With U.S.-Saudi ties at nadir, China’s Xi visits Riyadh

It wasn’t a fleeting punch, but a five-second handshake. And instead of a grimace and a stiff hello, there were smiles and warm words of welcome.

In looks, atmosphere and pageantry, Thursday’s meeting of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with Chinese President Xi Jinping – who arrived at the government palace in Riyadh flanked by a cavalry escort – was a universe away from the awkward exchange the prince was just having President Biden had a few months ago. And it sent an unmistakable message: if Washington intends to align its foreign policy with Asia, then so can Riyadh, but with the goal of making Beijing a friend, not an adversary.

In just his third trip outside of China in nearly three years, Xi landed in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday for three summits: the first on Thursday with his hosts, King Salman and his son, the crown prince, who is the kingdom’s de facto king and ruler newly appointed Prime Minister; the second, a gathering of leaders from the Persian Gulf states, including Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain; and the third, a pan-Arab confab that will bring together more than 30 heads of state and international organization leaders, according to Saudi state media.

The focus of the peaks is mostly economic, at least on the surface. China gets nearly a fifth of its oil from Saudi Arabia and has been the country’s largest trading partner. In the first half of 2022, Saudi Arabia was the biggest beneficiary of China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, the infrastructure financing initiative that is a linchpin of Beijing’s economic diplomacy. According to Fudan University in Shanghai, Riyadh received about $5.5 billion in Chinese investment.

This year also Saudi companies Partnering with Chinese companies to build refineries and collaborate on construction, artificial intelligence and satellite infrastructure projects.

And on Thursday, Saudi state media reported the signing of 35 new contracts worth US$29.6 billion, a memorandum of understanding with China’s Huawei Technologies on cloud computing and smart complexes for Saudi cities, and a “comprehensive strategic partnership agreement” between the two countries it remains unclear what this agreement would entail.

But beyond the economic ramifications of Xi’s extended visit, there are also political ones, with China likely spying on an opportunity to increase its influence in a region where the US has long had greater influence and Saudi Arabia seeking to expand its diplomatic Expand horizons beyond Washington.

Relations between the US and Saudi Arabia are currently at a low point. Biden did not win a favor with the crown prince when he campaigned to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The prince denies involvement in the murder.

Riyadh was also frustrated by what it saw as a lax US response to attacks by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which seemed to undermine the traditional “oil for security” framework used The relationship between Washington and the region has gushed for decades.

As a result, Biden’s July fence repair trip yielded few results. Worse, in October OPEC decided to cut oil production in what Washington saw as a Saudi-led move that effectively meant they sided with Russia in the Ukraine war.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with King Salman of Saudi Arabia

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) welcomes King Salman of Saudi Arabia to Riyadh on Thursday.

(Saudi Press Agency)

Meanwhile, China is looking for politically and ideologically aligned partners to counter what it sees as Western hegemony, as its relations with the US and Europe have faltered over Ukraine and Taiwan.

That the Saudis want to hedge their diplomatic bets shouldn’t come as a surprise, said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“This is a tug-of-war, if you will, in which the Saudis want Americans to be clear that they are unambiguous about what their role will be in the future and what their level of commitment will be.” In a way, Xi is helping them,” Dorsey said, pushing the issue with Washington.

But despite the new warmth being expressed between Riyadh and Beijing, Dorsey warned against believing Saudi Arabia is trying to find a US replacement or further downgrade ties. Indeed, on Thursday, Riyadh claimed it helped release American basketball star Brittney Griner from prison in Russia — although the US insists the only interlocutors on the matter are Washington and Moscow.

“They are diversifying and expanding their foreign relations, but they are not fundamentally looking for change,” Dorsey said of Saudi Arabia. “And right now, China is neither interested nor necessarily able to replace the US as a security guarantor.”

Biden administration officials tried to downplay any concerns about possible deals or stronger ties between Saudi Arabia and China, which could leave the US on the sidelines.

“It’s not up to us to say” which countries other countries should partner with, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday when asked about the Sino-Saudi summit.

“We are not asking countries to choose between the US and the PRC [People’s Republic of China] …or between the US and any country,” Price said. “Countries make their own sovereign decisions.”

Price acknowledged, however, that Washington is interested in poaching allies and partners from countries like China, and highlighted ongoing efforts to integrate military defense systems in the Middle East, an arrangement in which the US would not welcome Beijing’s involvement.

“Our goal is to give countries the most compelling choice and make the United States the most compelling choice in terms of what we bring to the table … so they can make informed decisions about their partnerships,” Price said.

Washington undoubtedly has some red lines on Sino-Saudi cooperation, particularly in the areas of technology and military defense. One partnership is already likely to cause trouble: China Electronic Technology Group, a state-owned conglomerate sanctioned by Washington in 2020 and again this year for ties to the People’s Liberation Army, plans to develop drones for use in the kingdom.

Observers in China are more sympathetic to Xi’s visit to Riyadh, seeing in the trip Beijing’s desire to re-enter high-level exchange relations after COVID-induced isolation, with a firm focus on ensuring Beijing’s energy supply, said Henry Huiyao Wang, founder the non-governmental Center for China and Globalization in Beijing.

“I don’t see this in a geopolitical sense, but more in a geoeconomic sense,” he said, adding that he saw no reason to compare Biden’s visit to the kingdom with Xi’s.

“Biden can visit us. Xi can visit. China certainly wants to get along with all countries in the region, big and small. No one is given special attention,” Wang said.

China and Saudi Arabia find common ground in a relationship that ignores human rights and political issues in the interests of doing business.

“China manages to maintain good relations simultaneously with Saudi Arabia and Iran and Egypt and Syria and Israel, and it does so by keeping its relationships largely on a transactional basis,” said Robert Daly, a former US diplomat in Beijing , who directs the Kissinger Institute on China at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.

But while China seeks to continue projecting its economic and political clout, experts say it could be difficult to reconcile those ties with mutually hostile countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran. The latter also bases its strong trade relationship with China largely on energy.

In a virtual event organized by the Carnegie Endowment in May, He Wenping, a professor and senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said such rivalries, along with the war between Russia and Ukraine, have highlighted the difficulty in establishing economic ties to distinguish broader diplomatic or military support.

“We have maintained a policy of non-interference for a long, long time,” she said. “Decision makers now fully understand that the economic issue, the Belt and Road initiative — all of these issues cannot be separated from the security issue at all.”

Bulos reported from Riyadh, Yang from Beijing and Wilkinson from Washington.

https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2022-12-08/china-xi-jinping-saudi-arabia-summit With U.S.-Saudi ties at nadir, China’s Xi visits Riyadh

Alley Einstein

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