King Salman's visit to China
china.org.cn / chinagate.cn by Sajjad Malik, March 16, 2017 Adjust font size:
Saudi monarch King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud is paying an historic visit to China this week as part of efforts to diversify and deepen ties with leading Asian countries. Before reaching China, he visited Malaysia, Indonesia and Japan where he signed numerous agreements to improve economic cooperation.
Saudi Arabia is passing through a critical stage in history. The changes in the region and global realignments have created a quest for fresh relationships. Hence, a kind of scramble to secure interests has begun. The process started when the global powers led by the United States signed a deal to end the nuclear impasse with Iran.
The agreement allowed Iran to rid itself of international sanctions and play a more robust regional role. As a sign of this, it has stolen a march in Syria and helped the incumbent leader Bashar al-Assad become stronger after six years of internal fighting.
It means that Saudi policy to throw him out through the power of the gun has failed. Iran, along with Russia, played the leading role in overturning the long-existent power chess board in Syria.
The Saudi dilemma has increased since the election of President Donald Trump, who has not given clear indications how his administration will behave in the regions. After initial hesitation, he has pledged to provide more resources to annihilate Islamic State - a welcome step for Saudi Arabia.
However, Trump is not clear on Iran and it is highly likely that his policy towards traditional ally Saudi Arabia may not follow the old guidelines.
Saudi Arabia's worry is both strategic and economic. That is why aging King Salman wants to have a group of new friends to fall back on in any hour of crisis. His unprecedented long trip, which is also a logistical nightmare for some, is based on well-timed calculations.
China has the resources and perhaps the inclination to help Saudi Arabia. The good part of the equation is that both countries seem ready to take ties to a higher level. The process started when President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in January 2016.
Later, Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the king's son, visited China in August and discussed defense ties, resulting in joint military exercises in October. Now, King Salman wants to go further.
However, let us remember that China's focus is the entire Middle East and not just the Kingdom. It is also trying to build ties with Israel, Oman, UAE and other GCC nations. China would also take into consideration its warm ties with Iran in any dealings with Saudi Arabia.
Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been in the U.S. camp and China played only negligible role in the affairs of the Middle East. Iran not only has maintained its ties with China and Russia but it is strategically better poised to use its location. It can help China directly in Afghanistan and Central Asia. It can also be beneficiary and partner in the Belt and Road (B&R) process due to a long border with Pakistan.
China's choice should be to have independent relations with both Iran and Saudi Arabia. Another level of interaction should be strong relations with all GCC nations. But it would be diplomatic feat to balance things. Saudis are prone to expect preferential treatment, and this may be a problem due to Iran factor.
One difficulty is that, in the Far East, King Salman wants to build ties with Japan side by side with China. In fact, in his own tour, he has taken a leaf out of President Xi's book, who visited both Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Kingdom has one important advantage in the form of oil of which China needs vast supplies to continue its phenomenal economic rise. A good proposition could be for Saudi Arabia and Iran to become part of the B&R through Gwadar port in Pakistan.
It would be the real win-win situation for all. Saudi oil and Iranian gas would have unhindered flow to the mainland through the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in return of investments and exports from China.
Sajjad Malik is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit:
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