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With US-Saudi ties at a nadir, China’s leader comes calling

Chinese President Xi Jinping who is paying a state visit to Saudi Arabia, attends a welcoming ceremony held by Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Salman Al Saud at the royal palace. (Xie Huanchi/Xinhua/Los Angeles Times /TNS)

It was no fleeting fist bump, but a five-second handshake. And rather than a grimace and stiff hello, there were smiles and warm words of greeting.

In optics, atmosphere and pageantry, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s meeting Thursday 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 had with President Joe Biden just a few months ago. And it carried an unmistakable message: If Washington intends to pivot its foreign policy toward Asia, then so can Riyadh, but with the aim of turning Beijing into a friend rather than an adversary.

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

The focus of the summits is mostly economic, at least on the surface. China gets almost a fifth of its oil from Saudi Arabia and was 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 drive that is a linchpin of Beijing’s economic diplomacy. Riyadh received about $5.5 billion in Chinese investment, according to Fudan University in Shanghai.

This year, Saudi companies also forged partnerships with Chinese firms in building refineries and collaborating on projects involving construction, artificial intelligence and satellite infrastructure.

And on Thursday, Saudi state media reported the signing of 35 new deals worth $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, though it remains unclear what that agreement would entail.

But beyond the economic impact of Xi’s extended visit is the political one, with China likely spying an opportunity to increase its influence in a region where the U.S. has long held greater sway and Saudi Arabia looking to expand its diplomatic horizons beyond Washington.

U.S.-Saudi relations are currently at a nadir. Biden won no favors with the crown prince when he vowed on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The prince denies involvement in the killing.

Riyadh was also frustrated by what it viewed as a lackadaisical U.S. response to attacks by Iran-backed rebels in Yemen on oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which seemed to undermine the traditional oil-for-security framework that has girded relations between Washington and the region for decades.

As a result, Biden’s fence-mending trip in July yielded few results. Worse yet, in October, OPEC nations decided to cut oil production in what Washington saw as a Saudi-led move that in effect meant their siding with Russia in the Ukraine war.

Meanwhile, China is seeking more politically and ideologically aligned partners to confront what it sees as Western hegemony, as its relationships with the U.S. and Europe have frayed over Ukraine and over Taiwan.

That the Saudis would want to hedge their diplomatic bets should come as no surprise, said James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“This is a tug-of-war, if you wish, in which the Saudis want the Americans to be clear, to be unambiguous about what their role going forward is and what their level of commitment will be. In a sense, Xi is helping them” force the issue with Washington, Dorsey said.

But in spite of the new level of warmth being expressed between Riyadh and Beijing, Dorsey cautioned against thinking that Saudi Arabia was seeking to find a replacement for the U.S. or to further downgrade ties. Indeed, Riyadh asserted Thursday that it helped mediate the release of American basketball star Brittney Griner from prison in Russia — though the U.S. insists that the only interlocutors in the matter were Washington and Moscow.

“They’re diversifying and expanding their foreign relations, but they’re not fundamentally looking at change,” Dorsey said of Saudi Arabia. “And at the moment, China is not interested nor is it necessarily capable of replacing the U.S. as a security guarantor.”

Biden administration officials sought to downplay any concern over potential deals or stronger ties between Saudi Arabia and China that might leave the U.S. on the sidelines.

“It is not for us to say” which countries other countries should form partnerships with, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Wednesday when asked about the China-Saudi summit.

“We are not asking countries to choose between the U.S. and the PRC (People’s Republic of China) … or between the U.S. and any country,” Price said. “Countries make their own sovereign choices.”

Price acknowledged, however, that Washington is interested in wooing allies and partners away from countries like China, singling out ongoing efforts to integrate military defense systems across the Middle East, an arrangement where the U.S. would not countenance Beijing’s participation.

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

Washington no doubt has some red lines over Chinese-Saudi collaborations, especially in the realms of technology and military defense. One partnership already is likely to raise hackles: China Electronic Technology Group, a state-owned conglomerate that was sanctioned by Washington in 2020 and again this year for links to the People’s Liberation Army, aims to develop drones for the kingdom’s use.

Observers in China take a more benign view of Xi’s visit to Riyadh, seeing in the trip Beijing’s desire to reenter high-level exchanges after COVID-induced isolation, with the focus firmly on guaranteeing Beijing’s energy supplies, said Henry Huiyao Wang, founder of the nongovernmental Center of China and Globalization in Beijing.

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

“Biden can visit. Xi can visit. China certainly wants to get along with all countries in the region, big and small. There’s no special attention to anybody,” Wang said.

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

“China manages to have good relations simultaneously with Saudi Arabia and Iran and Egypt and Syria and Israel, and it does this by keeping its relationship largely transactional,” said Robert Daly, a former U.S. diplomat in Beijing who heads the Kissinger Institute on China at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington.

Yet, as China tries to further project its economic and political influence, experts say it may have a tough time balancing these relationships with countries that are hostile toward each other, such as 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 Russia-Ukraine war, have highlighted the difficulty in distinguishing economic ties from broader diplomatic or military support.

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


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