upgraded partnership between the two countries. Security, both in the Middle East and global, trade and infrastructure are expected to be on the agenda.

The China visit from March 15-18 is an important leg in King Salman’s month-long Asia tour that started with Malaysia. The royal entourage arrives in Beijing from Tokyo.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a press conference in Beijing last week that China was committed to strong relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, an indication of China’s desire for peace among major and opposing powers in the Middle East.

Upgraded ties

China-Saudi Arabia bilateral relations were upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in January 2016 when President Xi held talks with King Salman in Riyadh during his Middle East tour.

A joint communique issued after the meeting outlined future cooperation areas. It said the two sides were keen to exchange high-level visits, enhance strategic contacts on bilateral relations and on regional and international issues of common concern, tighten strategic cooperation, and consolidate mutual strategic trust.

Saudi Arabia confirmed its commitment to the one-China policy while the Chinese side confirmed its support for Riyadh’s efforts to preserve the security and stability of the country, develop its economy and a bigger role for Saudi Arabia in the regional and international affairs.

Recognizing that China and Saudi Arabia have extensive and common interests on many major regional and international issues, the two sides pledged to forge close coordination and cooperation in international organizations, including the UN and G20.

The two leaders also welcomed the restart of negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) between China and the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, begun in 2004 and stalled for six years. Subsequently, the eighth round of FTA talks was held in Beijing in October followed by the ninth round in Riyadh in December.

The next round is scheduled for the end of March 2017. The king’s visit is expected to facilitate the negotiations.

Energy ties

In August, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited China, which resulted in the signing of 15 preliminary agreements on

different fields including oil storage, water resources, cooperation on science and technology, and cultural cooperation.

The prince also represented Saudi Arabia at the G20 Summit in Hangzhou where President Xi said China regards Saudi Arabia as an important cooperation partner in the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative (Belt and Road Initiative).

Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented his economic reform plan at the summit, which envisages state spending of around 270 billion riyals ($72 billion) in five years on projects to diversify the economy.

Riyadh also plans to sell about 5 percent stake in national oil giant Saudi Aramco and Chinese investment could prove crucial.

The Saudi Government had said earlier that Aramco was holding discussions with China National Petroleum Corporation and Sinopec for investment for refining crude oil, marketing and petrochemicals.

China continues to be Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner and one of the biggest importers of Saudi crude oil, with imports amounting to about 51 million tons in 2016.

King Salman’s visit could open new investment opportunities, including the sale of Aramco shares and agreements on the Belt and Road Initiative as well as related to Saudi Vision 2030, the kingdom’s growth blueprint that was unveiled at the Hangzhou Summit by Prince Mohammed.

New cooperation

A relatively new aspect of Sino-Saudi cooperation concerns military ties. Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said in August that both sides had exchanged visits by high-ranking military officials with cooperation in equipment technology and personnel training.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also Saudi Arabia’s defense minister, said China is an important and reliable partner of Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia was ready to strengthen strategic cooperation with China, including in military areas.

The Saudis are already using Chinese technology. The two countries have signed two memoranda of understanding on nuclear cooperation and space technology. A Chinese naval fleet paid a friendly visit to Saudi Arabia in January.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology is working to complete an indigenous satellite to be launched via Chinese space rocket Long March 2D to support remote sensing services in Saudi Arabia.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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