Chinese President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Saudi Arabia on December 7-9. During his stay in Riyadh he also participated in a China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit as well as the first Arab-China summit. Never has a Chinese leader been welcomed so warmly in the Arab world as was Xi Jinping. It would not be wrong to state that this visit of the Chinese President, which occurred after he had, during the 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October this year, secured a third term as his country’s unchallenged leader had the mark of a most important global development; it demonstrated that the Arab region now takes China as a power of very great global significance and generally wishes to develop deep and comprehensive relations with it. This noted, the welcome accorded to Xi Jinping should not be interpreted as the Arabs turning their back to the United States or the West in general but rather as a clear indication that they wish to open their options.
There has been speculation that Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) who is Crown Prince and Prime Minister of the Saudi Arabia and its de-facto ruler was, in reality, sending a signal of his displeasure of the US by arranging such a grand welcome for Xi Jinping. There is no doubt that MBS continues to be unhappy with the Biden administration for publicly disclosing in February 2021 US intelligence agencies’ estimates which stated “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi”. Consequently, the Saudi reception of Biden in July this year in Riyadh was correct but without any frills. There was thus undoubtedly an element of deliberately building up Xi Jinping’s visit to snook a metaphorical thumb at the US but so much fanfare could not be just because of that. MBS and other Arab leaders genuinely desire closer ties with China for they see that in their interest.
The Arab peninsular countries continue to be crucially dependent on oil and natural or processed gas exports for their prosperity. The direction of the flow of their hydrocarbon exports has changed since the US became self-sufficient in the energy area. Now China, South Korea, Japan and India are very important as importers of energy to them. However, the Arab peninsular countries want their relationship with China to go beyond energy. That is clear from the three statements that emerged from the Chinese engagement with Saudi Arabia and the GCC as well as the Arab-China summit. Arab states are looking for Chinese investments in civil nuclear energy and aero-space among other areas. The Saudis, in particular, are engaged in constructing vast urban infrastructure to attract investments in frontier areas of science and technology. They are aware that China is no longer merely a manufacturing base for foreign companies but has become, as an Indian expert on the country recently wrote, ‘a science power’. Indian diplomats and students of international relations will do well to closely study the documents that emerged from Xi Jinping’s engagements in Riyadh in order to appreciate the direction that Saudi-China’s economic and commercial ties, including in the area of investments, may take. That has a bearing on India too for this country has vast interests in the Arab world, especially in the Arab peninsular.
China has been expanding its footprint in the Indo-Pacific region. An important element of Chinese strategy is to engage Indo-Pacific region countries through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China is contributing to the infrastructural development of these countries but in many cases ‘white elephants’ have been created through which China is being accused of grabbing land and enhancing its ingress in these countries. Hence, the BRI has become controversial. It is therefore significant that China has pushed BRI with Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom has responded positively to the Chinese move. The Saudi-China Joint Statement notes “The two sides stressed the importance of deepening joint cooperation in regard to Belt and Road Initiative”. Clearly, the Saudis are not concerned that China may use the BRI as a bridgehead to penetrate its system and economy.
The Arabs gave full satisfaction to China in the Joint Statement on Taiwan and Hong Kong. Not only did the statement reiterate the one China position, it specifically rejected Taiwan’s “independence” in all its “forms”. On Hong Kong the Arabs went along with “China’s efforts to maintain national security”. Significantly, in return, the Arabs did not ask China to respect the rights of its Muslim minority, especially of the Uighur people who have been subjected to sustained cultural and, in some cases, religious repression. Instead to making this demand the Arab-China Joint Statement states “the Arab and Chinese civilizations have made contributions to the progress of human civilization and are keen to calling for dialogue and communication between civilizations…”. Thus, the Arabs and, in particular the Saudis, who project themselves as the core of Islam have really abandoned the Chinese Muslims and given a free pass to China to treat them in demeaning ways.
In the coming months it will be interesting to observe how China seeks to balance its relations with Iran and those with the Sunni Arabs. It has announced its desire to make enormous investments in Iran in almost all areas of the economy over the next two decades and wishes to develop close relations with the clerical regime. The likelihood of an improvement in Iran-Sunni Arab ties is remote. This will therefore result in a test for Chinese diplomacy.
A new game has commenced in India’s extended western neighbourhood and India will have to monitor it closely.